My friend Cynthia recently introduced me to Amelia Ceja, the president and owner of Ceja Vineyards.
We ran into Amelia at the opening of Tarla Grill in Napa; after dinner, she generously opened up the Ceja tasting room two blocks away so we could continue our conversation and sample some of her personal favorites. On the drive home to San Francisco, I started planning a meal that would be worthy of the wine gently clinking in the back seat.
(video by Cynthia)
A few days later, I was standing in line at Drewes Brothers Meats. After a few minutes, a burly, well-inked guy working the counter asked what he could do me for.
I nodded at a large mound of pink, radial slices. “I’d like four — no, make it five pounds of oxtails, please.”
He grinned and went to work.
I don’t eat much beef, but one of the benefits of going to Drewes Bros. is that you know exactly where your food comes from. The cuts I asked for were Niman Ranch oxtails, which meant that until very recently, they were attached to creatures fed a vegetarian, antibiotic-free diet who’d wandered freely under the California sun.
These cows had had a wonderful life; consuming them would surely make my life incrementally more wonderful.
The other attraction to preparing oxtails is that they’re not really on our food radar. High-end restaurants may have it on the menu occasionally, but you won’t find it at most supermarkets or butchers. Because it’s so far outside the everyday, it’s an exciting challenge. At the same time, preparing perfectly braised oxtails is fairly easy. (Full disclosure: I’d made them once before, about 10 years ago.)
There is a lot of prep work required, so if you can draft someone else into helping out as your sous chef, the work will go faster. If you’re unsure of your knife skills, buy pre-chopped veggies in the produce section and you might shave 15 minutes off your prep time. I did the prep work myself, but I’m lucky enough to own a paring knife and an 8-inch chopper from New West Knifeworks that have high-quality blades.
4 to 5 lbs oxtails
4 tablespoons butter
4 celery stalks
6-8 cloves garlic
1 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp sea salt
1 tbsp onion powder
2 cups flour
2 bottles Pepperwood Grove Pinot Noir
Set oven to 300.
Pour both bottles of Pinot Noir into a large stockpot over medium-low heat. Use a wooden spoon to measure the depth; when the wine has reduced by about half, turn off the heat.
Dice the onions, celery, shallots and combine them in a large bowl.
Mince the Italian parsley, rosemary and thyme, then add half to the diced vegetables.
Use this trick to peel the garlic in a few seconds. Toss the skins, trim the end from each clove and mince finely before adding to the bowl of chopped veggies. If you have a mortar and pestle, you can save a lot of time on this step.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, chopped herbs, sea salt, black pepper and onion powder. Use tongs to dredge the oxtails in the seasoned flour; make sure that each piece is well-coated, then set them aside on a cookie sheet.
Melt a tablespoon of butter in a large cast-iron skillet on medium-high heat, then add the chopped vegetables. Stir for a few minutes until soft and translucent, then put them back in a separate bowl.
Add another tablespoon of butter to the skillet; use tongs to brown the oxtails evenly (2-3 minutes). Add more butter as needed; when the meat has a golden-brown crust, move it to a large roasting pan.
Add the chopped vegetables to the reduced wine and set the flame for a low simmer. When the veggies are soft and the pot is aromatic, turn off the heat and use a slotted spoon to layer the vegetables over the oxtails. Pour the remaining liquid into a corner of the roasting pan; the oxtails should be nearly submerged. If you need more liquid, use a bit of beef broth.
Slide the roasting pan into the back of your oven; when the oxtails have browned a bit further, use 3 – 4 sheets of foil to make a tight seal, then put it back in the oven so you can work on your side dishes. As accompaniments, I made basil dumplings and roasted Brussels sprouts.
After about 2 ½ hours, peel back the foil carefully. By this point, the meat should fall off the bone if you give it a stern look, but try it with a fork.
We enjoyed the oxtails with a Ceja 2008 Rosé, and I can honestly say that it was one of the best, most memorable meals I’ve ever prepared. Everything was perfect, and it each dish complemented the other in terms of flavor and texture. The next time I do oxtails, I’ll probably use a Ceja Cabernet Sauvignon in place of the Rosé, but I have absolutely no complaints about this meal.
It’s not often that cooking feels like a form of creative expression, but this was definitely one of those occasions. I used my imagination and hands to create something original. After the food was plated, I nearly didn’t recognize it, which freed me up to be an enthusiastic and receptive audience — as much as if I’d been handed the plate by a waiter in a restaurant.