This is comfort food at its most comforting, one of the many humble but delicious dishes that typify popular cooking in the Eternal City: Roman-style braised oxtails.
The Italian word vaccinara actually means “butcher style”. The tail is one of those cuts of meat that are known in Italian as the quinto quarto, or literally the “fifth forth”. In the old days, animals were cut up in four quarters, or quarti, the first quarto went to nobility, the second to the clergy, the third to the merchant class and the fourth to the military. What was left over–the entrails and such–or the ‘fifth quarter’, went to proletarians like the butchers. And, of course, if you were a butcher, you’d want to maximize your income by selling the best parts, keeping only the cuts least in demand for yourself.
This, they say, is why so many typical Roman dishes are made from organs: rigatoni con la pajata, for example–rigatoni dressed with a sauce of tomatoes and the intestines of suckling kids, or fritto misto alla romana, which inevitably includes calf’s brains, or coratella, the heart, lung and esophagus of lamb, sauteed with artichokes—or coda alla vaccinara.
Even though oxtail is a humble cut, it may be the sweetest, most tender, most unctuous meat you will ever eat. If you’ve never tried it, you owe it to yourself to do so!
Here’s how I like to make this dish:
- 1 kilo (2 lbs) oxtails
- 75g (2 oz) pancetta, cut into small dice
- 1 medium onion
- 1 carrot
- 1 stalk of celery for the soffrito, plus another stalk for the end
- A few sprigs of fresh parsley
- Olive oil
- White wine
- One small can (400g) crushed canned tomatoes
- A bay leaf
- A few cloves
- Salt and pepper
Sauté a soffrito made from finely chopped pancetta, onion, carrot, celery and parsley in olive oil over medium-low heat until tender. Then raise the heat to medium-low and add pieces of oxtail with crowding. Allow the oxtails to brown, turning them often, and seasoning with salt and pepper. Be careful not to allow the vegetables to burn; add a bit of water if need be. (The pieces will not caramelize, just lightly brown. That’s fine–the main point of this operation is for the meat to insaporire, meaning to absorb the flavor of the soffrito. )
Add wine–some recipes call for red wine and some for white, which I prefer–and allow it to boil off completely, again turning the oxtail pieces. Then some crushed tomatoes (the amount will depend on your taste, but I like abundant sauce so add quite a bit) and then enough water (or broth) to just cover the oxtail pieces, along with a bay leaf and a few cloves. (If you’re fussy, these can be tied up in cheesecloth and removed before serving.) Cover and simmer until the meat is very tender, almost falling off the bone, anywhere from 2 to 4 hours, depending on the meat. I find it usually takes more like 4 than 2 hours. This dish is the very definition of ‘slow food’.
Now for the finishing touch: About 30 minutes or so before the dish is done, add a generous amount of chopped celery and allow it to cook along with the oxtail and other vegetables. This is very important, as the celery balances the unctuousness of the oxtail and sauce with a bit of astringency. The dish would otherwise be a bit too cloying.
Like other braised dishes, coda alla vaccinara is even better left overnight and reheated the next day. If you want a less rich dish, you can leave it in the refrigerator and skim off some of the excess fat–and there will be a lot of it, since oxtail is a rather fatty cut of meat.
If you want to speed things up a bit, you can simmer the coda in a pressure cooker. However, even after 1-2 hours under pressure, you’ll still need to continue simmering off-pressure for about an hour or so to reduce the sauce and concentrate the flavor. So, to my mind, this is one case when you may not save yourself that much time.
Make sure you have plenty of bread to sop up the sauce, which is absolutely divine. In fact, coda may be even better as a sauce for pasta: remove the meat from the bones, chop it up and add it back into the sauce, and use this to dress rigatoni to make rigatoni alla vaccinara.
Like most popular dishes, there are lots of variations. This version is, to my mind, the most straightforward and flavorful. But some recipes call for boiling the oxtail first for its broth (which you can keep for soup or risotto) and then adding it to the soffritto. And many, perhaps most, recipes call for parboiling the celery pieces before adding them to the oxtail at the end, which takes some of the ‘bite’ off the celery. I find that step unnecessary (especially using American celery, which is quite mild in flavor to begin with) and, in any event, as I said, the celery helps balance the flavors of the dish.
If you like spice, you can add a bit of peperoncino (or red pepper flakes) to the soffrito. Other variations tend toward the sweet or sweet-and-sour. Nutmeg or cinnamon is sometimes added. Some variations even call for raisins and dark chocolate–never had that version, and I’m sure I want to try it…
By the way, besides loving the taste, I feel a special connection to Roman-style braised oxtails for another reason: apparently the section (rione) of Rome where the butches lived and where tradition has it that this dish was born was called Regola. Well, that’s where we used to live, in the piazza San Paolo alla Regola, a quiet little piazza only a few steps from bustling Campo dei fiori.