As a storm settled on the Bay Area, bringing with it rain squalls and roiling clouds, the two of us developed a craving for good, old-fashioned comfort food. A pleasant afternoon spent trawling Food52 yielded inspiration for an oxtail ragù with a recipe for homemade gnocchi. After the udon adventure of last weekend we were primed for another handcrafted starch project, so we tucked in with a hunger both literal and metaphorical.
Ragù has been on my to-cook list since trying a short rib ragù at Monterey’s Il Vecchio that made time stop. While nearly everything at that restaurant produces in me a similarly delighted reaction, the ragù was uniquely evocative. It brought to mind nights in the kitchen with my mother, windows steaming up as thick sauce bubbled away on the stove. So when my culinary partner-in-crime suggested it, I was quick to agree. There are few non-vegetarian people, I think, who could turn down succulent shredded oxtail simmering in a sauce of dark ale and tomatoes. I’m not sure who these people are, but the poor souls must exist. Besides filling your kitchen with mouth-watering scents and flavors, the recipe is also a fun full-contact activity. Building the ragù requires the cook to flip browning oxtails in a crowded pot, pull steaming meat from bone with dancing fingers, and purée sweet sauteed vegetables. The resulting sauce is, of course, divine.
Because you might be (unfairly!) judged for eating it straight from the pot with a spoon, the ragù does need to be served over a pasta. Gnocchi is one of those dishes I’d like to be able to rely on for hosted dinners and date nights since it looks exotic and complex to dining companions you’re trying to impress. It can, in fact, be difficult to master, so the feeling is that much more triumphant when you successfully produce a plump little mountain of potato-y pillows. Of course, sometimes you taste the bitterness of defeat instead. We boiled, skinned, and mashed the potatoes (without the aid of a ricer, which we very strongly suggest purchasing for tasks like this). We then kneaded in the flour and egg with eager hands, at which point the tide seemed to turn against us. Despite the addition of more flour, the dough grew increasingly sticky and we, fearful of overworking the dough, decided to push onward with the recipe. Although not wholly inexperienced in the making of gnocchi, the difficulty in forming the sticky dough prevented us from rolling the strange little bundles along the back of a fork. This wouldn’t have been a problem since we care most about flavor and texture and aren’t generally afraid of a few Julia Child-like flubs, but the task of cooking the gnocchi was subsequently a little ungainly. Flavor we succeeded in reproducing; the desired texture, on the other hand, was not achieved. Dear reader, in the case that you are not a practiced gnocchi-smith, learn from our mistakes: cook only as many gnocchi in each batch as you can pull out of the water with a slotted spoon. When you enthusiastically dump a sheet full of dough balls into the water, you may find that you have underestimated the ease with which you will be able to retrieve your treasured gnocchi before they overcook. When you find yourself with a bowlful of sludge aside a neat pile of five dreamy little morsels, you will definitely wish you hadn’t invited company.
This is not to say, however, that the meal was a failure. For one thing, when you are braising meat for two hours it’s unlikely that your meal will turn out any way other than mouthwatering. We piled the gnocchi that had emerged edible from the melee into a bowl and smothered them in the ragù. Savory and hot, the sauce was delicious. We all came together at the table over steaming bowls, and in the company of such good friends no dish would have been unenjoyable.
Oxtail Ragu (First We Eat)
- 5lbs. 2-to-3-inch pieces of Oxtail
- All Purpose Flour
- 1/4 Cup Olive Oil
- 1/4 Cup Butter
- 5 Large Celery Stalks, Chopped
- 2 Large Carrots, Peeled & Chopped
- 1 Large Onion, Chopped
- 2 Cups Brown Ale
- 3 Cups Canned Diced Tomatoes
- 6 Garlic Cloves, Chopped
- 6 Sprigs Fresh Parsley
- 3 Large Rosemary Sprigs
- 2 Bay Leaves
- 2 Cups Beef Broth
Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Sprinkle some flour, salt, and pepper over the oxtails. Heat a heavy bottom pot with the olive oil and butter. Once hot, add the oxtails and brown on all sides. Transfer oxtails to a bowl and add the onion, carrots, and celery to the pot. Reduce heat and cook until onions are translucent and vegetables start to brown. Add the ale and the tomatoes and simmer for about 5 minutes. Add garlic and herbs (you can tie the parsley and rosemary up with kitchen twine as you will be removing later). Return oxtails to the pot and add broth, bring to a boil. Once pot it boiling, cover pot and put it in the oven.
Keep oxtails in the oven for at least 2 hours or until oxtails are very tender. Once they’re done, transfer oxtails to a baking sheet or roasting pan and pull the meat off the bones. Meanwhile use an immersion blender or a potato masher to blend all the vegetables in the pot into a nice sauce. Add meat to the sauce, season with salt & pepper.
As mentioned above, we did have some struggles with this recipe. If you have a gnocchi recipe that has worked for you in the past, please share it with us in the comments!
- 2 1/2 lbs Russet Potatoes, halved
- Coarse Salt
- 1 3/4 Cups All-Purpose Flour, plus more for dusting!
- 1 Large Egg, Lightly Beaten
In a very large pot, bring salted water and chopped potatoes to a boil then reduce to a simmer and cook until potatoes are fork tender (about 30-40 minutes). Drain the potatoes and peel while they’re still hot, you can use a towel to hold the potatoes if they are still very hot. Mash your potatoes using the end of a fork to keep them fluffy (this is where a ricer would really have come in handy) and let potatoes cool completely.
Add flour, egg, and a pinch of salt to the potatoes and work with your hands until you have a dough. Knead the dough until smooth, dusting with flour if it gets sticky. Divide the dough into baseball sized portions and roll out into a rope, about a half an inch thick. Use a fork to create those classic gnocchi ridges and cut into half inch pieces.
While you’re rolling and cutting your gnocchi, boil a pot of water with a pinch of salt. Add small batches of gnocchi at a time and cook until most have come to the top, about 2 minutes per batch. Retrieve your gnocchi with a slotted spoon.
Serve with your favorite sauce. Enjoy.