This is an adaptation of a Roman favorite: coda vaccinara (recipe link). While the classic is typically served as a stew or over some polenta, I made it as a ragu to toss with pasta, sort of like how they do it at Roma Sparita in Trastevere.
The Romans are well known for their crafty preparations of odd cuts of meat and offal, which are affectionately known as quinto quarto (fifth quarter) cuisine. If you've never tried oxtail before, this recipe is a great entry-point. Oxtail can be quite fatty and tough, but when braised for several hours, the fat and sinew break down, and the meat that falls off the bone is packed with flavor; I think oxtail is the most "beef"-tasting cut of red meat available. Speaking of availability: I'm able to find oxtail regularly at my local supermarket since they carry Rumba brand meats, but in case your grocery store doesn't carry it, try a Korean, Central American, or Jamaican grocer near you. The best global cuisines agree that oxtail rules.
Here are a few notes on the recipe:
The oxtail fat can be trimmed before cooking, but don't cut off too much as fat is crucial for long, slow braises. If you forget to trim the fat at the start, it will conveniently pool at the top of the braising liquid when finished, so you can always skim it off with a spoon.
I browned the beef in pork fat because I don't know how to not brown things in pork fat. Feel free to simply use olive oil for searing unless you, like me, always have a bit of fatty pork in your fridge.
Ragus tend to pair best with sturdier pasta shapes, so I recommend rigatoni, pappardelle, spaghetti alla chitarra, or paccheri. If tossing with pasta, be sure to add a ladle of pasta water, a few pinches of grated parmigiano reggiano, and maybe squeeze some lemon (to cut through all that fatty richness and provide some balance) while finishing the pasta in the ragu. Toss vigorously over high heat until the liquid has reduced, and the sauce and pasta are one.
For gnocchi, simply dress them in the ragu. I tried to finish gnocchi like I would other pastas (see above bullet) and the extraordinary amount of starch resulted in a far "gloopier" texture than I wanted. Lesson learned!
Roughly 32 oz of sauce to use immediately, refrigerate, or freeze.
3 lb (1.5 kg) oxtail pieces, excess fat trimmed
2 oz (55 g) pancetta, guanciale, or slab bacon (optional, use 3 tbsp evoo if not available)
1 medium yellow onion
1 large carrot
2 celery stalks
4 cloves garlic, minced
28 oz (795 g) San Marzano tomatoes
about 16 oz beef stock
about 1 cup red wine
1 tbsp tomato paste
crushed red pepper
spice bag including: 2 bay leaves, 4 whole cloves, 1 sprig rosemary, 1 sprig thyme
1 --- Preheat an oven to 300F. Season the oxtail liberally with salt and pepper, then set aside. Place the onion, carrot, and celery into a food processor and pulse until the ingredients are finely chopped, but before they become a paste. Set aside.
2 --- Place a Dutch oven or oven-safe enamel pot over medium heat and add the pancetta, guanciale, or slab bacon. Render the fat out of the pork and remove with a slotted spoon when it begins to brown (about 5-7 minutes). If not using pork, simply add 3 tbsp of olive oil to the pot over high heat and continue to the next step when the oil becomes fragrant and smokes slightly.
3 --- Working in batches, sear all sides of the oxtail until the outside is a deep, crispy brown color. Be careful not to crowd the pot as that will steam the oxtail and not sear it. Set the oxtail aside once seared.
4 --- Add the soffritto (the chopped onion, carrot, and celery mixture) to the pot and stir with a wooden spoon to pick up the fat and brown bits at the bottom of the pot. Let the soffritto sweat for about 4-6 minutes, then add the minced garlic and red pepper flakes. Stir everything together, careful not to burn the garlic, then add the tomato paste. Stir again to evenly incorporate, then let the mixture cook until it turns a brick red color. Pour in the red wine, and - using the wooden spoon - deglaze the pot by scraping up any remaining brown bits on the bottom and allowing the wine to reduce by 2/3rds.
5 --- One the wine has reduced and the pan is deglazed, add the tomatoes and crush them as you stir with the wooden spoon. Return the oxtail to the pot, then add enough beef stock to cover the oxtail. Bring the ragu to a boil, add about a tablespoon of salt, then cover and place in the preheated oven for 3.5 - 4 hours.
6 --- Once every hour or so, give the ragu a stir and skim any fat that may pool at the surface. The ragu is done when the oxtail are fork-tender, and the meat begins to separate from the bone.
7 --- When the ragu is finished, skim off any remaining fat from the surface, discard the spice bag, and pull the meat from the bones. Discard the bones and shred the meat in the ragu, mix thoroughly. Toss the ragu with your favorite pasta shortly thereafter or refrigerate once cool for a pasta night within the next week or so.