Nothing says ‘nose to tail’ like, well, a tail. Oxtail to be precise, cooked loooow and so incredibly sloooow until all the meat and fat has fallen off the bones and reduced down into a rich, sweet and meaty sauce. The beauty of oxtail is that it’s an underused cut of meat, which makes it cheap, but more importantly, using the whole carcass is unquestionably a more sustainable and ethical way of eating meat, especially so in light of carcass imbalances as a result of COVID.
This recipe comes from my dear cousin-in-law, better known as the charming, hard-working and endlessly talented ‘Rosie MacKean, Pasta Queen’. The Pasta Queen hosts pasta masterclasses in London, ran Angela Hartnett’s pastaficio in Covent Garden and her ‘Tuesday Tutorials’ on Instagram are fast becoming legendary. Needless to say, her oxtail ragu with handrolled maloreddus, is an absolute belter.
Rosie MacKean, Pasta Queen
I feel like I have died and gone to heaven whenever I go over to Rosie’s for Christmas. Yes, yes, Christmas cooking is a huge event for most families, but for Rosie it’s a Herculean effort. The first suggestions of what we’ll be eating start appearing on the family Whatsapp around October, usually coupled with impertinent requests from male family members demanding she cook turkey (from my husband) or ‘plain brussel sprouts’ (his brother). These requests are, thankfully, ignored by Rosie as she boldly strides forth to create The Best Ever Christmas meal. Meat is meticulously sourced, brioche is baked, sauces are prepared, and every pot, pan and utensil is used, then washed and dried by her Dad, before being used again, by Rosie. The result is ALWAYS one large, unashamedly indulgent table of joy.
Rosie’s joy of cooking started, like for most people, at home. Pasta was the staple growing up and it was her Dad who taught her new recipes, including how to make a simple pepper and anchovy pasta sauce. Her mum made a mean lasagne, “not at all authentic”, she hastens to add, and Rosie and her two younger brothers would devour a plate of carbonara most weeks.
But the real love affair with pasta started with, you guessed it, Italy. Not long after leaving Café Murano, where Rosie learnt the majority of her pasta making skills, along with some decent Italian and a fear of putting large quantities of ricotta into the fridge (fridge = 1, Rosie = 0) Rosie took herself off to the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna – the birthplace of parmesan, balsamic vinegar and Parma ham, for a self-guided pasta tour. It was during this trip that pasta really started to become something special for Rosie, and she decided that was what she wanted to focus her career on. Each small town had its own pastaficio (pasta factory), and for ten glorious days Rosie travelled from place to place sampling the local versions of tortellini and other filled pastas tat region is famous for.
Ragu and Maloreddus
This ragu dish is not form that particular region of Italy, but this type of cooking (i.e. ‘investment’ cooking) is second nature to all Italians. And although Rosie really isn’t into investment cooking (“ragu is as patient as I get” she admits), their love of the ingredients and commitment to cooking it with the attention it deserves is another reason Rosie loves Italian food so much. Italians would think nothing to start something in the morning that they weren’t going to eat until the evening or the following day. “Us Brits are different; we want something that’s going to be ready in 45 minutes. We don’t wait like the Italians do, and don’t put the same love into making a special meal, even if it’s simply tomatoes rubbed on bread”.
The malloreddus which Rosie chose for this recipe originate from Sardinia and are also known as Gnocchetti Sardi. There are lots of differing opinions on what their name means, and one is that it translates from the Sardinian Campidanese dialect as “calves”. They are characterised by their grooves and the divet that forms on their undersides during rolling, making them excellent sauce carriers. Rosie decided to pair them with her ragu for that very reason, “and also because I liked the idea of the Ox and the Calve being reunited in a dish”.
At some point over the festive period ragu will feature, why? “because it’s great for feeding a crowd”. She also loves the sense of occasion of cooking it, partly because it’s always cooked at Christmas, and partly because it takes her so long to make. If Rosie wants ragu, then she starts the process two or three days in advance.
What I love and find so refreshing about Rosie’s adoration with pasta is how unashamed she is of it. In a day and age where ‘clean living’ is all the rage, Rosie embraces pasta in all its carboydraty glory, and I love her for it. Apparently, she was approached to write a cookery book where every pasta recipe was under 500 calories. To someone just starting out in their career this would have been tempting, but after thinking about it long and hard she decided she wouldn’t have been proud to put her name on, “pasta needs fat, it needs emulsification, it needs good olive oil. And the joy of it all”.
Needless to say, this recipe is NOT one that comes in under 500 calories and it’s not one that’s going to take 45 mins to cook. It takes a long time, is full of fat and has meat in it (albeit a tail). So save this bad boy up for a day when you really feel like you’ve deserved it, and you’ve got enough time to do the recipe justice.
Oxtail Ragu and Maloreddus
(to be made the day before- ragu is much better after a day’s rest! I also like to make in big batches and freeze, it makes the whole exercise more economical).
- 2.5 kg Oxtail on the bone
- 3 tbsps vegetable oil
- 2 small onions, diced
- 3 sticks of celery, diced
- 2 small carrots, diced
- 5 cloves of garlic, sliced
- 2 bay leaves
- 3 cloves
- 800ml tinned whole plum tomatoes
- 400ml red wine
- 1.4l beef stock
Preheat the oven to 130* fan.
Soak the oxtail in cold water for half an hour to help clean the blood from the bones, then trim off any thick fat around the pieces. Season generously with salt and pepper.
In a large casserole or stock pot on a high heat, add the oil and wait until it is smoking. In batches, seal the pieces of oxtail in the oil, concentrating on good caramelisation on all sides, setting the sealed pieces aside as you go. Once all the pieces are sealed, add the vegetables and garlic into the pan and caramelise in the fat from the beef on a medium heat. This should take around 10/15 minutes. Then add the wine, bring up to a boil and reduce by half. Next stir in the tomatoes, bay, cloves and stock before returning the pieces of oxtail to the pain. Bring up to a simmer, put the lid on and transfer to the oven.
Give the oxtail 4 hours with the lid on, checking after 2 just for safeguarding. After 4 hours, remove the lid and cook for one hour more. These timings don’t have to be exact- the most important thing is that the meat is tender and falling off the bone, and that this result is achieved at a low temperature to ensure ultimate softness and that the more muscly parts of the meat have broken down. So it is important to check your ragu during the process and make sure you’re happy with it. Cooking is sensory and so trust your senses and your instincts!
Once the ragu is cooked, leave to cool for one hour. Oxtail is a fatty meat, so even though you have trimmed you will notice a fair amount of fat on top. Don’t panic! You can easily remove this now by skimming, or when the ragu has chilled down and the fat has separated and hardened at the top.
Using a fork and spoon or whatever feels easiest, pull the meat off the bones of the oxtail, removing the bones as you go. This is much easier when the mix is warm. Then concentrate on gently shredding the meat within the sauce and basically mixing it well until all the meat is nicely broken down within it. You may want to remove the bay leaves and cloves during this process too. At this point, check and adjust the seasoning. We didn’t season much early on because during the cooking and reducing of the sauce you can end up with something much saltier than you wished- it is safer to season now. Leave to cool a bit more before covering and transferring to the fridge.
The above method, minus the soaking, can be applied to any large cuts of meat that you want to use for ragu- beef shin or ox cheek, lamb shank, pork shoulder, anything! Feel free to change the red wine to white or beef stock to chicken/ham where you feel necessary.
For 4 people
- 500g semola rimacinata di grano duro (high quality fine semolina flour)
- 250ml tepid water
In a large bowl make a well in the centre of the flour and pour in the water. Using a butter knife, mix together the water and the semolina until a shaggy consistency, then use your hands to bring together to a dough. Transfer to a clean surface and knead until smooth and springy- around 8-10 minutes. Cover and rest at room temperature for half an hour. This dough can be used to make a plethora of different pastas- orecchiette, cavatelli, pici, trofie, busiate, maccheroni to name a few. To make Malloreddus it is useful to have a garganelli/ gnocchi board/ butter pat so you can get the ridges, however if you do not have one you can use a fork.
I find that depending on the season the dough can get dry if you try and roll too much in one go. So I like to cut off small amounts at a time, keeping the rest of the dough covered while I work. I cut off a small piece, roll into a rope shape that is roughly 2 centimetres in diameter. Then using a pastry scraper or knife, cut down the rope, dividing it into 2 cm/2cm pieces (this doesn’t need to be exact). Then take each piece and roll into a little cylinder.
Finally when all the pieces are rolled, take each one and either using your fingers or a pastry scraper drag it upwards on the gnocchi board towards you to get the desirable ridged effect. Here is a useful video from the fabulous Pasta Grannies– I have made my malloreddus slightly longer than theirs.
While you are rolling your malloreddus, transfer your rolled pieces to a porous surface- wood ideally, that has been dusted with more semolina. This will help them dry out and prevent them from sticking together. Leave the pasta to dry for at least an hour, ideally 2 or 3 before cooking. They can also dry out overnight and will keep for a couple of days at room temperature.
To serve 4
Bring a large pan of water to the boil and season like you would a soup. Take about a third of the ragu and reheat it gently in a wide pan, adding a handful of freshly chopped parsley. When your water is boiling, chuck in your pasta and stir well to prevent it from sticking to the bottom or each other. They will take around 5 to 6 minutes to cook- keep trying them to make sure you don’t over or undercook them. When they are nice and al dente use a spider or slotted spoon to transfer them straight from the water into the sauce. Take a ladleful of the pasta water, add that too and stir vigorously making sure the pasta is well coated and the sauce glossy and not too thick. Add a glug of your favourite olive oil, check the seasoning and serve with lashings of freshly grated parmesan or pecorino.