A Word On Food: Oxtails

Jan 25, 2014

The majority of times I have enjoyed oxtails has been in the classic Cuban dish named, “Rabo Encendido.” The translation is literally “Lit Tail.”

This is supposedly due to the spice level in the dish, but unless I make it myself or have it in the home of another chile-loving person, the spice is mild, while the flavor is great. I love the tomato-ey rich stew that I have eaten since venturing into places like “El Siboney” in Key West years ago. I had it there again recently. 

And from what I could witness around me, many of the Chinese tourists who have found Key West a traveler’s treasure were also have begun congregating there. Hmmm… I wonder what the translation of ‘Rabo’ would be in Chinese? Maybe they make a dish with oxtails like the one we were collectively demolishing at the neighborhood restaurant on Catherine Street. Certainly oxtails are cooked in various forms all over the world!

I asked my daughter-in-law Lourdes’ parents about how they dealt with the bony cut. Naturally, I got the story of Rabo. But soon we were rattling off not only the dishes, BUT also the animals that make up what is generally referred to as Oxtails. Soon a variety of cookbooks were on the dining room table representing countries from all around the globe.

In Spain, there are stews made from the Cola de Vaca. This means ‘tail of the cow.’ Innocent enough, but wait, a cow is not an ox. When did it jump the fence so to speak? The dish is made with horse as well. But really, do you think we purchase horse or oxen in stores?

Oxtail is the culinary name for the tail of cattle. It once meant the tail of an ox or steer (a castrated male). Before it is cut up, the average tail weighs anywhere from two to four pounds. It is skinned and cut into short lengths which are better for cooking.

When I asked Lourdes’ mother Gloria how she cooked oxtails, she seemed to feel she was  taking a shortcut when she shyly answered, “pressure cooker.” But if I had grown up with her mama guiding me, I bet I would too. Pressure cookers can be fantastic in the right abuela’s hands! They handle the bony, gelatin-rich meat with the right degree of gentleness, but also allow for dinner to be at the table before the cow’s come home.

In Spain, the late cookbook author Penelope Casas, a writer that taught me so much, wrote of an oxtail stew named “Rabo de Toro a la Andaluza.” Andaluza is a land of bulls and bullfighters. There in Córdoba, the former capital city of the Moors, this dish flourished. And it was made with the tail of the bull. We ate bull meat in Barcelona. It was the tenderloin. I bet the tail would have been even better.

Stewed oxtail with butter beans are popular in Jamaica, Trinidad and other West Indian cultures. Sancocho is a revered soup that often features oxtails in Colombia and elsewhere in South America. In Mexico there is a dish featuring both oxtails and beans from Sonora called, inexplicably, “Gallina Pinta.” South Africans cook oxtails in traditional three-legged cast iron skillets. I have to wonder about three legs and a tail. But let’s move on.

Here in the U.S. soul cooking has prized oxtails as highly as any food culture in the world!

The Flemish make stew named “Hotchpotch.” It is typically made with just oxtails, but sometimes with pig’s ear and tails, breast of beef, shoulder of mutton, salt bacon and various vegetables. The word comes from the old French word hottison, which means ‘to shake.’

Can I get a “shake a mean tail feather” out of you all?



Yield: Serves 4

1 Cup of all-purpose flour to dust the oxtails

3 ½ - 4 Pounds of oxtails cut into 2-inch thick pieces by the butcher

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 Tablespoons ground cumin

¼ Cup pure olive oil

5 Cloves garlic, minced

1 Large onion, finely chopped

2 Poblano pepper, seeded and diced

2 Red bell pepper, diced

2 Cups tomato concassé

1 Tablespoon minced thyme leaves

1-Cup Madeira

1 ½ Cups red wine

2 Bay leaves, broken

6 Cups Beef Stock  

3-½ Cups water


Preheat the oven to 300º

Dust the oxtails with the flour. Now sprinkle the oxtails with the salt, pepper and cumin. In a large pot over medium-high, heat the oil then brown the oxtails on all sides. Transfer them to a platter and discard most of the oil. Only leave about two tablespoons of the oil in the pot. Over medium heat, add the garlic, onion, poblano and bell pep­per and cook until tender, about three minutes. Add the tomato and thyme. Season with salt and pepper.

Add the Madeira, red wine and bay leaf. Simmer until the liquid has reduced by about a quarter, or approximately 10 minutes.

Return the oxtails to the pot and add the beef stock and the water. Stir well and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cover loosely with foil so that the foil is pressed directly against the surface of the stew and braise in the oven for three hours until the oxtails are done and very tender and the sauce is thick enough to coat a spoon.

Serve with rice or noodles.