"We Asians really know how to use every part of the animal," says Chinese cooking teacher Shirley Fong-Torres of San Francisco.
Starting Friday, oxtails are the part that should get a major workout. That's the first day of the Chinese lunar year 4695, the Year of the Ox.
Because oxtails require long, slow cooking, they wind up in soups, flavorful braised dishes and stews, making them perfect for chilly winter days that arouse an appetite for restorative foods.
Fong-Torres, who guides tours of Chinatown in addition to conducting Chinese cooking classes, makes an oxtail stew based on her father's recipe for beef stew. The stew used to be served on Fridays at his restaurant, the Bamboo Hut in Hayward; Fong-Torres enjoyed it atop noodles or even won tons. "It had a wonderful fragrance," she says. The mix of East-West ingredients includes star anise, ginger and soy sauce, jalapen~os, potatoes and tomatoes.
Oxtail stew with peanuts, on the other hand, is totally Eastern. "[It's] Cantonese country cooking," says Jimmy Chiu of Sea Empress Seafood restaurant in Gardena. Chiu makes this dish for his children. "They love the peanuts," he says. Cooking the nuts in broth gives them the firm-soft texture of beans, and Chiu says that black or red beans can be used instead.
Oxtails in retail markets come not from oxen that are traditionally used as draft animals but from grain-fed cattle raised for meat, says Tim Weiler, director of international sales for Nebraska-based IBP Inc., a leading producer of fresh beef and pork.
Shoppers can find oxtails readily in Asian markets and many supermarkets. They are displayed whole at meat counters or are cut into short lengths and packaged.
Oxtail dishes are popular at Chinese-style coffee shops. At Cafe Mirage in Monterey Park, for instance, oxtails with tomato sauce is the first dish listed on a menu of lunch specials. It's a Western-style preparation with one Asian touch: a bed of blanched nappa cabbage leaves.
In other parts of the country, oxtails are less common. A consultant to the Beef and Veal Culinary Center based in Chicago couldn't remember any oxtail recipe development in her 10 years with the center, which is the test kitchen for the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn., an industrywide organization.
Recipe work there, says Susan Lamb Parenti, concentrates on cuts that are, as she describes them, more "consumer-friendly," meaning cuts that are widely available and cook quickly. She describes oxtails as a specialty cut. "There is not a high demand," she says. Parenti even suggests substituting beef shanks for oxtails; which are bony, like oxtails, but meatier.
Good sources for oxtail recipes are Chinese cookbooks. "Beef" (Wei-Chuan Publishing, 1993), one in a series of small books focusing on categories of Chinese dishes, contains a recipe for oxtails in tomato sauce. It's a little different from the Cafe Mirage version, but the oxtails emerge glossy and appetizing, with a richly flavored sauce blended from soy sauce, catsup and tomatoes.
Another book from the same publisher, "Chinese One Dish Meals" (1995), contains an oxtail soup with a delicate broth to serve over noodles. Ginger, star anise and Sichuan peppercorns add subtle Asian-style flavor.
Creative cooks can devise their own oxtail dishes following some basic guidelines. Because oxtails are not very tender, they're best when cooked by moist heat methods.
"Beef oxtails are typically cut into sections, from 1 1/2 to 3 inches long, and slowly browned over medium heat," Parenti says. "Enough liquid is added to cover. The oxtails are cooked, covered, over low heat until the beef is fork-tender, approximately three hours." Three to 4 pounds of the bony cut will yield 6 to 8 servings of soup.
Because they require long, patient simmering, oxtails fit perfectly with the slow, placid, hard-working nature of the ox, a creature whose efforts have long contributed to the sustenance of mankind.
SHIRLEY FONG-TORRES' CLASSIC OXTAIL STEW
Fong-Torres says this stew is delicious over steamed rice and is even better the next day. A cookbook author, she runs the Wok Wiz Chinatown Walking Tours & Cooking Center in San Francisco.
2 1/2 pounds oxtails, cut into 2-inch pieces
2 tablespoons oil
1 onion, sliced
4 cloves garlic, lightly mashed
1 small piece ginger root (size of quarter), peeled and mashed
4 jalapen~os, sliced thin, optional
2 whole star anise
2 tablespoons soy sauce, preferably reduced sodium
1/4 cup dry Sherry or rice wine
3 stalks celery, sliced diagonally into 1 1/2-inch pieces
1 teaspoon granulated or brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon white pepper plus extra for final seasoning
5 cups beef broth, preferably reduced sodium
2 large potatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes, or daikon
2 large boiling tomatoes, cut into wedges
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 bunch green onions, cut into 1-inch pieces