Mom tells me there’s a Chinese saying (as usual, built upon some homophonic coincidence) that’s significant for this, the Year of the Ox.
Niu zhuan qian kun, the internets tell me, means something like “turning Heaven and Earth,” but my mother translates it as “world change.” Meaning, this is a particularly auspicious year that promises lots of life changes.
My lunar new year has been ushered in by three such changes:
1. The death of my computer; its replacement by a faster, shinier new one.
2. The making of lots and lots of dumplings. More dumplings than I care to make in one week ever again.
3. Mastery of the oxtail braise.
I tried doing the oxtails French-style (red wine, etc.) sometime in 2002, and either I cooked them at too high a temperature or too long or not long enough: they were tough, terrible. Also, sometimes red-wine braises are too winey in the finished dish. Have you ever noticed that? It’s been seven years, though; I’ve since tackled much more taxing cooking projects, and by all accounts, braising ain’t rocket science, and oxtail is ostensibly a giving and forgiving cut. So when I was tasked with making the oxtail filling for last night’s dumpling class at the Brooklyn Kitchen, while I felt some trepidation, I knew what had to be done.
What’s always done when one braises:
Brown the bejeezus out of that tail.
Add aromatics. I knew I was going to need a little more heft, stickiness, and juice for this to become proper dumpling innards (a trial run with beef shank was tasty but dry), so I went with thinly sliced onions and diced carrot, sweated in oxtail fat and leavings till they could sweat no more.
Add braising liquid and seasonings. In this case, for a classic Chinese-style braise, I did about 1 cup of water, 3/4 cup soy sauce, 1/4 cup rice vinegar, 2 stars of star anise, a stick of cinnamon, and three fat slices of ginger. And I let it sit, barely bubbling, over the lowest flame my stove could maintain, for four hours.
Turns out, if one follows the rules, this braise is pretty much idiot proof. And something I will be making again and again.