Real oxtail soup is one of the world's great dishes: an invigorating broth of pure beef taste, to which the joints and meat of the oxtails add a satisfying extra dimension. It can make a stout meal for hungry winter sportsmen, served unstrained as a kind of stew. Or, as usually encountered—strained and with a piece or two of meat in each soup plate—oxtail makes a dark and delectable prelude to a dinner party.
Perhaps because the tail of the beef animal is such an economical buy, or because its traditional Anglo-Saxon presentation is so simple, the authors of cookbooks have labored endlessly to fancy up the preparation of this dish. However, a child of 12 should be able to make the authentic version detailed below. Grownups who like to fool with pressure cookers can make the same soup in a good deal less time (see recipe). The ordinary method gives a larger yield and, to me, a finer flavor.
In the line of ready-made soups, including oxtail, the newest find for the outdoorsman was introduced this year at New York's giant specialty food fair: condensed soups, wrapped in foil and resembling half-pound chocolate bars. The bars dissolve quickly in boiling water. This new product, sold under the brand name of Quorn, comes to us from an English concern—although the original invention was Swedish—and much is made of the fact that British mountain climbers have carried the soup bars on Himalayan expeditions. Anyway, the Quorn oxtail soup bar, whether for camp, ocean-going yacht or Mount Everest, makes a palatable, slightly thick broth that needs more seasoning; no other criticism, except that part of the fun of oxtail soup has always been sucking the bones.
ON BUYING OXTAILS
Bear in mind that two calves' tails are about the equivalent of one oxtail, and that oxtails vary in meatiness with the season (they are larger and have more fat in the winter). One oxtail is sufficient for a dinner party soup for six, cooked in the ordinary manner. But one oxtail is only enough for two or three if it is intended as a one-dish supper, with second helpings. Have the butcher section the tails at the joints, sawing very large pieces in two. If using frozen oxtails, be sure to defrost before proceeding.
OXTAIL SOUP, ordinary method
(Serves six as a dinner party soup, three as a meal in itself)
MEAT: 1 oxtail plus 1 to 3 tablespoons meat fat (or same amount of vegetable shortening)
VEGETABLES: 1 carrot, 1 stalk celery, 1 turnip or onion, all diced
HERBS: 2 bay leaves, 2 sprigs parsley,½ teaspoon marjoram, pinch of thyme
SEASONING: Salt and pepper
LIQUID: 3 pints canned bouillon plus 1 pint water
Brown the tail sections well in very little fat (the amount needed varies according to fattiness of the tails). Remove, and in the same pan lightly brown the vegetables. Place oxtail pieces and vegetables in Dutch oven or heavy aluminum pan, adding herbs, the liquid, a teaspoon of salt and a sprinkling of pepper. Cover, bring to a boil and skim the soup. Simmer slowly over low heat for 3 hours. At this point, remove oxtail pieces and reserve. Strain soup through a sieve, without pressing, and discard the solids remaining in the sieve. Chill the strained soup sufficiently to skim off the fat. Reheat with oxtail pieces before serving, and adjust the seasoning.
OXTAIL SOUP, pressure-cooker method
(Serves three as a soup, two as a hearty supper)
INGREDIENTS: Same as above but use onion, not turnip, and lessen the liquid to 2 cups bouillon and 2 cups water.
PROCEDURE: Brown meat and vegetables as above, and place in pressure cooker with liquid. Cook for 15 minutes after 15-pound pressure is reached. Correct seasoning and serve.
This is made in the same manner as either of the soups above, but with less liquid and more oxtails, vegetables, etc. It can be slightly thickened with potato starch, arrowroot or flour.
Extraordinary soup tureen is of 18th century Chinese export porcelain. This type of hard-paste porcelain, often miscalled Lowestoft, was made in special shapes for European customers from samples sent to Canton by early traders. The piece shown here is reputed to have been ordered by Madame Du Barry, together with other porcelain "animals," for one of the hunting ch√¢teaux of Louis XV's court. It is for sale at Louis Lyons, 819 Madison Ave., N.Y.C. Price: $8,500.