Anna Magnani, with a romantic dog friend.
Recipe: Coda alla Vaccinara
Our Lady of the Eternal City, Anna Magnani, is a woman I check in with frequently, even though she is dead. I value her opinion so much, her not being flesh-and-blood live is hardly an obstacle (actually she has much more time these days). Recently I asked her what I should cook my husband for Valentine’s Day. Should I make chocolate mousse or filet mignon?, I asked. There was a pause, and she then whispered “Coda alla Vaccinara.” Well, gee, what a concept.
Oxtails are not something I had associated with romance, but I think Miss Magnani’s on to something. Coda alla Vaccinara, braised oxtail, is a dish I’ve eaten in trattorias in the Testaccio, the old slaughterhouse district of Rome, an area famous for its quinto-quarto, or fifth-quarter, food, dishes made from the supposedly less than desirable parts of animals, like intestine (called la pajata and served with rigatoni), trippa, lamb’s liver, and pig’s feet, all dishes of funky, dark deliciousness. I really love this food, and when you think about it, it’s much more romantic than, say, a steak, which is so straightforward. Sort of like Miss Magnani herself, who, with her dark, baggy eyes, is infinitely more intriguing than, say, Gina Lollabrigida.
Oxtail Roman-style is richly seasoned with red wine, clove, celery, and marjoram. It smells sweet and intense while cooking, almost like chocolate (and in fact some cooks add a little cocoa to the pot), and since it has to cook a long time, about three hours, you get very intimate with the oxtails and their deepening aromas.
By the way, oxtails were originally actually cut from oxen, which are castrated bulls. Now they are cut from everyday beef cattle, but I suppose oxtail sounds more folklorico than cowtail, so the original name of the stew has endured.
Happy Valentine’s Day to you.
Coda alla Vaccinara
Extra-virgin olive oil
4 pounds oxtails (try to get the wider, meatier middle cut, not the tiny tail ends)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
1 round piece of pancetta, ¼ inch thick, cut into small cubes
2 small celery stalks, cut into small dice, plus a large handful of celery leaves, lightly chopped
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
5 whole cloves, ground to a powder
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 bay leaf
1 cup sweet vermouth
1 cup dry red wine
1 cup homemade, or high-quality purchased, chicken broth
1 28-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, chopped, with the juice
6 large sprigs marjoram
A splash of balsamic vinegar
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Choose a large casserole that will hold the meat more or less in one layer (a little overlap is okay). Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Season the oxtails with salt, black pepper, and the sugar, and brown them well on all sides. Add the pancetta, and let it get a little crisp. Now add the leeks, carrot, celery (but not the leaves yet), garlic, ground clove, and cinnamon, and turn the heat down to medium. Sauté a few minutes, to soften the vegetables. Add the red wine and the sweet vermouth, and cook at a lively bubble for about 4 minutes. Add the bay leaf, the chicken broth, and the tomatoes. Season with a little more salt and black pepper. The meat should be almost completely covered with liquid; if not, add more broth or water. Bring this to a boil. Cover the casserole, and place it in the oven. Let the stew cook at a low simmer until very tender, about 3 hours.
Take the casserole from the oven, and skim most of the fat from the surface of the sauce. (Oxtail throws off a lot of fat. If you like, you can make the stew the day before serving, refrigerate it overnight, and then scrape the cold fat from the surface before reheating.)
Add the celery leaves and marjoram to the sauce, and add a splash of balsamic vinegar. Reseason with salt or black pepper if needed. Serve in bowls, over polenta or pasta or farro if you like; I prefer a simple accompaniment of good Italian bread to soak up all the sauce.