Serious Eats: Recipes

The Nasty Bits: The Tale of Veal

[Photographs: Chichi Wang]

To make a stew, there must be gelatin and bone. To find the highest concentration of the two, look no further than tail. I've written before on the perfection of pigs' tails, but bovine tails make for exceptionally good eating and, quite frequently, are more accessible at the butcher's counter. Yielding the most tender and full-bodied stews, oxtail is a fail-proof solution to stringy meat and thin broth. Each segment of the tail is a little hub from which spokes of meat, bone, and gelatin radiate. Fancy restaurants may serve braised oxtail that has been deboned already, but this seems silly given all the delicious gelatinous material sticking to the bones. In the comfort of your own kitchen, you can gnaw away with true gusto.

Veal oxtail is the tenderer, more delicately flavored counterpart to mature oxtail. With just a hint of beefiness, the tails of veal are subtler and sweeter. For years I ate very little veal out of ethical concerns, but I was prompted to look further into the matter when I read the River Cottage Meat Book, an encyclopedic venture on all meat-related topics. With great precision, author Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall details the intimate relationship between the dairy and beef industries, explaining how calves and young cows figure into the subject.

The River Cottage Meat Book is the type of book that I'd read under the covers at night with a flashlight. The story of veal is a controversial and troubling tale, and it begins with a look into the dairy industry. By genetic design, purebred dairy cows possess relatively little fat and meat because all their energy is used for the production of milk. In order to keep the output of milk at a constant, the dairy cows must give birth to calves each year. As such, vast numbers of calves are born--more than enough to replace the retired milking cows. These calves, being the offspring of dairy cows rather than cows bred for their meat, are not particularly fatty creatures.

To be more economical, most farmers inseminate their dairy cows with the sperm of bulls bred for meat. In this way, these half-dairy, half-meat calves will be much more suitable for fattening up. Such is the explanation for why most of the beef we eat today is not nearly fatty enough to be flavorful, but the story of veal is even more problematic.

In order to replace old milking cows, dairy farmers breed their best milking cows with purebred dairy bulls. The resulting female offspring will be purebred dairy, and therefore as productive for milk as they can be. What happens to the purebred male offspring? The male calves that are born to purebred dairy cows are doubly useless to the industry: They can neither produce milk nor is their meat fatty enough to raise into adulthood.

Bluntly speaking, these male calves are either shot shortly after birth or kept for veal. In the past, the culinary objective for veal was to keep the meat as pale as possible; quality was measured in terms of whiteness. We're all familiar with the extreme conditions--lack of movement, a powdered-milk-based liquid feed--that keep the meat of these calves so pale.

To understand the relationship between the dairy and beef industries is to fathom the fate of thousands of purebred dairy calves, both male and female, that will be eliminated shortly after birth. Without a market for veal, these calves are useless to the industries that brought them into the world.

Pink Veal

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To make the existence of these calves count for something, conscientious farmers now produce their veal using mostly bull calves from their dairy herds. Raised with ethical standards, the meat of these calves is not pale at all, but pink or even rosy-red depending on their upbringing and feed. Called "pink veal," these calves are raised by both conventional and organic methods. Both methods result in more humane living conditions. Pink veal calves have access to movement, cereal feed, and, depending on the method, outdoor grazing.

Pink veal is more robust in flavor yet possesses that unmistakable sweetness and tenderness that makes veal a culinary treasure in the first place. The veal oxtail I cooked this week was far from pale. Still, it was not nearly as rosy as that coming from calves raised to the highest ethical standards in the industry. The particular hue of veal that one finds acceptable would depend on one's views of eating animals in general, but at the very least, we can all refrain from pale veal.

Braised in wine and stock, this veal oxtail was beefier than the veal I've tasted in the past, all the while retaining its sweet and delicate quality. In my opinion, the pink veal tail was far more interesting than any white veal could be, and that, combined with ethical concerns, makes for a satisfying dinner on all fronts.

Braised Veal Oxtail

Adapted from The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan.

About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." Visit her blog, My Chalkboard Fridge.

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