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I bet you thought you'd never utter oxtail and marmalade in the same breath. Probably, if you don't like your meat to be sweet, then you won't be running out to buy the ingredients for oxtail marmalade anytime soon. It's not as extreme as it sounds—you are not combining oxtail with a jar of fruit jam, or anything silly like that.
But it is a sweet dish, sweetened with brown sugar and rich with red wine and red wine vinegar. There is something distinctly jam-like, I'll admit, about spreading the oxtail on toast.
It's not for everyone. But if you are a sucker for sweetish meat, like red-braised pork, and sweet and sour pork, then you will like this dish.
I'll tell you about the afternoon I made these. I began after lunchtime and did not finish until dinnertime. I did not dawdle, either. It just took that long.
First there were these: sections of oxtail. Selfishly, I tried to convince my butcher to sell me only the big, meaty pieces, but then he said, "What would I do with the end of the tail?" Quite right, quite right.
Then there was this: a big pile of oxtail meat, deboned after hours of simmering in red wine and stock.
Then came the perfect mid-afternoon snack. I made sure there was no one around, and then I set myself down at the table with a plate of the bones, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and gnawed to my heart's content. By the end, my fingers were sticky in gelatinous tendons and meat. These are the sort of little snacks that cooks live for (at least this cook does).
Finally, the end result: You marry the cooked oxtail with the marmalade part, which is shallots and carrots cooked in butter, then cooked down in red wine, vinegar, and sugar. By the end, the little cubes of carrots taste like candy. In sum, oxtail + sweet/tart vegetables = oxtail marmalade.
From start to finish, it had taken more than six hours, and by the end my kitchen was as hot as a sauna. I had used two bottles of red wine, along with gobs of butter and sugar.
The version from Blue Ribbon in New York is even more indulgent. The recipe calls for two bottles of port in addition to two bottles of red wine, and veal stock, too. But being a thrifty home cook, I tried to see if the recipe could be pared down (i.e., no port, and no veal stock), and the answer is resoundingly, yes. But feel free to throw tons more money into the pot, if you like.
I must confess that on the day I finished the recipe, I was not in the mood at all for oxtail marmalade. (That is almost always the case, I feel, with involved recipes. By the end you have already been smelling and sampling the same thing for hours and hours, and you're probably exhausted too.)
Worse still, I had a taste of the oxtail marmalade and found it too sweet. I thought to myself, great, I just poured two bottles of red wine and my blood, sweat, and tears, into making too-sweet meat, and now I just want a bowl of cereal before I go to bed. So that is what I did.
But the next day, the sweetness had mellowed, giving way to the deep red-wine flavor. Little cubes of carrots glistened, like jewels, in the dark mass of oxtail. It was good—better than good.
The character, the essential nature of oxtail meat, seemed preserved and intensified by the wine and sweet vegetables.
It was everything I had dreamed oxtail marmalade could be, and more.