Lately I've been drawing inspiration from my fellow bloggers, from Chicken Cacciatore to Stewed Pork Loin with Porcini. Now add Oxtail Gnocchi to the list. With snow on the ground the other day and my mind in a wintry mood, Matt Wright's post on the comforts of braised and slow-cooked oxtails had me pining for the sort of rich ragu that fills a home with its warmth and aroma.
This might be the one recipe that food writers are allowed to call unctuous. I made a few changes to Matt's toothsome version to see what would happen, flouring the oxtails, substituting white wine for red in the tradition of an old-style Bolognese sauce, and adding pulverized, rehydrated porcini to the mix. I've been on a porcini roll lately, so why stop now? This has been the snowiest winter in Seattle I can remember. The deep, earthy flavors of porcini are just what is needed in such bone-chilling times.
For best results make this at least a day in advance before serving. Overnight refrigeration intensifies and marries the flavors.
Oxtail Ragu with Porcini
2 lbs oxtails
2-3 oz dried porcini, pulverized
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 celery rib, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 bottle white wine
2 tbsp tomato paste
several sprigs fresh thyme
2-3 dried bay leaves
basil for garnish
1. Using a food processor, pulverize a handful of dried porcini (2-3 oz) into dust. Cover with warm water, about 2 cups. Let sit for 30 minutes.
2. Season oxtails with salt and pepper and dredge in flour. With a large pan over medium-high heat, brown in olive oil and then set aside.
3. Pre-heat oven to 320 degrees. Reduce burner heat to moderate and add more oil if necessary before sauteing onions, carrots, celery, and garlic. When soft and translucent, deglaze with wine. Stir in tomato paste.
4. Arrange oxtails in a dutch oven or other heavy, lidded cooking vessel. Tuck sprigs of thyme and bay leaves between and around meat. Add contents of saute pan and rehydrated mushrooms with their liquid. The oxtails should be immersed to halfway mark; if not, add water or stock. Cover and put in oven for four hours, turning occasionally.
5. Maintain braising level by adding water or stock. Meat is done when it's fall-off-the-bone. Carefully remove meat and let cool. Also remove thyme stems and bay leaves. Next separate meat and discard bones and any large pieces of gristle. Use immersion blender to blend and thicken sauce. Return meat to pot and bring to simmer on stovetop for a half-hour or so until reaching desired consistency.
Beginner's Luck Gnocchi
Now people, let me tell you that this ragu was actually the easy part. The next step, a day later, was what I dreaded: Gnocchi. True, I had never made gnocchi before, but I had read enough horror stories to know what I was up against. "My half-dozen attempts have all failed," mewled one agonized cook online. "I want those hours of my life BACK!" I knew anything could go wrong. The gnocchi could turn out like dense little balls of blech. Or they could go to pieces as soon as they hit the boiling water.
My own experiences eating gnocchi—never mind cooking it (them?)—had been mixed as well. Even at decent restaurants, more often than not the little potato and flour dumplings did not approach the pillowy soft ideal. In fact, my best gnocchi memory isn't from an acclaimed Italian ristorante at all—it's from a gastropub in Seattle called Quinn's where the gnocchi were so feather-light and velvety smooth that I momentarily considered dispatching my dining partner with a steak knife so I could horde the rest.
After hours of web study, I opted to go with 101 Cookbook's How to Make Gnocchi Like an Italian Grandmother Recipe. And while this recipe uses the controversial ingredient of egg, which some sniff at, suggesting the binding power makes gnocchi denser than desired, let me tell you that the result of my efforts, incredibly, was the hands-down second best gnocchi I've ever eaten, and not far from Quinn's.
A couple points about this recipe. I used organic Yukon Gold potatoes. Some have wondered why you peel the potatoes after boiling; while mine is not to reason why, I found the peeling easier at this stage than before boiling. The taters undressed without the slightest hint of coyness, dropping their gowns sometimes in a single peel. Also, the fork method of deconstructing the halves works perfectly well, and the difference between mashing (don't) and simply grating without any lumps (do) will become obvious even to the newbie.
When it came time to mix in the egg and flour, I used slightly less beaten egg than called for in the recipe and slightly more flour. Also, I built a volcano out of the potato and poured the egg and flour into the crater. Keeping the chopping block well-sprinkled with flour from this point on is essential.
Finally, at the moment of truth, my heart skipped a beat when white flakes of dough rose up from the pot. Drat, the fatal error of gnocchi that can't stand up to the boil. I was ready to toss my efforts. But then the flakes subsided and moments later perfect little pillows started floating to the top, none the worse for wear. I'm not sure from whence those errant flakes came, and I'm not going to worry about it. The gnocchi were light and scrumptious. I drizzled some olive oil on a plate, carefully arranged a dozen gnocchi, and ladled the oxtail ragu over the whole enterprise. The ragu juices mixed with the olive oil to form an appetizing orangish gravy on the bottom, and like Matt, I garnished the dish with chopped basil.
The rest of the gnocchi sat fully formed on the counter for the rest of the afternoon and into evening, and when they too came out of the boil later that night for Marty's dinner they were even lighter and fluffier. Such are the mysteries of gnocchi.