Sunday 26 January 2014

Caribbean Oxtail with "rice and peas"

It's the dead of winter and you want something delicious and comforting to warm your bones. Why not treat yourself to all that and a taste of the tropics with stewed oxtail? It pairs perfectly with perhaps the most popular West Indian side dish "rice and peas". Oxtail refers to the tail of any cattle. It is bony and loaded with gelatinous connective tissue, making it best suited for soups and stews. With some loving "low-and-slow" cooking methods, you can turn this cheap cut of meat into a flavourful, falling-off-the-bone experience. Oxtail is also a fattier cut of beef which may not appeal to some but it does add a considerable amount of extra flavour (and most of the fat is skimmed off in the end anyway). It is common in the West Indies to see oxtail stewed with broad beans, fava beans or lima beans (excellent source of fiber). Unfortunately I couldn't get my hands on any but I encourage you to use them if you can. Just use about a cup of hydrated beans and add them to the stew for the last 30 minutes of cooking. 

"Rice and peas" is a common sidedish in Caribbean cuisine and is perfect for soaking up flavourful sauces and gravies. Where I live, the most common "pea" ingredient is red kidney beans. This might be confusing to the average Anglo-European/North American person who is not familiar with Caribbean food. We often think of peas as the sweet, fleshy green seeds we extract from the pods and usually see in the frozen section of supermarkets (a different ingredient than what we consider beans). That is because there are a variety of beans that are referred to as "peas" by name such as pigeon peas, cowpeas or black-eyed peas. We call them peas even though they are technically beans. I can't tell you why, but you can use any legume your heart desires. There is so much more to this mainstay than just rice and beans but still very simple to make.

Let's go over the oxtail first, then the rice and peas...

 Ingredients for Oxtail

3 lbs oxtail
1 white onion, chopped
1 large tomato, chopped
4 carrots, peeled & chopped
1 Scotch Bonnet or Habanero pepper, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 scallions, finely chopped
1 tsp freshly ground allspice
3" stick cinnamon
1 bay leaf
4-5 sprigs fresh thyme 
2 tbsp oil for frying
Salt & pepper (to taste)
Water or stock, as required

Begin by patting the pieces of oxtail dry with paper towel. Season liberally with salt, pepper and the ground allspice.

 Heat a Dutch oven to medium-high and add 2 tbsp of oil. Brown the oxtail in batches and sear all sides of the meat. Doing so in batches will prevent crowding which would make the oxtail dull in colour and weaker in flavour. 

Set the browned oxtail aside. Reduce the heat to medium then add the onion, carrot and tomato with a pinch of salt. Cook for about five minutes or until the onions go translucent and the tomato breaks down and begins to form a sauce.

Then add the garlic, Scotch Bonnet, scallion, thyme, cinnamon and bay leaf to the mixture. Cook for an additional 3-4 minutes (and enjoy the smell of your kitchen).

Nestle the oxtail back in the Dutch oven (along with any juices that may have developed while resting). 

Pour just enough water or the stock of your choice to cover the meat. Bring to a simmer.

Cover with a lid, turn the heat down to low and allow the oxtail to braise undisturbed for 3-4 hours. Just leave it alone to do its thing. The only time you should be removing the lid before it's done would be to add any legumes for the last 30 minutes if you so desire.

Remove the lid. A lot of fat will have extracted out of the oxtail so don't be alarmed if your stew does not look appetizing at this stage. Carefully remove the oxtail from the liquid (as it will be fragile) and set aside. Strain out any solids (such as vegetables, thyme, cinnamon stick and bay leaf) and discard, leaving only the liquid. Turn your heat up to a low boil and allow the liquid to reduce. Skim off any fat, foam or impurities as it reduces. This will thicken the gravy and intensify the flavour. Once it has reached its desired thickness, adjust seasoning and serve. If you'd rather not wait for the saucer to reduce completely, you can reduce it halfway and then add a slurry of a tbsp of corn starch and a tbsp of cold water. If you add the corn starch directly to the hot gravy it will clump and leave lumps throughout your sauce. The slurry will thicken up the gravy smoothly. As always (no matter what you're cooking) taste for seasoning and adjust before serving.

Ingredients for Rice & Peas

3 cups long grain white rice
3 cups water (or 1:1 ratio of water and stock)
1 can red kidney beans (or the legume of your choice)
1 can coconut milk
5 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
3" piece ginger, peeled & chopped
1 whole Scotch Bonnet or Habanero pepper
3 whole scallions, white parts slightly crushed
2-3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
Salt & pepper, to taste

In a pot with a tight fitting lid, add all of the ingredients except the rice and beans and bring to a boil. It is so important that you leave the Scotch Bonnet whole! You just want it to infuse a little flavour to the dish. If you cut it it will expose too much capsciacin and your rice will be unbearably spicy. 


Add the rice and beans, give the mixture a stir and give it a minute to come back to a boil. Then place the lid, reduce the heat to low and let it cook undisturbed for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and allow to sit for 5-10 minutes to finish absorbing the liquid.

Remove the lid as well as any solid aromatics leaving only the rice and beans in the pot. Fluff with a fork until steam has escaped and mixture is fully incorporated. 

Boom! You're all done, Plate your oxtail with rice and peas however you wish and be sure to add a generous amount of the gravy to both. I recommend serving with a coleslaw or fresh salad to help brighten up the dish, add some colour and help with digestion, but that's just me.

I hope you enjoyed this recipe as much as I enjoyed cooking and eating this dish! West Indians are big on flavour and this dish reflects just that. I hope you will give it a try. Bones (which are used to make stock) are full of flavour so stewed oxtail is such a delicious treat. You do not want to miss out on this home cooked meal. It takes a little patience but not a lot of skill. Anybody can make this and make it well.

A huge thank you to my readers and be sure to stay tuned for more MasterChef Canada developments in the near future, The next episode airs tomorrow night, January 27 on CTV.


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