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Matchmaker: Oxtails and Barolo

Piedmont's powerhouse red needs an equally rich partner

Nick Fauchald
Posted: November 10, 2004

"It's hard to find a nice piece of tail," jokes my butcher, Jeffrey, whenever I ask him for a few pounds of my favorite braising meat. Despite its name, oxtail is almost always beef or veal tail, a bony, flavorful (and inexpensive) cut that becomes melt-in-your-mouth tender after hours of slow simmering.

A good relationship with your butcher is the most important ingredient in this recipe. Ask him to cut your oxtails into 2-inch segments, and try to avoid buying cuts from the end of the tail, where the segments are thin and almost meatless.

Although cooking this dish will keep you housebound for a few hours, most of your time will be spent relaxing in the living room while the simmering pot does all the work. It's a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Wine Pairing

Barolo, Piedmont's "king of wines," gets the regal treatment because it marries elegance with strength and richness. Made from Nebbiolo grapes, Barolo boasts subtle fruit and muscular tannins, and matches well with a rich, unctuous dish. Oxtail, when braised in wine, Port and good beef or veal stock, creates a velvety stew that will mesh with a Barolo's symphony of flavors. Polenta spiked with gorgonzola (another popular Barolo pairing) adds a pungent note without overpowering the dish or the wine.

Most of the Barolos you'll find at the wine shop right now are still a few years from their peak, but that doesn't mean they won't be delicious if drunk today. Just decant them two or three hours before serving. Mature Barolos, although more difficult to track down, will be this dish's best match. I've included a few selections from James Suckling's recent Barolo Tasting Highlights, as well as few older selections that are drinking well right now.

Recipe: Braised Oxtails with Creamy Gorgonzola Polenta
Serves 4

2 cups ruby or Vintage-character Port
3 cups red wine (something medium- to full-bodied, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, or Barbera and Dolcetto, to keep with the Piedmont theme)
5 pounds oxtails, trimmed and cut into 2- to 3-inch segments
3 tablespoons canola oil
4 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, halved and thinly sliced
2 shallots, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 medium carrots, cut into medium dice
1 leek (white part only), halved and thinly sliced
1 10-ounce can diced tomatoes (look for San Marzano)
Herb sachet (3 bay leaves, 1 bunch thyme, 3 cloves and 10 peppercorns, wrapped in a cheesecloth pouch)
About 2 cups veal or beef stock. (Homemade stock is best. A good substitute is to buy veal or beef demi-glace at a gourmet store and add a couple of tablespoons of it to basic store-bought stock or water.)
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Boil Port and wine in a heavy saucepan until reduced by one half and remove from heat.

Meanwhile, pat the oxtails dry and season well with salt and pepper. Heat oil and 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium-high heat in a large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot. Sear oxtails on all sides until brown (you may have to do this in batches) and transfer to a platter. Add onion and cook for 5 minutes or until it begins to caramelize. Add shallots, garlic, carrots and leeks and cook another 5 minutes. Deglaze with Port/wine mixture, scraping off any browned bits that have formed on the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Add oxtails, tomatoes, herb sachet and cover with stock. Partially cover the pot and lower the heat, so that it cooks at a gently simmer (check the pot periodically to make sure the liquid isn't boiling) until the meat is falling off of the bone, about 3 hours. Go have a glass or two of wine.

When oxtails are finished cooking, transfer them to a bowl and cover with aluminum foil. Ladle off any fat accumulated on the surface of the cooking liquid (there should be quite a bit). If the liquid is still very thin, bring to a boil and reduce until it coats the back of a spoon. Stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and season to taste with salt and pepper. Rewarm the oxtails in the cooking liquid and serve immediately over the polenta.

For the polenta:
4 cups water
1 cup polenta (or cornmeal)
4 ounces gorgonzola cheese (other blue cheeses are fine)
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon truffle oil (optional, if you have some)
Kosher salt

Bring water to a boil in a heavy saucepan and whisk in the polenta a little at a time (to ensure no lumps). Reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 20 minutes, stirring frequently. Fold in the cheese, cream and butter and cook for another 10 minutes. Season to taste. The polenta should be creamy; if it's too thick, add some more cream.


Wine Score Price
MARCHESI DI BAROLO Barolo 2000 90 $48
Very perfumed and fresh, with berry, strawberry and raspberry character. Full-bodied, with fine tannins and a clean finish. Long and silky. Well done and available. Best after 2005. 3,000 cases imported. --J.S.
PRUNOTTO Barolo 2000 90 $60
Extremely floral, with plenty of cherry and raspberry aromas. Full-bodied, chewy and fruity. Very tight now, but will open with time. Good structure. Best after 2007. 1,000 cases imported. --J.S.
PIO CESARE Barolo 1998 92 $60
Pretty berry and spicy aromas follow through to a medium to full body, with well-integrated tannins and a coffee, plum and truffle aftertaste. Best after 2005. 7,200 cases made. --J.S.
MARCHESI DI BAROLO Barolo 1997 90 $45
Wonderful aromas of flowers rise from the glass, with ripe berry fruit character and cherry undertones. Full-bodied and very chewy, with a solid core of fruit and firm yet refined tannins. This is just a baby. Very well done for this estate. Best after 2005. 15,600 cases made. --J.S.
STEFANO FARINA Barolo 1996 91 $25
Superripe and powerful, with dark chocolate, plum and spice. Full-bodied, with loads of fruit and ripe, silky yet chewy tannins. Outstanding. Best after 2003. 4,500 cases made. --J.S.

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