When I worked as a cook, I focused on the cuisines of modern French and Italian. I was well trained in the school of “use fresh ingredients, season them lightly to accentuate the flavour of the ingredient, and let it shine. I seasoned primarily with salt, pepper, lemon juice, and fresh herbs. I didn’t start experimenting with spice combinations until I left professional kitchens and met my wife.
Alia is of Jamaican descent. Her parents moved to Canada in the seventies, along with many other expats, and eventually set down roots in Stratford, ON. Alia grew up on her mother’s cooking, and if anyone has eaten Karlene’s food, they know how lucky Alia and her sister were eating the most delicious things (apparently with the exception of bay scallops – to this day Alia thinks scallops are supposed to taste like pencil erasers). I was happy to discover Karlene’s style as I entered the family kitchen. The first major thing we cooked together was Christmas dinner. I had a beautiful grass fed prime rib that I wanted to roast with, obviously, just a little salt and pepper. Karlene looked at me sideways, squinted her eyes, and delicately said: “well, maybe we should just give it a little more flavour”. Who was I to disagree with my girlfriend’s mom in her own kitchen. “Of course!” I said, then watched aghast as she crushed up allspice berries with salt, pepper, fresh thyme, garlic, scallion, shallots, and a tups* of scotch bonnet. She then poked holes in the rib and smeared the marinade all over the roast, shoving it into those holes, before wrapping up the roast and refrigerating it overnight.
That Christmas roast was a revelation for me. Not only was it spiced perfectly, but the flavour of the beef was still very much present. These types of experiences with Alia and her family have made me think outside of my culinary spice box. I now experiment more than I would have ever in a restaurant, and I believe I’m a better cook for it. I believe the cuisines of the Caribbean are some of the most vibrant, interesting, and influential flavours in the world, and chefs and home cooks really should take notice. We have one of the biggest communities outside of the West Indies here, and the food is SOOOO delicious. If you go out to the Caribana Carnival Grande Parade on August 5th you will be lucky to eat some of these tasty treats.
One of the most popular meat cuts our Jamaican customers ask for is oxtail. Oxtail, actually the tail of a cow, is full of tough meat, bones, and connective tissue that needs to be cooked for hours to render it edible. But when cooked properly, it may be the most succulent beef cut on the planet. Every few months I ask my wife to cook it for us, because she spices it just so, and always adds spinners in near the end. Spinners are simple flour dumplings that you “spin” in your hands to shape, and they are fantastic in an oxtail stew. Here is the whole recipe, best made the night before serving to give the oxtail time to develop flavour, as well as allow you to scrape the excess fat off fairly easily the next day before reheating.
*A “tups” is Jamaican patois for “just a wee amount”, as in “ya I take sugar in my coffee, but just a tups. I’m almost sweet enough as it is.”
Oxtail Stew with Spinners
5 lbs oxtail, cut by your butcher into 1-2 inch cubes, or through the joints (5 lbs is about two oxtails)
2 tbsp ground black pepper
2 onions, peeled and diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 celery stalks, cleaned and diced
4 shallots, peeled and diced
1 green onion bunch, chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
10 fresh thyme branches (if unavailable, 2 tbsp dried thyme)
4 dried bay leaves
1 small scotch bonnet, seeded and minced (use half if you don’t want it too spicy). If you can’t find fresh scotch bonnet, a hot sauce made with the pepper is a good substitute. We carry some great ones, especially Damien’s Hotel Oscar Tango Sauce.
3tbsp oxtail seasoning*
1 tbsp ground allspice
1 cup red wine
4 cups chicken stock
* Oxtail seasoning is widely available if you live in a city that has a large community of Jamaicans. Luckily Toronto does. It’s a bit of a cheater’s spice mix, but the main ingredients are salt, ground allspice, dried thyme, garlic powder, onion powder, celery salt, dried scotch bonnet powder, and msg. If you can’t find oxtail seasoning substitute with an extra½ tbsp ground allspice, ½ tbsp dried thyme, 1 tbsp of garlic salt, and 1 tbsp salt.
1 cup flour
1/2 tsp salt
cold water to form
The day before serving:
Preheat the oven to 325°F.
Heat a large oven proof sauce pot over a medium heat on your stove top. Add 3-4 tbsp vegetable oil. Season the oxtail with the salt and pepper and brown it in the hot oil in batches (5 or 6 pieces at a time). As the pieces are browned, remove from the pot and set aside while the rest of the meat browns. Keep all the meat on the side while you sweat the vegetables.
When all the meat is brown, add the onion, shallots, and garlic to the pot. Lower the heat and cover the pot to sweat the onion. Stir every few minutes with a wooden spoon, scraping the delicious bits of oxtail off the bottom of the pot as you do. When the onion is translucent, turn the heat up a bit and add the carrots, celery, scallion, scotch bonnet, bay leaves, and thyme. Stir frequently until the vegetables are browning. Deglaze the pot with the red wine and reduce by half. Place the browned meat back into the pot, then add the chicken stock, the oxtail seasoning, and the allspice. Stir well and bring to a simmer.
Add the oxtail back to the pot and stir. If the meat isn’t fully submerged add more chicken stock, or water will do as well. Bring to a simmer, cover the pot and place in the center of the oven. Cook for 3-4 hours, or until the oxtail is starting to fall away from the bone. Check the stew for seasoning and adjust if necessary. Remove the lid and allow oxtail to cool completely before chilling overnight in the fridge.
The next day, scrape as much solidified fat off the top of the oxtail stew as you can. Bring the stew to a simmer on the stove top. Meanwhile, make the spinners.
Mix the flour and the salt together in a mixing bowl. Slowly add cold water to the flour, mixing constantly with your hands, until a tacky dough forms. You don’t want the dough to be too wet or you won’t be able to spin it, but if it is too dry the dumplings will be floury. You want enough cold water to make the flour malleable.
Spin the dumplings between your palms and drop them in the simmering stew. Allow to cook for at least 20 minutes. Test the doneness by removing a dumpling and cutting it in half. It should be translucent through the spinner.
Ladle the stew into a bowl and enjoy. I like to sprinkle a little more scallion on top, but any way you go, this is a delicious addition to your Caribana weekend!