If you had placed this very typical Brazilian dish in front of me when I was a child, I would have ran a mile. In fact even as a teenager I still had some prejudice against it. Who wants to bite on a cows tail? We had a farm when I was a kid and I have seen a few cows up close. Their tails are not the cleanest things in the world. But then again. If you get too hung up on what animals are like when they're alive, who'd eat any pork. So I kept it out of my general acceptable menu.
But there was one strage thing...
Every adult I asked would say they loved Rabada com Agrião (Oxtail and Watercress). They waxed lyric about it. Was this an age related thing. Would I start liking it when I grew older?
One day I was visiting my father-in-law, Chris Hieatt, at his factory in the outskirts of Rio and he invited me to lunch at the local caf. "They're nothing to write home about... but they make a wonderful Rabada!" Wot?! This blond blue-eyed gringo eats Rabada at the local hole-in-the-wall caf? So I had to try, out of shame if nothing else. Maybe patriotism. I'm a Brazilian, I should like Rabada! So I tried it and I loved it!
Rabada may not be easy on the eye and the connection the shape of the live animal is unavoidable but the way it's cooked helps sidestep this fact. To start with, due to the proximity to the bone, the meat is incredible succulent and very tasty. Then there's the texture - as the tail pieces stew away all the fat weaved into their marbled flesh dissolves away, leaving soft strands of flesh punctuated by odd spot of gelatinous matter. And as all the bone goodness and tasty fat ooze out and joins the flavours of the vegetables they make a sauce so delicious I challenge anyone to not ask for a slice of bread to mop it up in the end.
Quite how and why Rabada became coupled with Polenta or Watercress is a mystery. I'm sure Rabada is an Europan invention - maybe the Polenta points its invention to Italy. Answers on a postcard pls (or actually on the comment box below). The fresh peppery zing of the watercress is a perfect counterpoint to the rich beef.
Rabada is actually quite easy to prepare but it does take some time - especially if you don't have a pressure cooker. But if you are serious about Brazilian food you should have bought a pressure cooker by now. Here's how you make it.
OXTAIL WITH WATERCRESS AND CREAMY POLENTA
For the stew
- 1/2 cup Olive Oil
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 tsp ground white pepper (black will do)
- 4 big chunks of Oxtail
- 1 medium onion finely chopped
- 4 cups chicken or beef stock
- 1 can (2 cups) chopped tomatoes
- 1 red pepper, finely chopped
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tsp sal (if using unsalted stock)
- 1 tsp dry oregano
- 2 tbsp Worcester Sauce
- 2 cups of potatoes cut in large chunks
- Fresh watercress, to serve as accompaniment
For the Polenta
- 1 cup of corn Polenta
- 3 cups chicken stock
- Pinch salt (if using unsalted stock)
- 2 tbsp of the Oxtail sauce
- A small knob of butter
- Mix the garlic with the salt and the ground pepper and mash together to make a paste. Cover the pieces of oxtail with the paste. Heat the olive oil in a heavy bottom pressure cooker and fry the pieces of oxtail until brown on all sides.
- Add the chopped onions and fry together with the pieces of oxtail until they start to gain colour. Add the chicken stock, the chopped tomatoes, chopped red pepper, bay leaves, dry oregano and Worcester Sauce. The level of all ingredients should fill 2/3 of the pan. If there's no enough liquid, complete the level with some water. Place the lid on the pressure cooker and cook on a high flame until it starts to boil and steam starts to hiss out. Lower the fire and let the mixture stew away for 45 minutes.
- Follow the manufacturer's instruction to open the pan (see tips below) and check the stew. At this point the meat should be falling off the bone and any fat should have melted into the juice. The meat should be soft. If the meat is still too tough replace the lid and return to the boil. Check again in 10 minutes.
- Open the lid once more and add the potato chucks. Replace the lid and cook for another 5-10 minutes until the potato chunks are soft and breaking apart.
- Serve on a deep dish surrounded by a reef of fresh watercress.
For the Polenta
- Add the stock to a small pan and bring to a boil. Sprinkle in the polenta grains gradually, while whisking constantly with a wire whisk.The polenta will get thick quite quickly but that does not mean it's cooked. Lower the fire and keep stirring with a wooden spoon for 10-15 minutes until all grain are cooked, smooth and creamy. If necessary add drips of hot water from time to time to keep the polenta moving.
- When ready, add a couple of teaspoons of the sauce from the oxtail stew and stir it in with a the knob of butter
Cook's tips and variations
- Some people like to add cubes of bacons to the olive oil at the start. That gives the stew an even stronger taste. I for one think the oxtail has enough fat and bone marrow to make it taste strong enough.
- There are versions of the recipe with and without potatoes. I find the starch from the potatoes help thicken the sauce.
- Another way to make the stew richer is to replace some of the stock with a dark beer - like Guinness!
- If the meat is starting to dissolve and the sauce is still quite runny, remove the pieces of oxtail and continue to boil the sauce down.
- A simple trick to enable you to open the pressure cooker quicker is to place it under a stream of cold water as you open the valve.
- You can cook this recipe in a normal pan but allow plenty of cooking time (maybe as much 2.5 hours) to soften the meat.