This quintessential Roman dish is a perfect example of Roman food history. This particular recipe dates from 1887 and is an iconic dish, but one probably few people know about, and certainly very few outside Italy. In Rome, until late in the 20th century, prestigious cuts of meat were reserved for the rich. The butchers (vaccinari), slaughter house workers and lower classes of Rome ate the off cuts and the offal. These were referred to as the ‘quinto quarto’ (the fifth quarter) – see below. It was the inventiveness of those people cooking the quinto quarto that has led to some of the iconic Roman dishes like this one – Coda all vaccinara! The cuisine derived from the quint quarto – is perhaps the capital city’s equivalent of ‘La cucina povera’ of the rural areas of Italy. These dishes can still be found in Rome today – and you will not find them on the tourist menus!! But you can cook them at home, and cooking them over charcoal is perfect!!
I am indebted to Jacqui Debono from ‘The Pasta Project’ for giving me this recipe and some of the history behind it. Jacqui’s blog and her original recipe can be found here. Jacqui knows of my fascination with the concept of “La cucina povera’ – do have a look a her site – it is fascinating!
Please feel free to jump to the section on how we cooked this dish, or use the link at the top to go straight to the ingredient list and the recipe, but first;
A little history
This dish and others of the ‘quinto quarto’ come from the Testaccio district of Rome. The area was developed in the late 1800s as the municipal slaughter house, the Mattatoio. It developed into a community of businesses related to the slaughterhouse: butchers, meat packers, tanners, trattorie and the housing built for the mattattoio workers. An almost self contained community between the city wall and the Tiber, by the turn of the 20th century the Testaccio housed the largest meat market and slaughterhouse in Europe (1).
The Quinto Quarto
The distribution of meat in Rome had always been dependent on social status and this continued into the early twentieth century. Animals that came into the mattatoio would be broken down into quarters depending on quality. The primo quarto consisted of the very best cuts and would go to the nobility, and the rest of the animal would be allocated accordingly – the secondo quarto would go to the clergy, the terzo quarto to the bourgeois and the quarto quarto to members of the army (1) The rest of Rome’s inhabitants, those at the bottom of the social ladder, were left with the quinto quarto, or ‘fifth quarter’. This was really the parts of the animal that the rest of Rome thought unfit to eat – brains, feet, livers, intestines, lungs and hearts etc, what we mostly call offal (2). We may recognise this resourcefulness as similar to today’s idea of nose-to-tail eating. The origins in Rome were very different though. It was a way of life, based on the simple need to eat and survive. The city’s poor would take the unwanted leftovers from Testaccio, and with typical Roman resourcefulness, use them to make something delicious.
Coda alla Vaccinara
The slaughterhouse workers often took quinto quarto home as part of their pay and they brought new life to these unwanted cuts, finding clever ways to mask the pungent smell and strong flavour. Dishes like tripe (trippa alla Romana) and oxtail stew (coda alla vacinara) utilised long, slow braising methods to mellow the strong offal character. Soaking offal in milk was another common tactic to remove the pungency from sweetbreads, intestines and tripe (1). Oxtail was considered one of the best and most popular fifth quarter meats. In fact, the vaccinari (butchers) were also known as ‘magnacode’ in the Roman dialect, meaning tail eaters! (2).
Eventually, this style of cooking spread far beyond the confines of Testaccio, and quinto quarto cuisine has been tightly woven into the fabric of Rome ever since (1). Nevertheless, it was in the Testaccio that in 1887, the daughter of the owners of the Checchino Tavern invented the original braised oxtail recipe popular today. Her name was Ferminia and her recipe included a secret ingredient which now we know was bitter cocoa! (2).
Back to our Kitchen
This is a perfect dish to cook on the Big Green Egg as the one thing that I think really makes the difference to the final dish is the very long cooking. This is really economical on a Kamado. The early stages of the cook can be easily undertaken on the BGE or on a conventional hob. Our decision making on this stage is usually weather dependent!! Which every way you do this first stage of cooking, prepping all your ingredients first makes life so much easier!
So many of these slow cooked dishes can be prepared and cooked in one casserole dish or Dutch oven. I find it easier though to do the early stage cooking (the browning of meet and vegetables) in a frying pan (we use our Tefal Ingenio pan with a removable handle) and then assemble the browned ingredients in the Dutch oven before adding the liquid elements.
The guanciale was cut into lardon then gently sautéed to release some of their fat and develop a little colour.
These were then set aside in the Dutch oven. The finely chopped onions were added to the frying pan and cooked in the released fat with a little olive oil. Once they had softened and taken on a little colour the finely chopped carrots and the finely chopped celery (that is half the celery) was added and cooked for another 5-10 minutes until softened and lightly coloured. This too was then added to the Dutch oven.
The next stage does take a little time as the oxtail need browning on all sides to begin the rendering process and to add the additional flavours that come from the Maillard browning process. It is really worth taking some time to do this well.
Once they had taken on some colour on each side they were nestled into the dutch oven, surrounded by the soffritto and sautéed guanciale. They formed a single layer across the base of the Dutch oven. The wine was added initially to the frying pan to deglaze it, and this was then added to the rest of the casserole and cooked until the alcohol was driven off.
We have used both fresh and tinned tomatoes for this dish. On this occasion we used a combination of fresh tomatoes – blitzed to form a coarse (unstrained) passata and one tin of tomatoes. These were added and stirred through the mix as well as practical. The cloves were added and the whole dish was lightly seasoned and was then ready for its long cook.
The original recipe that Jacqui sent me suggested that this should be simmered for about 2 hours. This was the major change we made and the dish was cooked indirectly on the Big Green Egg, initially for around 6-7 hours at about 120-130C (Dutch oven without the lid) until the meat was ready to fall off the bones. We checked the sauce every hour or so to make sure it wasn’t sticking or drying too much – and added water as necessary.
Whilst this was gently cooking we blanched the other celery pieces – though I am not too sure this is necessary with our longer slow cooking method. We also rehydrated the raisins in a little water and gently toasted the pine nuts.
Once the meat was almost falling off the bone we checked and adjusted the seasoning and added the final ingredients. The recipe also called for 1-2 tbsp of unsweetened cocoa or dark chocolate. I really like the effect of the cocoa but I would be tempted to stay closer to 1tbsp than 2. Being generous with the dark chocolate if you are using that instead is a little more forgiving! The dish was then left to cook for a further 30 minutes.
At this point there are really 2 choices. All the meat can be stripped off the bones, shredded and returned to the pan or (as we did) 2 of the larger pieces of oxtail were carefully removed and set aside with some sauce first.
The rest of the meat was then removed from the sauce, the bones stripped out, the meat gently shredded and returned to the pan. The parsley can be added now or before serving. We then closed the vents on the BGE and left it to cool down overnight with the dutch oven in place finishing off the cooking (night temperatures were below 5C). This sort of dish is always better the following day and what better way is there to use the residual heat from the BGE!
When it came to serving the 2 large pieces of oxtail they were gently reheated in the pan in which they had been put the night before with a little water added. They were heated to a core temperature of 70C and held there for 2 mins (or in England can be heated to 75C and used immediately – In Scotland they should be heated to 82C). These were served as a main course with roasted root vegetables. It was delicious, soft, unctuous and very rich (think of the texture of slow coked lamb shanks but with the taste of beef!). The cocoa had a wonderful effect offsetting the sauce beautifully as it does in Mexican Mole dishes
The ragù sauce with lots of meat in it works perfectly with pasta. We have used it with both long and short pastas. I have to say I prefer it with a short pasta like rigatoni or casarecce, both which hold the sauce well. But as ‘my Jackie’ likes long pasta, particularly pappardelle or mafalde …….
…………..so who am I to argue!!!
Variations: Katie Parla and Kristina Gill writing in “Tasting Rome” (Clarkson Potter/Publishers) suggests a similar recipe but substitutes lardo for the guanciale, and red for white wine. They omit the carrot (and the celery from the first part of the cook) but adds garlic and beef broth – which as yet we haven’t tried. They also suggest serving the sauce with Gnocchi di Patate which sounds an excellent idea!
Coda all Vaccinara - Braised Oxtail Ragu
Slowly braised oxtail in a rich tomato sauce enriched with celery, pine nuts, raisins ..... and cocoa
- 1kg oxtail pieces
- 800g tomato passata or peeled/tinned tomatoes (or combination)
- 50g guanciale or pancetta cut into lardons
- 1 large carrots washed and finely chopped
- 6 celery stalks 3 cuts into pieces 4x1cm and 3 finely chopped
- 1 onion finely chopped
- ½ glass white wine
- 2-4 cloves
- 1tbsp unsweetend cocoa or grated dark chocolate
- 1 handful raisins soaked in water
- 1 handful pine nuts toasted by dry frying
- 1 handful fresh parsley chopped
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil.
- Step 1 Season the Oxtail pieces, blanch the larger pieces of celery for around 1min to slightly soften, soak the raisins, dry fry the pine nuts
- Step 2 Lightly fry off the guanciale with a little olive oil in the frying pan then add the onions and cook till slightly softened. Add the carrot and finely chopped celery and continue too cook still they take on a little colour. Set these aside this soffritto into the casserole.
- Step 3 Add the oxtail to the frying pan with a little more olive oil and brown on all sides. Then nestle the oxtail in the soffritto as a single layer in the casserole. Deglaze the pan with the white wine, allow the alcohol to evaporate then add to the casserole
- Step 4 Set up the BGE for indirect cooking at around120-130C. Add the tomatoes and cloves to the casserole and mix together. Put the casserole without its lid into the BGE and cook for 6-7 hours. Check hourly too make sure that not drying too much, add water as required
- Step 5 Once the oxtail is cooked to the point where it is falling off the bone check and adjust the seasoning. Add the blanched celery, soaked raisins, toasted pine nuts and the cocoa. Stir and continue cooking for another 30 minutes.
- Step 6 If intending to remove whole pieces do so at this point and reserve. Remove the meat from the remaining bones, shred it and add it back to the sauce. Add fresh parsley.
- Step 7 Whole pieces can be served on their own or with a variety of vegetables. If reheating make sure they come to at least 70C core temperature for 2 mins. The ragù sauce works well with short or long pasta and I suspect would also work well with gnocchi