I am constantly on the lookout for exciting, innovative ways to broaden my palate and my culinary knowledge. Sure, I have my favorite fallback flavors, for which I will always hold a special fondness, but branching out of my comfort zone with unusual spices, meat cuts, and produce keeps things interesting, and more times than not, winds up creating new favorites.
Such is the case with this Jamaican oxtail stew—a heavenly dish, with research turning up more of a cult following than I expected—which combines not only less-familiar flavors, but also a cut of meat that doesn’t get much love in the US.
Let’s start with the oxtail. And yes, it’s just what it sounds like: pieces of cross-cut tail, meaty and threaded with connective tissue, all surrounding a thick rope of cartilage. This might sound a bit strange to the less adventurous, but what it translates to is rich, deeply flavorful, fatty meat, and a ton of collagen. Because of the dense flesh and connective tissue, it must be cooked low and slow, leading to fall-off-the-bone tenderness, similar to a cross-cut shank in texture and appearance. (In fact, shank would be a great substitute here, should you be unsuccessful in procuring oxtail.) I like to prepare my oxtails with pieces from both the base of the tail, where the meat is most plentiful, as well as those towards the tip, where there is more cartilage, to maximize the nutritious, medicinal collagen.
Jamaican cuisine is unfamiliar to many, and I find its complex and unique flavors to be very intriguing. It shares similarities with many other ethnic cuisines from around the globe, yet the traditional spices spin their dishes into something quite unusual. This stew combines some traditional flavors associated with Indian curries, fused with classic Jamaican spices, like allspice and nutmeg, to create a dish wholly its own—deeply aromatic, with a bit of a kick.
Most of my experience with the cuisines of the region have been through my own experimentation, but I can guess that much of Jamaican food is quite spicy, as their usual hot pepper of choice is the Scotch Bonnet, a small orange pepper similar in heat levels to a habanero. Though I am a fan of a little heat in my food, I really don’t like it so spicy I can’t taste the complexities within, so I usually opt for a milder heat level from red pepper flakes, cayenne, serrano peppers, or the like. These are all more easily managed to suit my tolerance.
If you do opt for fresh scotch bonnet, or any other hot pepper, for that matter, practice caution by wearing gloves and thoroughly washing all utensils and cutting boards after handling.
I like to cook this in my countertop slow-cooker to save space and energy. It works great in the oven or even simmered on the stovetop as well. However you prepare it, as with all stewed items, this dish actually gets better if prepared ahead of time, to allow the flavors to really blend. The oxtails can also contain a lot of fat as well, and chilling can make it easier to skim excess fat that solidifies on top, a bonus when cooking the day before serving. Serve with rice and beans, for a customary accompaniment, if you’d like.
Jamaican Oxtail Stew
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 3-8 hours, depending on cooking method
Beef tallow or other fat of choice
3 pounds oxtail, some meaty, some smaller, cut into 2–inch pieces
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons ginger, peeled and minced
1 bunch green onions, chopped
4 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
2 teaspoons curry powder
1 scotch bonnet pepper, minced OR ½ – 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes; ¼ – ½ teaspoon cayenne; or 1 serrano pepper, seeded and minced. Adjust hot pepper to your liking
¾ teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons tamari or other fermented soy sauce
- If using the oven, preheat to 300°F.
- Season oxtails liberally with salt and pepper. Heat tallow over medium-high heat in a heavy pan and brown oxtails in batches. Transfer to a slow cooker or heavy–lidded casserole, like a Dutch oven, as each batch cooks.
- Once all oxtails have been browned, add onion to pan and cook until golden, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, ginger, and green onion. Cook 2 minutes. Add all herbs and spices, cook 1 minute, until fragrant. Stir in tomato paste, Worcestershire, and tamari. Add 1 cup water and bring to a simmer, scraping up browned bits in the pan with a wooden spoon. Transfer onion mixture to pot with the oxtails. Stir to combine, then add just enough water to cover the oxtails.
- If cooking in oven, cover oxtails and bring to a boil on stovetop. Transfer covered pot to oven and cook until very tender, about 3 hours. If using stovetop, cover and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until tender, about 3 hours. Add water to pot to keep oxtails mostly covered, if liquid seems to be evaporating too much. If using slow-cooker, cook on low until very tender, about 7-10 hours, depending on your cooker.
- To finish: Serve immediately. Remove meat from cartilage, if desired.
- If making in advance, chill stew in a large bowl set in a sink of ice water until cool, then refrigerate overnight. Reheat over medium-low heat on stovetop.
Image from Briana Goodall.