The preparation is relatively long, requiring a couple of hours’ preliminary work and, in all, some 6 hours’ attention on the following day, the last 2 of which should be more or less undivided. The result is attractive but unprepossessing in appearance; the flavors are sumptuous, well worth the time spent. Served cold, it is an altogether different experience—and at least as good. If a section is left over, choose a small oval terrine just large enough to contain it without forcing; if to be unmolded, line the bottom with the remaining braised vegetables and braising liquid, placing the section of tail on this bed; if to be sliced and served directly from the terrine, place the meat first in the bottom, pouring vegetables and juices atop, then pour over to cover the remaining reduced stock —doctored with a bit of sherry if desired—and refrigerate for a day.
It is of the greatest importance that the stock be undersalted, for it will be subjected to not only a reduction by half, doubling its salt content, but also a subsequent and continuing reduction during the final braising process. See its preparation: It can cook longer than a veal stock; maximum flavor will have been drawn from the ingredients after about 4 hours’ cooking time, but the bones will continue to release their gelatin for several hours longer. I usually put it to cook as soon as the tail is boned, simmering it for 3, 4, or 5 hours, leave it to cool overnight, degrease it, add more water if necessary, and simmer it for several hours longer before straining it.
The truffle may be eliminated from the stuffing (a breath of its soul will be sacrificed); mushrooms or duxelles may be added, but should not be thought of as a substitute, for they bear no relation, one to the other. If the truffle is retained, best prepare the stuffing the previous day, refrigerating it overnight, so that its perfume may permeate the mixture.
The size and shape of the cooking vessels should both correspond to those of the stuffed tail, that used for poaching the wrapped and tied tail representing about twice the volume of the oval cocotte used for the final braising; the flesh shrinks radically during the first cooking process, and when braised (further shrinking is imperceptible) it should be contained in a receptacle permitting partial immersion by a minimum of reduced stock.
To Bone an Oxtail
In guise of instruction, the cookbooks say, “Bone an oxtail without piercing the flesh.” The practitioner who is able to bone an oxtail without ever piercing the flesh is a rare bird; I know none. The flesh is tough and sinuous and the cartilaginous extremities of the vertebral joints are not tender and easily sliced through as in smaller and younger animals. Even using a small, razor-sharp, and sharply pointed paring knife (a boning knife is too large to work with precision), it is practically impossible to avoid the knife’s slipping from time to time. Furthermore, as one progresses down the tail, the spinal protuberances themselves often tend to pierce the flesh’s surface, sheathed only by a taut, tough and sheer membrane. The lesson to be drawn from this is not to worry; do the best you can, but do not imagine that a few slits here and there are a disaster.
Only the first six joints are boned, the terminal third of the tail (8 or 10 inches) being cut off and joined to the bones for preparing the stock. The vertebral extremities touch the surface of the flesh on the top and on the underside the entire length of the tail; the sides, at the upper half, are fleshy and pose no problem. The tail should be boned from the underside, slit open, following a median line described by the points at which the bones touch the flesh’s surface. It is useless to attempt to describe the complex form of the bones to be removed (there are five major protrusions to each vertebra whose contours should be closely followed); the first and largest at the fleshy base of the tail is easily removed and can be studied, the better to know what to expect from the succeeding and progressively smaller units. The cartilaginous attachment at each joint is easily sliced through and each bone should be removed as it is freed from the flesh. Work mostly with the tip of the knife, scraping and keeping the blade tip always in contact with the bone—go carefully when approaching the flesh surface and, as soon as bone gives way to cartilage, slice through, leaving the cartilage embedded in the flesh. The boned tail, its tip cut off, should describe an elongated triangle some 10 to 12 inches wide at the fleshy base and 18 to 20 inches in length.