The Perfect Storm

oxtail stew.jpg
Hauntingly good stew.
There are some recipes that just stick with you.

A little over a year ago, I went to a dinner featuring Bluebird Grain Farms that was cooked up by chef Ethan Stowell and crew at Tavolata. All the food was very good I'm sure, but I can only tell you that there was an oxtail stew that blew me away. It was earthy and sweet from farro and carrots, with unctuous, silken shreds of meat and a deep beefy flavor. I liked the dish so much that I immediately started making a low-rent version of it at home using beef stew meat. My knock-off version was good enough to make it into regular dinner rotation, but the original haunted me.

A month later, still thinking about the stew, I asked Stowell for the recipe under the selfless (and utterly false) premise of wanting to share it with readers of this blog. Unfortunately, at the time he recipe was slated for his soon-to-be published cookbook and therefore off-limits. Stowell was nice enough to write a similar recipe, this one using lamb shanks, but I never made it. Time passed. Life went on. Summer banished the hearty, cold weather stew from my mind.

But when I unpacked the first box of vegetables from our winter CSA from Whistling Train Farm a few weeks ago and saw a big, beautiful bunch of Russian Red kale and bundle of bright carrots, something inside me awoke. Remembering the oxtails I had tucked away in the freezer, I became suddenly giddy. I realized that Stowell's cookbook, New Italian Kitchen, had recently been published. It was the perfect storm: oxtails at the ready, fresh winter vegetables, the recipe made public. I could now--finally!--make The Stew.

Before I went to bed that night, I put the oxtails on the counter to thaw. The next day, I walked down to Elliott Bay to have a look at the recipe and commit it to memory (as a former independent bookseller, I felt guilty about "spying" and not buying, but as a poorly paid freelance writer, I got over that guilt quickly). The recipe, "Oxtail Soup with Farro and Root Vegetables," seemed straightforward and simple enough, though there was no kale listed, and it called for parsnip and celery root, ingredients I didn't remember from the soup I had at Tavolata. But when I remembered that I had both parsnips and celery root still lurking in the crisper from our final summer CSA box, the recipe seemed nothing less than fated.

And so that night, at long last, I finally made the oxtail stew for a few friends visiting from out of town. I added the kale anyway, just because it felt right. I thought I knew what to expect, but I was happily surprised. In the middle of a spoonful that I thought would be marked by the bite of parsnip, I was surprised instead by the mellow rush of celeraic. The soup tasted even better than I had hoped it would; the cool weather had rendered the kale remarkably sweet. When I brought it to the table the stew had filled our big cast iron pot to the brim, but by the end of the night, it sat empty.

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