05 March 2012

queue de boeuf à l'haïtienne

When I read the Knipples' book The World in a Skillet, many all of the recipes made me hungry. However, one jumped out as the dish I'd have to try first. I've never had Haitian food before: check. I love oxtails and habaneros: double check. Opportunity to make hot sauce for the first time: check. Eight hours of marinating plus six hours of cooking: be still my beating heart.

Haiti is the western half of the island Hispanola, and notoriously the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It became independent from France in 1804 following a slave rebellion led by Toussaint Louverture. Haiti has had a complicated and sad history that would take far too long to tell here. The US hasn't exactly been a friend of the country for most of the past 200 years, with the embargoes and refusal to acknowledge a sovereign Haiti for most of the 19th century and the US military occupation from 1915-1934. Today, most Haitian immigrants are in South Florida or in large cities like New York. Though I've met a few Haitians in my lifetime, there's not much of a presence either in people or food here in Memphis.

This recipe has three parts: a habanero hot sauce, a marinade, and the actual braising of the oxtails. I made the marinade first. Known as epis, you take herbs and garlic and oil and vinegar and onion and other goodies and make a thin pesto. This can be used either for marinating pieces of meat or as a flavorful punch up to other recipes. The recipe called for parsley as the main herb, but I decided to go with the variation listed in the sidebar and use cilantro instead. Since I'd already alienated several people with the hot peppers and the offal, I decided to go all the way and make myself happy with yet another contentious ingredient. Saturday evening I rinsed the oxtails, covered them in epis and let them sit overnight.

(As an aside, I completely shut down a lane at the grocery store with the purchase of oxtails and habaneros. Neither were labeled, neither had SKUs on the cheat sheet, and clearing up both took a solid 15 minutes as I apologized to the customers behind me and tried to explain to the poor checkout girl why I enjoyed eating chopped up cow tails. This is not the first time this has happened to me, and it won't be the last.)

Making the habanero hot sauce was my next adventure that night. Eight habaneros, a carrot, half an onion, a little white wine vinegar and sugar and the juice of two limes. Blend until smooth. Now, the recipe was responsible and suggested wearing gloves. I've never really had a problem processing peppers before, but I've never made hot sauce or used an open bowl with a stick blender with hot peppers before. Not a great idea. The capsaicin became aerosolized and I got a nice zingy dose to the nose, lungs, and most of my exposed skin. I'm still stinging a bit in places, but the upside is that my sinuses are clearer than they've been since I was born.

I made enough to fill three of these little tubs. One was used with Sunday dinner and the other two were sealed and sent to the CDC in Atlanta and the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology in Koltsovo, Novosibirsk Oblast, Russia (Вектор).

If you decide to do this, use an enclosed blender or food processor, wear gloves, and maybe goggles and a mask. And if you're in the habit of wiping your hands on a kitchen towel after chopping vegetables, go ahead and toss that towel in the washer before a roommate or family member happens to come by and use it. The resulting sauce is thick and bright--almost unnaturally orange, though I didn't add anything artificial to it. Definitely hot but with that sweet habanero flavor and good balancing from the limes' acidity and the carrot's additional sugar.

I started the third part (the braising) around ten in the morning on Sunday. Put the oxtails in the Dutch oven, add a can of tomato sauce and a little water, and bring to a slow boil. Remove from the stovetop and put the entire thing in the oven for six hours. I skipped the last part involving browning the oxtails with onions and tomato paste--everything was browned and nicely tender and caramelized and any further cooking would just ruin things.

I threw a little turmeric in the rice, and have to say that the meat was incredible. Tender and flavorful and full of intense elements from the bones and fat and everything else. The hot sauce was still good on the second day but milder and fruitier. Julia, having her first encounter with oxtails said, "Tastes like pot roast, but not as stringy." I'm impressed with the recipe but in the future I'll probably roast at a lower temperature and add some things like beer or chicken broth or white wine to the braising liquid. The habanero hot sauce is delicious, but I'm going to need a new set of friends to share that level of heat.


fredric koeppel said...

yer my hero... great post.

Benito said...


Let us not forget that the best oxtails I ever had were at your table with some well-aged wines. They're good eatin' and I don't know why people get so weird about them.


Paul M. Jones said...

Oh my God I'm DYING over here. Sounds absolutely fantastic.

Benito said...


I love a good mess of oxtails, and I think I've made them for you once or twice. Also quite good braised in beer and beef broth for four or five hours.