This is not a drill.
It’s taken a while for me to clock this. When I wake in the dark to the sound of mewling, it occasionally takes a good 15 seconds for me to work through the thought processes; ‘why is there a cat in my room?’ Did we buy a cat?’ No. It’s not a cat. It’s a baby. Oh god. It’s my baby. And he needs to be fed. Again.
This is not a drill.
My still-too-skinny son is really here. True, he’s been here for four weeks now, but some things can be a slow burn of realisation.
Like the fact his head smells like an Italian antipasto platter – courtesy of the olive oil we’ve been using to soothe his skin. I ran out of the cheap stuff and reverted to my Simon Johnson supplies the other day. You do what you can.
Meanwhile his feet are surprisingly long for his slender frame. They’re best swaddled in pants with feet already attached. If he’s in socks or novelty shoes, he kicks them off, like he’s itching to get to the beach and trundle his toes through the soft sand.
And he frequently forms his hands into little fists- they still beat on my chest when he’s not being fed fast enough for his liking. But they’re just as often clenched in repose. Perhaps he’s fine tuning his stance for the martial arts he’ll eventually follow his Dad into – or maybe he’s just wrenched with fury about what’s happened to Australia’s political landscape.
This week was full of cold comfort. We hit the bottom of the joy jar- and that was even before Saturday’s election debacle. It started with a stonking virus for me. Then burst pipes in the kitchen and the mysterious upwards seep of sodden carpet. Add to that 11 crates arriving from London, with little space to unpack them and god knows what’s in them. A scary deadline looming over my head. Long days at the office for his Dad. Some grim news for one of my nearest and dearest and a desperate desire to be able to make everything all better, when in reality, there’s so little you can do that makes a real difference. Then I passed my bug to the little one. From then on the nights were even longer, punctuated by his rattled breathing and spluttering.
This is not a drill.
I’ve since learned how to use a blue squeezy balloon aspirator to plunder gunk from his small nose. I’ve administered my first dose of baby panadol. I’ve clocked hour upon hour in the IKEA rocking chair, smoothing his sweaty hair and trying to get him to feed. I’ve learned that sharing things with him includes the bad, with the good. And I’ve been informed by the baby nurse that despite all our best efforts he’s still too darn little for their liking. So there are new plans afoot of how to fatten him up- which involve pumps, powders and in their new combination stretch every feed out to a duration of nearly two hours. Hence, I’m about to jaunt down south for some proper country R and R with his Nana.
This ragu is exactly what you want to have in the freezer when you hit rock bottom. For one, oxtail is cheap and stretches well when melded with tomato- so you won’t feel quite so crummy about spending a shedload on plumbers and pipes of all descriptions. If you’ve never used oxtail, don’t shy away from it. It may have the same nose to tail credentials as offal, but doesn’t carry any of the ammonia taint or squishy textures that scare so many off. Instead it has the same gloriously meaty, lip glossing effect that you find in lamb shanks- this is meat that’s worked hard, is tethered to bone and will slowly slink away from those hard surfaces after a few hours of blipping away in a pot. In short, it will relax like a new mum given her first window of time to have a bath on her own, in four weeks. Which is quite a lot.
And unlike shin meat, or chuck (which you could easily substitute- and is used in concert here to help round out the sauce), here you’ve got the added flavour of cooking the meat on the bone.
It’s instantly adaptable- throw it through pasta, or top it with pureed white beans or mashed potato for shepherd’s pie. Sheet it with puff pastry for an instant pie, or tumble it into a toasted sandwich with provolone cheese and some fresh basil. It’s rich enough to survive a month or so in the depths of the freezer.
This is not a drill. This is real life. And thank god there’s still plenty within it that tastes darn good.
2 tbsp olive oil
1 brown onion, peeled and finely diced
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
2 ribs of celery, diced
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely diced
500 grams of beef shin/stewing beef, off the bone PLUS
800 grams (or 8 pieces) of oxtail (you could substitute for another 300-400 grams of beef)
1 cup of wine (pink, white or red- whatever is in the fridge/ on the bench)
1 bay leaf
1x 680 gram jar of tomato passata
Pinch of chilli flakes
2 tsp soft brown sugar
3 sprigs of fresh oregano
800 grams of pasta, fresh parmesan, fresh oregano leaves
Here’s how we roll
1) About 45 minutes before you start cooking- if you remember- take the meat out of the fridge so it can come to room temperature.
2) Prepare your soffrito base for the stew. Cut your onion, carrot and celery all into small dice.
2) Add a tablespoon of olive oil to the bottom of a Dutch oven/heavy bottom casserole dish and sautee your onion over a medium heat for five minutes until it has started to soften. Add the carrot and celery and garlic and sautee for another 7- 10 minutes, until the carrot has begun to soften and the onion is translucent.
3) Remove the soffrito from the pan. Add another tablespoon of olive oil and turn the heat up to medium-high. Season the oxtail and the beef well with salt and brown in batches. You want to make sure you get a good brown sear on the meat. Do this by not moving it around in the pan too much and doing it in small quantities, so it can properly burnish, not stew.
4) Remove the meat from the pan.
5) Return the soffrito to the pot. Add the wine and use a metal spoon to scrape up all of the caramelised bits of vegetable and meat which are clinging to the bottom of the pot. That’s where the flavour is. Add the bay leaf.
6) Return the meat and any juices that have seeped out to the pot, along with the tomato passata, brown sugar, chilli flakes and the sprigs of oregano. Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down to low and put the lid half on.
7) Simmer on low for a good 6-8 hours, stirring occasionally. You don’t want the meat to stick to the bottom. You don’t want the sauce to boil, just occasionally blip and burp. After six hours the beef shin should flake apart with a fork.
8) Remove the sprigs of oregano, bay leaf oxtail pieces. Pull the meat gently from the bones of the oxtail. Return all the meat to the sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning- you may want a little more sugar, salt, or chilli. If you prefer a lower-fat version, allow the sauce to cool, then skim any fat from the surface. Otherwise serve over al dente pasta (or polenta, or white bean puree) with more fresh oregano, black pepper and grated parmesan.