The day I turned legal for a scooter I pleaded with him for one. He stalled. I rounded my most doe-like eyes and asked "Don't you trust me, daddy?" knowingly straddling that line between sweet and indignant which I knew would tug at his heart and mind, both of which, I also knew, had to be in concord for him to cave.
"I'll always trust you - he answered - I just do not trust others." I was more tenacious than he was mistrustful, and eventually I got my scooter. The other promise, the one to always trust me, he always kept without question.
The last time he visited New York's Memorial Hospital in 2004 for his cancer treatments, he asked for my company. I flew in from San Francisco, glowing and round with 7-months of baby in my belly. I asked him what he wanted. He said he had been jonesing to cook coda alla vaccinara - Roman style oxtail stew and that he wanted to do so in a clay pot.
My belly and I taxied all over Manhattan, chasing what we needed. Each tool finally found, each ingredient successfully purveyed seemed to keep the fast approaching end of my father's life at bay. Somewhere in there, I found the time to acquire the perfect dress for an oxtail-eating pregnant woman: a form-fitting, tobacco brown stretchy sheath with a big and bright red dot positioned to showcase my round stomach.
After I returned, victorious, to the apartment father was renting just a block away from Sloan Kettering, we made a round of overseas phone calls to various expert sources: mothers, aunts, sisters, cooks trained by grandmothers. I organized the information and sat in prenatal yoga pose with a book, aware that my father did not feel kindly toward interferences while cooking. He asked me, instead, to make the coda, an unusual show of trust for anyone who knew my father, and yet for me one more link in the chain of the unspoken emotional and intellectual chemistry which had always gathered the two of us.
The dish turned out exquisite, as love is always a surefire ingredient for the success of anything in the kitchen, I say. We sat and ate and chatted, forgetting why we were where we were. I spilled a forkful of coda right on the red dot of my oxtail eating dress while we were laughing, for reasons I now forget. The stain never came off, but I kept wearing the dress all the way through labor pains and delivery, as if that dot in my dot rooted the future into the world of love I was reared in.
March 19 is Fathers' Day in Italy, aptly celebrated the same day as St.Joseph's, who, for Italians, defines the no-matter-whatness of fatherly love. Sweet fritters and beignets of all sorts and flavors are made all over the country. But for me, coda alla vaccinara will always be the dish to which I celebrate the extraordinary luck of being born my father's daughter.
Coda alla Vaccinara Oxtail in celery and tomato sauce
for 6 people 2 small onions 4 cloves 2 carrots 1 head celery 2 bay leaves 3 peppercorns salt 1 oxtail 1 beef cheek black pepper 2 tablespoons fatback 1 garlic clove 1 handful parsley 2 tablespoons lard 2/3 cup red wine 1 cup tomato puree
Peel one onion and spike it with the cloves. Peel and chunk one carrot and one celery stalk. Place the vegetables in a pot with the bay leaves, peppercorns and a small handful of salt. Cover with cold water and bring to a boil.
In the meantime, chunk the oxtail and cheek and rinse them. Mince the remaining onion, carrot, garlic clove, parsley and fatback together.
Place the meat chunks in the boiling water and when the water comes back to the boil, fish them out. Pat dry them and generously season them with salt and pepper.
Melt the lard in a heavy bottomed saucepan. Add the oxtail and cheek and brown gently to a golden color.
Remove the meat chunks and add the minced ingredients with a generous pinch of salt. Saute until soft and lightly caramelized.
Put the oxtail back in the saucepan and deglaze everything with the red wine.
Dilute the tomato puree in a pint of warm water and pour over the tail. Cover and braise very gently and slowly for 4 hours.
In the meantime, tear off the outer fibrous celery stalks until you are left with the inner heart, the stalks of which are thinner, tenderer and a greenish to yellowish white in color.
Cut each tender stalk in half lengthwise then cut each half stalk in 2" sticks. Boil the celery sticks in the same boiling water where used to blanch the meat. Drain and set aside.
Four hours into the braising, add the cooked celery and put back on the low, gentle heat for another 30 to 45 minutes.
Transfer the meat chunks to a warm serving platter and cover with aluminum foil to keep warm.
Let the sauce rest for 10 to 15 minutes, then skim the fat that floats to the surface. The sauce should be dense, dark and VERY flavorful sauce. If it seems too thick, dilute it slightly with 1 or 2 tablespoons of the blanching water.
Pour the warm sauce over the meant and serve. Note that leftovers can be picked off the bones shredded and served as a sauce to rigatoni topped by grated pecorino.
- You can save the outer stalks of the celery for uses in soups, stocks, gratins, salads, etc. If you can find it, Chinese celery (known as sedano fino in Italy) is ideal for this dish. It is tenderer than its regular big brother and has a smell more similar to celery seeds and celery root. It is sometimes available in farmers’ market or local ethnic markets.
- Coda alla vaccinara is a peasant dish made with what the tables of rich families disdained. Discovered by the aristocracy, it saw the addition of some rarefied ingredients.
- There are later versions that include one or all cocoa powder, pine nuts and raisins. Purists scoff at those, though in my opinion and experience, they can be perfectly delicious. I listen to my mood when I cook: if it feels chocolaty and nutty and raisiny, then I yield to it. When in a more somber disposition, I stick to the basic recipe.
- If you add cocoa powder (2 tbsps for the above proportions) mix it with a few tablespoons of the blanching water and stir into the hot cooking sauce before it drapes the meat on the platter. Raisins and/or pine nuts can be added in a quantity that suits your taste for them at the same time as the boiled celery sticks.