While it has long been an offal dish associated with the diet of the rural poor, cow tail is nowadays just as likely to turn up on gourmet metropolitan menus, and has been a perennial staple in Italy, the Caribbean, and parts of Asia. This modern connoisseur’s cut is equally high in protein and fat, making it an ideal base for rich, gluey stews and full-bodied broths. The dish is still referred to most commonly as ox tail, a legacy of the era when the tails of working mature bullocks only were used. Today, cow tails are just as likely to be selected, although the traditional name still lingers.
Sometimes hard to find, cow tail is usually sold ready-cut by the butcher, with the tail chopped into small cross sections, each one a vertebrae with a clearly defined knuckle roughly the diameter of a quarter. Since the tail will produce a lot of oil during cooking, first trim off any excess fat, taking care to leave what little meat there is on the bone. For best results, season the raw tail and marinate in lemon juice, then pat dry with a towel. Toss the tail sections in flour and brown in a skillet, removing them from the heat when slightly crispy at the edges.
Cow tail is tough and bony, and requires an extended cooking time at a low temperature, with copious amounts of stock. Simmer in red wine with plenty of strong herbs, or braise in the oven at around 350 F for up to four hours. The tail is almost impossible to overcook, becoming increasingly gelatinous until it slides off the bone at the first touch of a fork. For all its cooking time, cow tail yields relatively little meat. The appeal instead is the rich fat, soft meat and succulent marrow. Pair the chopped tail with winter vegetables or pulses, robust starches, and strong aromatics, and allow the fats to form a rich, thick gravy.
Two alternative methods for cooking cow tail occupy opposite ends of the spectrum. If time is short, transferring the stew to a pressure cooker and boiling on the stove top will cut cooking times by around two-thirds -- but the dish calls out for slow cooking. A cow tail stew that has simmered over several hours at lower temperature will be indulgently rich and aromatic, although some of the oil will need to be removed from the surface.
Cow tail is a ubiquitous dish in Jamaican, Hawaiian and Korean cuisine, complemented in each case by varying degrees of spices, pickles and seasoning. In the Caribbean, expect some heat from Scotch bonnet peppers, while in Asia the cow tail might turn up as a clearer soup with strong ginger and scallion flavors. For a cow tail soup, the cooked meat is scraped from the bone, lightly chopped, and returned to the stock, with the bones discarded. A transferable tip in all cases is to allow the stew or soup to chill overnight in the fridge and remove the hardened fat that collects on the surface the next day while still cold, reheating as necessary.