Roman Oxtail and Cous Cous – Fusion, Confusion and Creativity

14AWhen I hear or overhear people enthusiastically call themselves ‘creative’ cooks, I
confess that, unless the person in question is young (under twenty) I tend to shudder inwardly; outwardly, I try to change the subject of conversation if need be.   I know what will happen next and that is that, very often, all things ‘creative’ will now veer towards, or become equated with, ‘fusion’ — for an amusing and cautionary article on fusion food, read the following:

At the risk of being labelled ‘somewhat conservative’ at best, or a downright stick-in-the-mud gastronomic dinosaur at worst, I have to admit that change for the sake of change is, in my opinion, best left to chefs who know what they are doing, who have had a suitable amount of hands-on experience and who have travelled and tasted dishes as they are supposed to taste in the country of their origin.

When cooking, and often with the benefit of a glass of wine infusing our veins, we all indulge in adding a bit of this, adding a bit of that, and making things up a little as we go along – and that is to be welcomed and absolutely fine !  It is a breath of fresh air in the kitchen and keeps our batteries going.  (It also explains why someone like me will never amount to much as a baker.  Baking is a serious profession and allows for no ‘tweaking’ – baking rules exist for a reason and they cannot be breached.)

So what am I attempting to get at … ?

I think what I am trying to say is that, much though home cooking should and often does entail a lot of fun, a person is not going to become an adequately good home cook unless he or she practises cooking regularly and develops his or her palate by tasting good food either at other people’s homes or in good restaurants.

It’s a bit like going to school, you need to learn you ABC before you can spell properly.  Reliable magazines can be bought and relied upon, too, naturally, and if expense is an issue … the internet is full of recipes that can be referenced.  Trying out recipes can be fun in and of itself!  So I think that sometimes those people who gush and pride themselves on being ‘creative’ cooks are … enthusiastic, yes …. inventive and spontaneous … that too … but … a little, ahem, lazy.  And a wee bit presumptuous also with regard to all those other cooks who have put in hours and hours of practice to get a recipe just right.  Put it this way, you’ll rarely hear a good cook (an adequately good cook that is, and not necessarily the best !) define themselves as being ‘creative’.   The act of cooking itself is … creative per se.

Fusion cooking? Mmmm … very dangerous ground and mostly a disappointment to my mind.  I’ve not had the opportunity to taste the excellence of fusion food as invented by the three Michelin-starred superchef and master of fusion, Jean-Georges Vongerichten.  To date, the best I have been able to taste was in Boston, at Myers and Chang (  Last year, I had the most gorgeous mussels experience of my life there … they came with lemongrass, ginger, spring onions and goodness knows what else without them somehow tasting exclusively Thai.  They were Thai … and more!  The waiter, bless him, did give me a rough account of the recipe but I had drunk too many celebratory cocktails that evening to remember it the day after.  This year I thought I would repeat the pleasure but was told it had been struck off their menu.  When asking for something similar on their new menu … I was served a fusion version of what I daresay was a take on an Italian mussel dish called ‘impepata di cozze’ or else on French moules.


Here is the photo.  It looked nice enough, it tasted … okay.  But the bread to be dunked in a soup made up of oriental spices, to me, just didn’t work … and the dish was neither here nor there.  The balance of ‘oiliness was missing’.  Olive oil in Italian mussels, butter and cream in French mussels.  Boo hoo.  (I am one of those people who can cry if they are served disappointing food.  And by the way, rest assured, I did NOT cry … everything else we ate that evening was truly delicious and I was having fun in lovely company.)  I am just making a point: a fusion = confusion point. Which brings me to today’s recipe and my foray into this gastronomic minefield.

Don’t ask me what prompted me want to make a Near-East/North African version of the very Roman oxtail dish known as ‘coda alla vaccinara’.  Number one.  Number two … to want to accompany the oxtail with cous cous cooked in the oxtail’s stock.  It all sounded so logical, so different, so nice, so new, so … ‘creative’ dare I say!  So very Yottam Ottolenghi of me, tee hee !  I don’t know whether you can be bothered to follow me at this point, after such a long preamble to the recipe.  So … because I don’t like wasting time either … all I can confide, recipe wise, is that I don’t think I shall bother making this recipe again.  Just like the mussels dish mentioned above, it tasted okay.

1 2 The oxtail … cut up for me by the butcher.3 I used a pressure cooker.  Oxtail takes forever to cook and a pressure cooker can save the day. I put lots of celery and an onion in the cooker.


A few tomatoes.  A good pinch of salt.  And that was it.  Oh .. and probably some peppercorns … I always put peppercorns in a stew.
5 And here was the oxtail, fully cooked in its stock, about 40 minutes later.  Set aside.6 Spices … coriander, a cous cous mix of spices, and a single clove (I didn’t want to overdo it with the cloves).7 And here is the first ‘surprising’ and ‘creative’ ingredient vis-à-vis any traditional cous cous (how dow you spell it? is it ‘cus cus’ or is it ‘cous cous’ ? Oh never mind …).  Meaning, that cous cous is enjoyed by both moslem and jewish populations who naturally shun pork – in this case, guanciale or cured jowl – as a taboo food.8 In a heavy casserole saucepan, I began by stewing some lovely red onion in plenty of olive oil.9 I then added the guanciale, cut into small strips.10 And after the guanciale had rendered its fat, I added the spice mix.10A Remember our pressure cooker and its contents?11 I transferred the oxtail meat and bone from the pressure cooker to the casserole.12 I turned the heat up so that the oxtail would brown a little.13 I opened a can of plum tomatoes …14 And added them to the oxtail stew.  In some respects, one could call this an …. oxtail amatriciana sauce !  Except that I also added whole cloves of garlic (you are not supposed to put garlic in an amatriciana sauce so you, dear reader, can see how adventurous I was getting, breaking all kinds of rules, huh!).


And this is how I served the oxtail stew eventually … with an addition of fresh herbs – oregano by the looks of it.
15 Okay … and now back to the cous cous.  Remember the stock?  I strained it.16 I put the cous cous in the same casserole saucepan that had just finished cooking the oxtail.17 I added the stock … mixed it in, covered it with a lid and basically followed the cooking instructions on the cous cous packet.18 While the cous cous was plumping up, I ventured to cut a celery stick into chunky sizes.  To add freshness.19 And here was the cus cus, containing some raw celery within it, and sporting some celery leaves on its surface.20 21 22

Oh … and what I didn’t mention was that I had to make polenta for favourite son because .  Now … yet ANOTHER breaking of boundaries on my part.  Oxtail all’amatriciana served with either spicy cous cous or plain polenta.  Creative anyone?


About myhomefoodthatsamore

Community celebration via food, wine and all beautiful things.
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12 Responses to Roman Oxtail and Cous Cous – Fusion, Confusion and Creativity

  1. Jo, that looks and sounds delicious! But I’m with you on fusion generally … not a fan … even for family I generally try to keep to an Italian/French/Moroccan meal and not mix courses let alone the actual main event! But I know that in the hands of a true professional master it can work well. A very happy new year to you!! xx

  2. gareth jones says:

    Hahaha – fusion / confusion – cus-cus or cuss cuss!! Next time to London you must meet Peter Gordon – a friend since he arrived here from New Zealand. I reel when I hear words like lemon grass. As ever, JW strikes it hot. Can’t wait for our next coda together. Rachel Roddy – listen up! Ciao, ciao XX

  3. Have to admit I’m not keen on oxtail, as it’s too earthy for me. With spices I definitely wouldn’t try it. How did you like this? I certainly enjoyed your honesty throughout the post. Oh, as for baking; rules, as long as you know the rules in the first place, can be broken. I do it all the time. But it’s knowing when it’s possible to do so, and get away with it.
    Happy New Year!

    • Ciao Johnny ! How did I like this? It was … okay. For all the work I put into it, the taste range just did not match up to expectations – hence the fusion-confusion outcome. Oxtail cooked the Roman way (with the addition of cocoa or chocolate) is something else, and most satisfying ! I am glad you appreciate my honesty … I think honesty in the kitchen is paramount, don’t you? Starting with the ingredients … When I used to read your blog regularly, I was most intrigued by your experimental approach to preparing dishes. You always took such care, you always had a good reason for this or that choice of ingredient (sometimes the weather had something to do with it even, sometimes the availability of an ingredient in your area – all bloody good reasons). It was most definitely ‘creative’ and inspiring … but one could see that you knew what you were doing, and that you weren’t tooting your horn as it were. I definitely need some lessson in baking. Who knows? maybe one of these days I could learn with you? All the best, Johnny, for the coming new year 🙂

  4. Loved this post, Jo. I’m with you on con-fusion – though Thai mussels are delicious but with those wide flat noodles to slurp up the spicy, lemony coconut sauce. I, too, could cry when I am served badly prepared food – I remember ordering scrambled eggs one morning, not having eaten since lunch the day before. We were in an upmarket cafe in Soho. What arrived was a watery mess which upon enquiry, had been cooked in the microwave. With my bottom lip quivering (and low blood sugar!) I sent it back and like a matyr refused to order anything else! Happy New Year, Jo! All the very best for 2015 xx

  5. Hi there
    Fusion is a very dangerous ground..but I think the craze for fusion is over, judging from newspaper recipes and columns…what is unfortunately still here, at least in the uk, is often a lack of researching into the historical and cultural background of food and a too often quick’n easy approach that often dumbs food down.
    Ps to become a true ottolenghi style recipe you would have needed 222 more ingredients! …kidding if course, I like the guy. Stefano

  6. I’m totally in the same camp as you are when it comes to “creative” cookery. It takes a lot of knowledge and experience to come up with something that really works. But I think you’ve hit the jackpot with this one. Looks amazing!

  7. Pingback: Six Categories of Foods Rule – My Spaghetti Verrigni Recipe with Artichokes, Prawns, Pancetta and Pecorino | Frascati Cooking That's Amore

  8. Pingback: A Telling Tale about Oxtail – The Delicious Vagaries of Coda alla Vaccinara | Frascati Cooking That's Amore

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