In particular, when around my daughter, I’ve found myself tiptoeing around the fact that things die. You know, Peep and Quack? On that show you like so much? We’re eating them for dinner. The cow we say goodnight to? Along with the moon and all those other things in that goddamn book? Lunch tomorrow. These are jokes I clearly would have made 5 years ago. But now, I’m worried I’ll freak her out. More importantly, I’m worried that she’ll stop eating those things.
So I’ve done things like verbally edit Esme’s storybooks for content. In particular, the scene in Babar, in which the protagonist’s mother is killed by poachers. Or that scene in Snow White, when the Prince, traveling through the forest, falls madly in love with what he knows to be the rotting corpse of a 14-year-old girl. I suggest that, possibly, Snow White is sleeping. Leave it to one of Esme’s classmates to bring me back with a dose of reality:
“No. She’s dead,” she says, matter-of-factly. She smiles, then gives me a reassuring nod. “She’s dead!”
I think back to when I was Esme’s age, and ask whether my parents ever tried to shield me from the concept of death. I doubt that it was ever a concern. From a young age, I was aware that three of my grandparents weren’t living. I heard lots of Bible stories; plenty of death going on there. And there was never any mistaking where my food came from. Meat was almost always cooked on the bone. Fish was served with the skin and head on. I regularly ate feet, stomachs, and livers. It did not once bother me that my favorite soup involved eating the tail of Babe the Blue Ox.
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Kkori Gomtang (Korean Oxtail Soup)
A childhood staple, this soup continues to warm the soul during our frigid San Francisco summers. If you’ve never worked with oxtail, you might be concerned that it’s hard to find. It’s not. Most grocery stores and butchers carry it. Sections of oxtail are almost always cut at the joint. This is how I prefer it, so that the cartilage caps* are left intact. In rare cases, the tail sections are saw cut. If that’s all that’s available to you, don’t fret. They’ll work fine for this soup.
6 – 8 sections of oxtail (about 3 lbs)
optional: 1/2 – 1 lb chuck or flank steak
3 cloves of garlic, peeled
1 medium onion, sliced in half
1 tsp whole black peppercorns
kosher or sea salt
3 scallions, thinly sliced
optional: toasted kim (also called nori, or laver)
steamed white rice
Trim any obvious chunks of fat from the oxtail sections. I don’t bother trimming the silverskin. It adds to the broth and is easy to remove later if you don’t want to eat it. Soak the oxtail in ice water for 1 – 2 hours to remove residual blood. Drain, and discard the water.
Add oxtail to a large stockpot with 12 C of water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 3 – 5 hours, skimming impurities. The broth will reduce by about half. Add boiling water if it reduces more quickly than that. When done, the meat will easily pull away from the bone. Remove oxtail segments (keeping them intact) and refrigerate overnight.
Add chuck/flank steak (if you have it), garlic, onion, and peppercorns to the broth, bring to a boil, and simmer over low heat for 1 hour, skimming impurities. Remove meat and reserve for other uses. Strain the broth through a fine chinois or cloth and discard other solids. Season the broth with salt, allow it to cool completely, and refrigerate overnight.
Depending on how thoroughly you skimmed, you may or may not see a solid layer of fat atop the cooled broth. If so, remove it and discard. Add oxtails and broth to a stock pot and boil until heated through.
Serving Traditionally, this soup is cooked without salt or pepper and seasoned at the table. I prefer to serve it already seasoned, as described above. Ladle one section of oxtail with broth per person and garnish with sliced scallion and (optionally) kim. Serve with white rice.
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Don’t be afraid to get a little messy. I can’t resist picking the bone clean with fingers and chopsticks, and then devouring the meat with a sprinkle of sea salt.
*On each end of an oxtail segment, there’s a cartilage cap that easily comes loose when it’s been cooked this long. I used to fight for these and scrape the softened cartilage with my teeth. These days, I don’t have to fight quite so hard for them. But they are still ritual.
Maybe, when confronted with the facts, Esme will one day decide not to eat meat. It’s comforting to be reminded that I don’t need to conceal those facts. God help me if I ever catch myself pulling pin bones out of a salmon fillet.