Rabo Encendido is Cuba’s version of Spain’s Rabo de Toro. With the mass Spanish emigration to Cuba, it’s no wonder Spain greatly influenced Cuban cuisine. I would say Rabo Encendido is in the top five iconic Cuban dishes of all time and every family has their own recipe. This dish is so popular, you would be hard pressed to find a Cuban restaurant in Miami that doesn’t serve it. I made it in honor of my mother on her 81st birthday.
The name literal means “fiery oxtail”. Cuba grows two of the hottest peppers – Scotch Bonnets and Habanero peppers. While I’m sure some parts of the island cooks with them, I don’t know of any recipes that call for them, including Rabo Encendido. Unlike Mexican cuisine, Cuban food isn’t really spicy, but if you want to make this a truly fiery dish, add Scotch Bonnets at your own risk. I think one should do the trick. I personally recommend just placing some Tabasco sauce on the table instead.
This recipe is so good, you won’t miss any “fire”. The oxtails are slow braised for hours in wine and beer with lots of spices and aromatics. The beef is fall-off-the-bone tender and the bold sauce is perfectly delicious! Serve it over a little white rice with fried sweet plantains and a watercress salad for a perfect meal.
HISTORY OF RABO ENCENDIDO
Bullfighting can be traced to the Roman Empire. In Spain it dates as far back as 711 A.D. In a bull fight, if the bull wins, he is pardoned, but if he loses, he’s taken to the slaughterhouse and the meat would make its way to local butcher shops and restaurants. Since ancient times, finding ways to make the most of any animal was common practice. That’s how we get stock, blood sausage, tripe and so many other edible and non-edible animal products.
Rabo de Toro, as we know it in modern times, hails from Cordova, Spain. Spain’s influence can be seen throughout the southern states, Caribbean, Central and South America. Once considered an inexpensive meat, oxtail is now a prized cut and it comes at a hefty price – around $8 per pound. The oxtail we buy today comes from cattle, but we still refer to it as oxtail. The oxtail is similar to short ribs, so if you can eat short ribs, you can eat oxtail.
HERE’S HOW I MAKE IT
Trim the fat off of 4 lbs. of oxtails. I usually just buy 2 packages of oxtail at my local grocery store. Oxtail is very fatty, slippery and gelatinous. I recommend freezing the meat for an hour before trimming the fat, tendons and silver skin with knife. It take me close to two hours to clean the meat so I do this step the day before. It’s important to take your time so you don’t end up in the emergency room with a nasty cut.
Note: The oxtail becomes narrower toward the end and the narrow pieces are very difficult to trim. Ask your butcher for large pieces as shown below. They are easier to handle and portion per guest.
Look at the amount of fat surrounding the meat! By the time I’m done trimming, I have almost as much fat to discard as I do oxtail to cook. Some people boil their oxtail first to melt off the fat, but that method doesn’t remove tendons or silver skin so it’s not for me. You may want to give that method a go.
Once trimmed, season well with kosher salt and pepper and store in the refrigerator overnight. The next day bring the meat to room temperature an hour before cooking.
Chop the yellow onion, green bell pepper, carrots and mince/mash the garlic cloves. Have the other ingredients readily available to start cooking. Preheat oven to 325°F and place the oven rack in the middle.
Heat a 5-quart Dutch oven casserole or other heavy bottom, oven safe pot over high heat. Once hot, coat the bottom with extra virgin olive oil and slightly reduce the temperature to medium-high. Sear the oxtails on all sides. You will need to sear in batches as not to overcrowd the pan and steam the oxtail. It will take about 10-12 minutes per batch. Once done, transfer the oxtail to a bowl and set aside.
Add diced onion, green bell pepper and carrots. Sauté until onion is translucent. Stir frequently and pick up all the brown bits and pieces at the bottom of the casserole. A wooden spoon works best as it won’t harm the enamel finish and it’s sturdy enough to scrape the brown bits.
Add the garlic and sauté for an additional two minutes. Add kosher salt, black pepper, ground cumin and ground oregano and stir to combine and release the fragrances. Sautéing the vegetables and dry herbs should take about 8-10 minutes.
Add a can of tomato sauce (no salt is preferred), a bottle of Spanish red wine (Rioja or Tempranillo), half a beer bottle (I’m partial to Heineken so I can drink the rest) and a can of roasted red bell peppers (you may need to dice them if you buy them whole). Conchita label is a Cuban brand and easily found in Florida, but any roasted red bell pepper brand will do. Don’t forget to add the juices too. Stir and combine all the ingredients well.
Note: I don’t recommend “cooking wine” due to the high salt content. I prefer to use a nice Spanish table wine, but it doesn’t need to break the bank. The boldness of a rioja or tempranillo wine will enhance the sauce as the oxtail braises in the oven. Rule of thumb is if you can’t drink it, don’t cook with it.
Add the bay leaves and a packet of Sazon Goya con Azafran. If you can’t source it, substitute with a little ground turmeric for color and slightly increase the ground cumin and garlic. Return the oxtail to the casserole. I like to use a pair of tongs to securely transfer them. You want to keep them as whole as possible for presentation.
I almost forgot the Spanish olives and briny juices! As you can see, after I added 8 oxtails, the liquid came up to the brim! That’s because my casserole is a 4-quart casserole, not 5-quart. I should have checked before I started. At this point, I’m too far in so I just make it work. I placed the casserole over a baking sheet to catch any spills.
Wrap the lid in foil. This will help create a seal and make clean up much easier. Transfer to the oven and bake for 4 hours at 325°F and enjoy the rest of the beer!
Note: About an hour or so into cooking, I swapped out the baking sheet because the liquid overflowed and I didn’t want it to burn. After it stopped bubbling over, it was fine. Had I used a larger pot, I would have avoided this problem. My mishap didn’t affect the taste, smell or tenderness of the dish. No one noticed at home and I mention it now so you can see that when mistakes happen, nine times out of ten your guests won’t know – so relax, it’s not the end of the world.
After 4 hours, remove the casserole from the oven and allow it to rest for 10 minutes. The wine, beer and brine has done its job and the oxtail is fall-off-the-bone tender with a rich and very flavorful sauce.
Note: Take a look at the foil! Can you imagine having to soak and clean the lid? The foil makes clean up a breeze! The casserole on the other hand is a different story.
Using a pair of tongs, carefully transfer the oxtails to a dish so you can easily remove the fat with a ladle. Return the oxtail to the casserole or serving platter, sprinkle a little parsley and you’re ready to serve.
This dish is typically served with white rice and plantains – tostones (double fried green plantains) or maduros (fried sweet plantains). I served them today with mashed malanga and fried sweet plantains.
Rabo Encendido (Cuban Oxtail Stew)
A traditional Cuban ox tail stew that's slow cooked in wine and beer until the meat is fall off the bone tender. Traditionally served with white rice, plantains and a watercress salad.
- 4 lbs. beef oxtails, trimmed and seasoned with kosher salt and black pepper prefer Diamond kosher salt
- extra virgin olive oil to coat the bottom of the casserole
- 1 large onion, finely diced
- 1 large green bell pepper, finely diced
- 4 carrots, sliced
- 6 garlic cloves, mashed
- 1 ¼ teaspoon kosher salt prefer Diamond kosher salt
- ¾ teaspoon ground black pepper
- ¾ teaspoon ground cumin
- ¾ teaspoon ground oregano
- 1 8-ounce can no salt tomato sauce
- 1 750 ml bottle Spanish red wine, like Rioja or Tempranillo select one you would drink, but not overly expensive
- 6 ounces beer, like Heineken don't use fruit infused beers
- 1 7-ounce can roasted red peppers in juice, diced also known as pimentos morrones
- handful of Spanish olives plus some juice about ⅓-½ cup of olives plus 2 Tablespoons juice
- 1 packet Sazon Goya with Azafran substitute with ½ tsp ground turmeric and increase garlic & ground cumin
- 3 bay leaves
The day before, trim the oxtail and generously season with kosher salt and black pepper. Refrigerate overnight. Allow the meat to come to room temperature before searing, about 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 325°F and place rack in middle position.
Heat a cast iron casserole or a wide, heavy bottom pot over high heat. Add enough oil to coat the bottom of the casserole.
Reduce heat to medium-hight and sear all sides of the oxtails without overcrowding the casserole. You will need to work in batches, about 10 minutes per batch. Transfer all oxtails to a bowl and set aside.
Sauté diced onion, green bell pepper and carrots until onion is translucent. Add garlic and sauté for two minutes. Add kosher salt, black pepper, ground cumin and ground oregano. Stir to combine and release fragrance. This step will take about 8-10 minutes.
Add a can of tomato sauce, red wine, beer, diced roasted red bell peppers, Spanish olives with juice, Sazon Goya with Azafran seasoning packet and bay leaves. Stir well to combine.
Transfer the oxtail back into the casserole and cover with lid. Place in the preheated oven and bake for 4 hours.
Remove from oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Transfer the oxtail to a dish and set aside while you skim the fat from the casserole with a ladle. Transfer the oxtail back to the casserole and sprinkle with parsley.
Traditionally served with white rice and plantains.