Every once in awhile, during the lengthy research process I employ to uncover news stories of interest to our diverse and highly knowledgeable audience, I come across what media gurus call “a bright.”
That’s a story that may not have probative news value, but it’s one that captures a person’s interest, if only because it’s usually a ways off the beaten news path. This is such a story.
Back in the 1970s, one of the fashion trends that became popular was the mock turtleneck, and unlike Nehru jackets, the leisure suits and bell bottom pants, it’s one of the few items of apparel that benighted decade spawned that has survived.
But this isn’t about mock turtlenecks, but mock turtle soup.
For those who haven’t spent much time in Louisiana — and not just Bourbon Street — turtle soup might not be at the top of your culinary wish list, should business or pleasure bring you to the Big Easy.
In southern Louisiana, turtle soup is as Cajun as the swamps are wet. Now, we’re not talking about sea turtles. The Leatherbacks and Hawksbill and Green Sea Turtles are all listed as endangered species. The turtle soup to be found on many a backwoods dinner table over the years is made from freshwater species: Hardshell turtles and two softshell turtle species.
Softshell turtles, which are designated as smooth or spiny, are highly edible, with the latter species growing “as big as a washtub,” according to Harold Dundee and Douglas Rossman, herpetologists and authors of “Reptiles and Amphibians of Louisiana.” Of course, smooth softshell turtles typically live in upland ponds and rivers, rather than southern Louisiana’s swamplands made famous in a slew of Hollywood horror and slasher movies.
The problem for would-be hunters, however, is that softshell turtles are not “slow as a turtle,” according to Dundee and Rossman. They can “run like racehorses, [and] their jaws and claws deserve respect,” they’ve written.
Most of the harvesting (trapping) of turtles is focused on Louisiana’s red-eared turtle, the “mobelian” or “streaky-head” turtle. For the average Louisianan, though, turtle meat isn’t available in the supermarket case, and unless you’re interested in trolling the local marshes, it’s not going to make the household dinner menu.
Enter the “modern” alternative: Oxtails.
According to Donald Bourgeois, proprietor of New Orleans’ Bourgeois Meat Market, oxtails make a delicious alternative to traditional turtle meat in Cajun cooking.
“When we couldn’t get turtle meat, [my mom] would use the ox tails instead,” he told the Times-Picayune newspaper. “She called it mock turtle soup. It has a texture similar to turtle meat, and it even has slight color variations, just like the turtle.”
Indeed, oxtails, as many high-end chefs area well aware, have a wonderful flavor that infuses soups and stews with an amazing beefy taste. That’s one reason they’re actually somewhat pricey — when available — not to mention that each tail only yields a couple pounds of meat.
Mock turtle soup aside, however, there are several high-profile chefs who swear by oxtails — and not just for upscale dining. For example:
· The Culinary Institute of America’s Chef Tod Kawachi offers a flatbread pizza topped with oxtail, hoisin sauce, various summer vegetables and fromage blanc.
· CIS’s cook book also offers an “Oxtail Stew in Red Wine,” made with oxtails (of course), olive oil, chopped leeks, onions, garlic, plum tomatoes and a rich red wine, suitable for enlivening both the chef and the stew. As the entry notes, “Oxtail stews have incredible body and flavor — the flavor deepens as it rests. Boiled, mashed, or pan-fried potatoes are good accompaniments, along with a glass of the wine you used to make the stew.”
· Or how about the Allrecipes.com website’s Jamaican Oxtails with Broad Beans? That dish involves braising the oxtails with onion, green onions, garlic, ginger, chili pepper, soy sauce and spices, then finishing it all in a pressure cooker and serving with fava beans and — no! Not a nice Chianti, but rather the Jamaican specialty, allspice berries.
· And celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is noted for what he calls his “Insanely Good Oxtail Stew,” prepared by searing, then slow roasting the oxtail(s) in an oven to caramelize the meat, then simmering it with leeks, celery and carrots, plus thyme, rosemary and bay leaves, before simmering for several hours in beef stock, “until the meat falls away from the bone.”
That all sounds so appetizing, the question has to be asked:
Since cattle are neither endangered nor hiding in backwoods swamps, why aren’t oxtails available in the meat case?
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator