I went to the butcher the other day to pick up some beef soup bones. I was craving a very wintery version a traditional beef and barley soup, my favorite as a child, with sugar pumpkin and parsnips. I couldn’t believe they were completely sold out of bones! I like to think that, because of the virus lockdowns in these uncertain times, more people than ever are leaning into homemade, slow cooked, ultra-nourishing dishes like bone broths, soups and stews. I picked up a few oxtails instead, thinking they would make a more luxurious alternative. Later, at the market, there were absolutely no pumpkins or parsnips anywhere to be found.
I’ve said it before (writing a blog can feel very repetitive), but I really think one of the most important things this pandemic has taught us is to be flexible – with our meal plans, with how and when we shop, with what we buy and cook, with how we spend our time – all, of course, while trying to keep up with the ever-changing regulations. I, for one, was a very regimented person before this pandemic hit – always planning, writing lists, scheduling events into my packed calendar, working around the kids’ school schedules and extracurricular activities. It took a global health crisis to reveal how much hidden stress this strict rigidity added to my life. It’s very freeing to accept that not everything is within our control. Sometimes we need to just let go and allow ourselves to be carried by the rise and fall of the tides. Go with the flow, as they say. So, instead of a pumpkin, I picked up a small butternut squash and used carrots in place of parsnips. And do you know what? The world kept turning and life we went on, and we had a very delicious soup for dinner that night. So good, if fact, that my husband said to me, “You must write this recipe down and share it!”
I started the soup in the morning by browning and rendering out a bit of the fat in the oxtails. Oxtails are very fatty and you can either ask your butcher to trim them or you can remove as much of it as you like at home. I prefer to leave a little fat, as it gives the soup a soft, velvety texture. I simmered the oxtails in the slow cooker all day – adding butternut squash and barley about 2 hours before we ate. The results were an extra-luxurious soup – sweet from the butternut and carrots and rich from the oxtails. I could almost imagine I was wrapped up in my favourite childhood sweater and soft corduroys, in my mother’s kitchen. This soup is warm and hearty, perfect for cold winter evenings in these unsettled times. It was also a good reminder that some of the best things in life come out of uncertainty.
Winter Vegetable Soup with Oxtails
- 1.5 pounds oxtails, trimmed and rinsed
- 1 TBSP extra virgin olive oil
- 1 sweet onion, peeled and chopped
- 1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
- 2 celery stalks, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 8 1/2 cups water (divided)
- 1 TBSP apple cider vinegar
- 1 tsp beef bouillon (or 1 cube)
- 1 bay leaf
- 5 – 6 sprigs of fresh thyme
- 2 sprigs of fresh rosemary
- 1 tsp salt (more to taste)
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- 1 small butternut squash, peeled and diced (1/2 inch dice)
- 1 cup pearl barley
Rinse the oxtails well in cool running water to remove any bone fragments. Pat dry with paper towels.
In a large, deep skillet or dutch oven, heat the oil and brown the oxtails on all sides. Transfer the oxtails to a slow cooker. Drain off all but about a tablespoon of fat from the pan. Add the chopped onion, carrots and celery and cook until just softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 30 seconds longer. Transfer the vegetables to the slow cooker.
Pour 6 cups water into the skillet and place back on the heat. Bring to a simmer, scraping the bottom to remove the browned bits. Stir in the salt, pepper, vinegar and bouillon. Pour into the slow cooker. Tie the herbs together with kitchen twine and add to the slow cooker.
Cover and cook on low for 8 – 10 hours.
About two hours before serving:
Remove the oxtails with a slotted spoon and place in a bowl until cool enough to handle. When cool, remove the meat from the bones and shred with a fork.
Peel the butternut squash and remove the seeds. Cut into 1/2 inch dice. Stir the meat and the squash into the slow cooker. Cover and continue cooking.
Meanwhile, rinse and sort through the pearl barley to remove any stones or debris. Place the barley in a pot with the remaining 2 1/2 cups water. Add 1/4 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer over low heat for 45 minutes. Drain the barley and add to the soup in the slow cooker.
Cover the soup and continue cooking until the squash is tender. Remove the herb bundle and taste the soup for seasoning, adding additional salt and pepper if needed