Rabo Encendido

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Rabo encendido with white rice and maduros served in a white bowl on a pink countertop.
Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

Rabo encendido is a Cuban dish of oxtails cooked gently in a mixture of wine, tomato paste, and vegetables until the tough meat becomes fork tender and all the connective tissue and fat has melted, creating a rich sauce. It’s usually served with a steaming mound of long-grain white rice and tender maduros; the rice is handy for mopping up the delicious sauce, and the fried sweet plantains complement the savory bites of meat. The name translates from Spanish to “tail on fire,” which refers to the cut of meat, the warm spice profile, and the chile heat provided by cayenne.

There are two components that separate a good rabo encendido from a great one: the tenderness of the oxtail and the velvety texture of the sauce. The just-okay versions out there may have one of these qualities, but not the other. This recipe, adapted from my aunt Pilar Hernandez's recipe, has it all.

The sauce of rabo encendido on a wooden spoon.
Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

Pilar is one of the best cooks in my family, and this is what she makes when she wants to wow her guests. Over the years, I've brought many friends over to her house just so they could taste her magical oxtail firsthand, in part to introduce them to the best version of the dish I know, but also because I'll take—and make—any excuse to eat more of it. Of course, every household has their own variations on the dish—some people like to use ground allspice in the sauce, for example—but my aunt swears by whole cloves, which infuse every bite with warm depth. She also relies on sazón, a spice blend that’s used as the foundation for many Latin American dishes, to add a richer color and depth to the sauce (the MSG in store-bought sazón doesn’t hurt either). 

While it's chilly out right now and cold weather is a perfect time to serve braised meats, I think you can eat rabo encendido any time at all. The only catch is you have to plan ahead to carve out the three to four hours it requires from your schedule. But don’t let the long cook time intimidate you; for most of it, the oxtails are gently braising and they don't need your attention. Pilar likes to cook the braise from start to finish on the stovetop, but for this version I've moved it to a low oven, for several reasons. Using an oven standardizes the cooking temperature, which means the recipes will be more reliable, so long as your oven is true to temp; a low oven braise reduces the need to stir, since scorching isn't as much of an issue; and using the oven helps develop a deeper flavor, thanks to the hot air circulating around the oxtails, promoting Maillard browning on their exposed surfaces. Even if it wasn't this easy, though, I'd say making, and eating, rabo encendido is worth clearing your schedule for. 

Preheat oven to 300°F (150°C) and set rack in middle position. Season oxtails all over with salt. In a large Dutch oven, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over high heat until shimmering. Working in batches to avoid overcrowding the pan, cook oxtails until lightly browned all over, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer oxtails to plate, then repeat with remaining oil and oxtails. Set aside.

Searing oxtails in a Dutch oven.
Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

Reduce heat to medium. Add onions, green and red bell peppers, and garlic. Season lightly with salt, then cook, stirring frequently to prevent browning, until vegetables have softened and onions are translucent, about 5 minutes.

Diced vegetables in a Dutch oven.
Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

Increase heat to medium-high, stir in tomato paste, and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes.

Diced vegetables combined with tomato paste in a Dutch oven.
Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

Return oxtails to Dutch oven along with any accumulated juices. Add wine, bay leaves, cloves, sazón, oregano, cumin, black pepper, and cayenne, mixing until everything is incorporated. Bring to a boil, cover partially with lid, then transfer to oven and cook until oxtails are tender and starting to fall off the bone, about 3 1/2 hours.

Oxtail and vegetables in liquid bubbling in a Dutch oven on a stove.
Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

Return Dutch oven to stovetop, uncover, and cook over high heat, stirring frequently, until the sauce reduces and thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Rabo encendido in a Dutch oven.
Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

Serve immediately with rice and maduros.

Rabo encendido with white rice and maduros.
Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

Special Equipment

Large Dutch oven

Make-Ahead and Storage

The finished braised oxtails can be refrigerated for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 3 months.

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