Artist’s Palate: Luc Tuymans’ oxtail consommé
It is argued that Belgium’s Luc Tuymans kept figurative painting alive as a contemporary art form during the 1980s and 1990s by acknowledging its limitations. His medium is one that can only be partial and subjective, so he works at the level of vague hints and subtle allusions, with his topics - often expressed with a quiet, vague horror - heavily cropped, framed and dealt with in filmic close-up.
Tackling thorny subjects from the Holocaust to 9/11, the Belgian Congo to the unsettlingly banal still life, his palette of muted whites and murky pastels arouse complex, difficult to express emotions.
Complexity there is, too, in his consommé, requiring as it does five hours’ simmering, overnight chilling and a difficult to get right clarification process involving egg whites and minced beef. Nose-to-tail eating has brought the oxtail back into fashion; Tuymans’ chilly, ambiguous works did the same for the artist as painter.
2 carrots, sliced
2 celery stalks, sliced
1 onion, unpeeled, cut into wedges
2kg oxtail pieces
125ml dry sherry
2 thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
1/4tsp black peppercorns
175g lean ground beef
2 egg whites
Extra dry sherry, if serving the consommé hot
Preheat the oven to 220°C. Scatter the carrots, celery and onion in a large roasting pan. Rinse the oxtail pieces well under cold running water and pat dry, then place on top of the vegetables. Roast for 1 hour, turning the oxtail pieces after 30 mins. Using tongs, transfer the oxtail and vegetables to a large stockpot. Discard any fat from the roasting pan. Add the sherry with 2 cups of water, place over a medium-low heat, and bring to a boil, deglazing the pan by scraping up the browned bits from the bottom. Pour this liquid into the stockpot and add 10 cups of cold water. Bring just to a boil, then reduce the heat so that the liquid simmers, and skim off the foam. Add the thyme sprigs, bay leaf and peppercorns and simmer gently for 5 hours, skimming from time to time.
Strain the stock through a sieve into a large bowl. Discard the debris left in the sieve and cool the stock quickly by placing the bowl in a larger bowl or sink filled with iced water; stir occasionally as the stock cools, then refrigerate overnight.
The next morning, you will have a jellied liquid topped with fat. Remove the fat and discard the debris at the bottom of the bowl. You should have about 6 cups of stock; if you have more, reduce it by boiling, then allow to cool. To clarify it, the stock must be cold but not gelled. Reheat gently to liquefy if necessary.
Place the diced carrot, celery and leek in a food processor and process until finely chopped. Add the meat, egg whites, and 2tbs water and blend until well mixed. Stir this mixture into the stock and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon and scraping the bottom of the pan to prevent the egg whites from sticking. As the liquid approaches the boil, it will appear to curdle; don’t panic, that is what you want. As soon as it begins to boil, stop stirring, and remove the saucepan from the heat. The whites will form a congealed mass on the surface, which will puff up and then crack as the steam escapes.
Reduce the heat to very low and return the saucepan to the heat, making a larger hole in the egg white mass with a spoon to allow the steam to escape. Simmer very gently - you should see small bubbles of steam break through the hole in the whites - for 45 mins. Remove the saucepan from the heat and allow to stand for five minutes.
Line a sieve with a double thickness of damp cheesecloth or a dampened thin cotton towel, and place over a bowl. Using a skimmer or large slotted spoon, carefully lift off as much of the egg white mass as you can and set aside in another bowl. Ladle the consommé into the sieve and allow it to drip slowly through the cloth. As you get closer to the bottom of the saucepan, you might notice that the clear consommé is being muddied by bits of egg white. Don’t worry, just add it to the sieve. Check the bowl with the egg white debris and pour any liquid that has escaped from it into the sieve. Allow all the liquid to drip slowly through the sieve. Don’t be tempted to press on the whites, as that would cloud the consommé.
You will have about five cups of clear consommé in the bowl and a mess of congealed egg white to discard. Season the consommé with about 1/4tsp salt. Serve hot, or allow to cool, then chill and serve it cold. If serving hot, pour 1tbs dry sherry into each bowl before ladling in the consommé. If you serve it cold, you will probably need to boost the seasoning, as cold dulls the flavour.