Introduction: Oxtail Potjie - Rustic Slow Cooking
First-off for those who don't know a potjie is a traditional South African stew, with the defining characteristic being that it is cooked in a cast iron pot (a potjie pot) on a fire. Normally you do this while camping; starting the fire in the morning, cooking your stew all day long, and eating late at night with friends and family.
We celebrate mothers day on the 13th of May, and this year I decided to make my mom a nice hearty oxtail potjie. With the familiy gathering we had three moms in the group and the pot fed 9 of us on the night with there being some left for us to snack on for the next couple days.
Oxtail is a very rich hearty meat making a great base for cold evenings and nights, by cooking it slowly and gently the meat should easily flake off the bone while the bones themselves add to the rich stock.
The Instructable will cover a bit into potjies and the recipe I used, with the steps being:
- A bit of Potjie Tradition and History
- Ingredients and cookware
- Fires and setup
- Browning the Meat and Onions
- Adding the Vegetables and stock
- Slow cooking the afternoon away
- Adding in the mushrooms, cream and thicken
- Quick trick Potjie Bread
- Enjoy the greatness
I try to take lots of photos to describe the process but if between the photos and my explanations you are still unsure of something please ask and I will try answer you and update the Instructable to make it more clear.
Step 1: A Bit of Potjie Traditions and History
First and foremost; What and why a Potjie pot?
A potjie pot is a three legged, black cast iron pot with a big belly used to cook on a open fire while in the outdoors. By controlling the heat of your fire you can fry, boil, simmer, and even bake in these pots making everything from a fried breakfast, to a hearty stew, to a baked apple crumble in these pots. I tend to group both the round bellied three legged pots and the flat cast iron pots together, the flat bottom variety are normally called Dutch Ovens and need a couple bricks to stand one but cook just as well. Dutch ovens normally accompany a potjie pot, for while it makes the stew they make the fresh bread and baked desserts that accompany the meal.
The history of potjies is briefly summed up on wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potjiekos , but somehow their description misses out on the true magic of having a potjie.
First you need to paint the picture of getting ready to go out camping with your family and friends, where you need to dig out of a cupboard or garage the potjie pot that is older than both you and your parents. The pot will need the dust washed off; but a cared for pot will have been cleaned, oiled and wrapped with newspaper after it was last used, so the clean up is quick.
Next you are out in the bush having been on a game drive in the early hours or just warming up with the sunrise. Now it is time to light the coals from last nights campfire to begin the day with some coffee and the meal for the night. Starting with browning some meat and onions you keep the fire gently burning away with a couple coals living under the pot as various vegetables, wine, herbs and spices go into the pot.
As the day goes from cold to hot and back to cold again the stars come out and stomachs begin to grumble. You have been busy all day had lunch but now dinner time is approaching fast. You can smell the pot but the chef shakes their head and lets the pot bubble on. The night cools further and all gather round the fire to chat, drink and stay warm but still no word from the pot. Eventually the moment arrives when the lid is lifted and the chef approves, dinner time came and went a while ago, but now you can feast. When the hot contents get poured into your bowl and a chunk of hot bread is passed to you, you realize that the wait was worth it. By the fire surrounded by friends and family you enjoy the sounds of nature and a meal to mark the occasion.
Potjies have a long history in South Africa having been used by the Voortrekkers as they explored the country, the pots being carried on the backs of their wagons. Having been spread to all parts of the country countless recipes and ways of cooking in potjie pots have arisen with there being no one correct way to use them. Ultimately as long as you care for the pot, food and company you keep, each time you cook with one of these pots you are sure to have a fantastic occasion.
Step 2: Ingredients and Cookware.
For this Oxtail stew I first looked at a couple recipes in books and online before getting a feel of what I wanted to make and how much of everything to use. I prefer to do this reading first and then cook by feel rather than following a recipe exactly, as this way I will adjust quantities to suit my preferences.
Remember when cooking a potjie you have to check the pot, fire and prepare the different ingredients all at the same time, if you add in reading the recipe every 5 minutes then you are bound to make a mistake somewhere. Accidentally adding in to much or too little of something rarely ruins a dish but burning the pot will definitely be noticed so don't stress to much about being precise with the recipe.
Onto the actual ingredients and items I used, bare in mind that this was enough to feed 12-14 people.
Ingredients (in order of additions to the pot):
- Some oil to coat the pot
- A Large Onion ( I would actually recommend using two)
- 500g of streaky bacon
- 2.5kg of Oxtail
- A generous tablespoon of crush garlic (about 3 to 4 cloves worth)
- Cake Flour (used to coat the oxtail)
- 5 or 6 large carrots (probably about 500g)
- Bunch of baby leeks
- 4 Large leeks
- Tin of tomato mush (I used a herb tomato mush)
- Small tin of tomato paste
- Beef stock or stock cubes
- A generous glug of red wine
- 2 punnets of mushrooms (leave them whole, about 500g)
- 250ml of cream (you can mix in a bit of flour to thicken the stew)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Some wine or beer to drink while you wait.
If you are making the cheat bread:
- Store bought bread dough (though it's easy to make the dough using self raising flour it is quick and simple to just get a bag of dough from a local bakery)
- Some mixed herbs
Alternately rather than making a herb bread you can make a cheese bread by mixing in some grated strong cheddar into the dough. Very successful as a starter to your meal.
- A cutting board
- A sharp knife
- Number 6 Potjie pot
- A large spoon to stir the pot
- A ladle to serve up
- Firewood/charcoal and firelighters (always make sure you have lots of spare wood)
- Gloves to handle hot pots (I use a set of red welding gloves)
- A dutch oven if you are making the bread
A couple tips for those who want to cook with these pots:
- There can only be one chef to a pot.
- A potjie pot will turn tough meat to tender but it represents good food and is not there so you can empty your fridge, you are making a meal with your pride on the line.
- Listening to the pot as its bubbling and "gurrgling" will tell you how fast it's cooking, with a silent pot being a very dangerous thing having either the fire dying or having been burnt on the bottom.
- You can stir the pot as you brown meat and onions but after that once the vegetables and stock are added Don't stir it! Only when the contents are cooked and the bystanders a virtually slavering should the pot be stirred.If you stir the pot often the contents break up and you will end up with a burnt bottom and mush, not a delicious stew.
- The key to cooking a potjie is a gentle hand as these large pots are slow to heat or cool and need only a couple coals under them to carry on gently bubbling away as they cook you meal. Don't expect an instant reaction as you place a coal beneath it, let it take its' time this is a slow cooker and won't be easily rushed.
Step 3: Fires and Setup
These are some of my general tips when it come to the fires aspect of cooking a potjie.
When cooking a potjie you use coals from a fire to control the heat, this makes the process a bit more work but adds to the meal and experience. When you setup your area to cook in it helps to have a table and chair you can sit at and prepare ingredients, while still being able to keep an eye on the pot and fire. This spot should also be in the shade so you don't get sunburnt.
Cooking on a fire you need lots of wood, more than you think especially when you plan to cook on the fire for 5 to 6 hours straight. I was using an incredibly slow burning hardwood and I still went through 3 bags of it while cooking. So make sure you have an ample supply of wood.
Now some people like to put the pot straight above the fire and feed it with tiny buts of wood .I tend to prefer having a larger fire that people can gather around and then just use a couple of the coals for my pot. Both methods work but I find it is easier to control the temperature of the pot using coals as they are quick to add and can be moved away easily if it's too hot. My advice is use a hardwood (charcoal works well too) that make slow burning coals.
Always remember your fire while you cook, it takes a while for coals to form so make sure you are thinking for the future as you add wood. The pot may be at the perfect temperature now and the fire looks fine but in half an hour when you need more coals if you haven't already added the wood to the fire you may not have any coals to add.
Also when cooking on a large cast iron pot you must realize that the pot and its' contents will take a while to react to heat and will hold the heat well, so don't pile endless coals underneath just because you added some coals and are yet to see it start bubbling faster, be patient! Also if the pot does start to burn you are now in trouble as even when the coals are moved away it will stay burning for the next couple of minutes. This is rustic old fashioned slow cooking so slow and steady pays off.
When it comes to positioning your pot make sure it is not too close to the fire as it will get hotter on that side resulting in it potentially burning. Also make sure that the lid is on your pot whenever you want to fiddle with the fire as you don't want to get ash or dirt into your stew, pay attention to where you put the lid down as this is also an easy way to contaminate your meal with sand or ash.
Step 4: Browning the Meat and Onions
First you get the pot nice and hot and add some sunflower/olive oil to it. While the pot heats dice your onion and streaky bacon. Fry your onion and bacon until its golden brown and crispy.
While the onions and bacon are frying get and assistant to stir the pot while you make up some salted and peppered flour. Coat the oxtail pieces in the flour. Once the bacon is done remove it from the pot and begin adding in a couple pieces of oxtail at a time so that the meat can brown. Don't put in all the meat at the same time or the pot will cool and you will end up boiling the meat rather than frying it so it browns. You may need to add some more oil as it cooks depending on how much fat came out of the bacon.
Once all the oxtail has been browned you can add the bacon back in and the garlic so that it can be slightly fried. While that is all frying up quickly chop the vegetables.
At this stage you want to let the fire cool slightly. As we are moving on to the vegetables and stock.
Step 5: Adding the Vegetables and Stock
While the meat, onion and garlic fry reduce the heat on the pot. Chop up the carrots and leeks into large chunks, (about 1 inch pieces). You want large pieces of vegetables as they are being cooked for a long time. Both the type of ingredient and size of the piece will influence how long they need to cook. You normally layer the vegetables with the hard root vegetables at the bottom (needing a good couple hours) while soft things like mushrooms go on top (only needing an hour). Remember once the vegetables are added you don't stir the pot until just before serving. With this recipe I added both the leeks and carrots together as I like the leeks breaking down and thickening the pot, if you want them to remain more intact add them about two hours before you want to serve.
Add the carrots and leeks into the pot but don't stir it as you want the meat on the bottom and the vegetable on top, by now enough moisture should be coming out of the meat that it is no longer frying.
Make up the liquid stock using the tomato paste, tinned tomato mush, beef stock, and wine. This needs to then be poured into the pot, once again you don't stir the pot. Simply make sure there are a couple coals under the pot, its lid is on and bring it up to simmer. For the rest of the cooking process you want to leave the lid on as much as possible, this prevents it from drying out and prevents dirt or sand from getting in to potjie.
Step 6: Slow Cooking the Afternoon Away
Once the pot is simmering away you need only check on it every half an hour or so (depending on how well your coals last and your predicting the pot temperature). I moved my pot a bit further away from the fire so it wasn't as hot, you really only need a couple coals around it. Make sure to keep your fire burning as well. Every-time you open the pot to look you are letting heat out and increasing your cooking time, so it is worth it to practice the art of listening to the sound of the pot bubble and gurgle to gauge how its cooking.
If when you check on the pot it looks on the dry side you can add in some more wine or water but as the pot normally has its lid on it should get most of its water from the food itself.
You want to leave the pot simmering away for about 4 hours minimum so take a bit of a chilled brake and look at the local wildlife.
You can see my dog lazing about, this is the right attitude to take. Make sure to relax, enjoy a drink, swim and chat but don't forget about your pot.
Step 7: Adding in the Mushrooms, Cream and Thicken
About an hour before you want to serve the potjie add in your mushrooms whole to the top of the pot and once again put the lid on and leave it to simmer.
About 5 minutes before serving add in the cream, at this point check how thick the stew is and decide if it needs to be thickened and if so mix in some flour with the cream. This is also the time to finally give the potjie a quick stir and check it's seasoning, for more salt or pepper.
Step 8: Quick Trick Potjie Bread
Whenever I braai (South African for BBQ) or make a potjie I like to cook a loaf of fresh bread as well. Having hot bread with a meal is always great and it is also quite amazing to show people a loaf of bread that has been cooked on an open fire.
I tend to cheat with the dough as it is simple to go into the local shops or bakery and pick up a bag of bread dough rather than make it myself. Though if you want you can make the dough using yeast and a proper recipe or just using self raising flour.
For this potjie I wanted to make a herb bread so I added some mixed herbs as I kneaded the dough. I also have had great success with making cheese bread by adding grated mature cheddar to the dough. The bread takes about 45 minutes so put it on after adding the mushrooms to the potjie.
For the bread:
- Knead in your desired additions to the dough.
- Oil the inside of a flat bottomed cast iron pot (a Dutch oven).
- Make the dough into balls and place into the pot (the balls all merge into one loaf but allow you to rip off chunks of bread to eat with the potjie).
- Put the lid on the pot and place above coals on bricks, also place some coals onto the lid so the top browns. You are aiming for the pot to be at about 180 degrees Celsius. Depending on how close it is to the fire you need to rotate the pot every 15 minutes or so.
- Allow the bread to cook for about 45 minutes, this may be nerve racking but don't open the pot before this time as otherwise your bread will collapse.
- When you open the pot the loaf should look done and sound hollow when tapped. Using gloves take the pot to a bread board and shake upside down so that the bread comes out (this is why you need to oil the pot before you put the dough in).
- Enjoy your fresh bread.
If you do burn your bread slightly just cut off the burnt bit (normally the base of the loaf) and enjoy the rest.
Step 9: Enjoy the Greatness!
It is time to serve up your starving companions and enjoy your hard earned meal. In my experience I always end up running late so by the time my potjie is ready everyone is hungry and it tastes all the more amazing. If you are running really late you can put the bread on a bit earlier and use it as an appetizer for the main course.
After the meal think about what you want to do different next time so that you gradually grow as cook. I myself have had mixed batches of success and failures with dumplings so I now steer clear of them opting instead to make fresh bread with my potjie. I also dislike using half of something so I will basically always use a full packet or item rather than leave half to be forgotten in my fridge.
You can use the tiny 1/4 size potjie pots to serve in as they add a great effect to the meal, when presenting it. These tiny pots are quite a lot of fun and can be used to make fondue.
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