When it comes to oxtail -- the bony, fatty and good-tasting tail of a steer -- shoppers should be choosy, according to the Lobels, New York's family of master butchers and authors of "Lobel's Prime Cuts" (Chronicle, 2004).

Freshness is essential. Oxtail is normally sold cut into round, crosswise sections. Ask the butcher to open the package so you can smell the oxtail for a clean scent. The thick disks should measure from 11/2 to three inches in diameter. The fat should be white, the bone white in the center, and the meat bright red.

For peak freshness, it's a good idea to order oxtail in advance and use it immediately after purchase. (Oxtails are sometimes available in the freezer case but fresh is preferred.) In the Washington area, oxtail sells for about $3.50 per pound, but not all supermarkets carry it. Call ahead for availability. It's commonly found at Middle Eastern halal butcher shops, Central American markets and Asian supermarkets.

For moist, flavorful oxtail, Eric Ziebold, chef of the new CityZen restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Southwest Washington, suggests braising the meat early in the day and allowing it to cool to room temperature in its braising liquid. Reheat at serving time.

-- Walter Nicholls