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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup

Fragrant and aromatic. Alluring and intoxicating. Pho bo, the iconic Vietnamese beef noodle soup, is a powerful force. A really good bowl of pho mystically captures the soul and sweeps it away. Anything less is like a bad date prolonged by cheap warm wine. With fresh garnishes, chiles, herbs, and condiments on hand to accent the soup, the mysterious essence of pho lies in the broth. It's all about the broth. Anchored by marrow-rich meaty bones cooked low and slow for several hours with charred onions, ginger, sensual tongue-numbing cloves, exotic licorice-like star anise, fennel, cardamon, and the warm subtle heat of cinnamon, pho is a lovely complex assault on the senses. It only takes one very brief slurp to understand pho. One sip. One slurp. Drinkable.

Here's the deal. With such a rich heritage, there are many deep-rooted variations of Vietnamese beef noodle soup. I'm no pho expert. I'm just a Kentucky boy who loves to stick his face in a steaming bowl of pho. While fabulous restaurant versions are great for instant gratification, I wanted  to experience the essence of pho with an adventurous culinary jaunt.

Pho Broth.
There's a fine line between broth and stock. In a way, they're interchangeable. The bone to meat ratio is key. Whereas stocks use mostly bones, broths use a combination of meat and bones. Pho broth, with a few fun tweaks and interesting change-ups, is actually very similar to classic French beef stock. With the exception of some minor prep, it might even be simpler. Who knew? It's definitely more fun.

Typically, basic beef stock is made from roasting beef bones and mirepoix (separately)  until they are caramelized. The combination is then tumbled into a stock pot with herbs and spices, covered with water, brought to a boil, and left to simmer for a few hours with periodical scum skimming to achieve clarity. Blah. Blah. Blah.  Pho broth takes an alternative route.

I fell in love.


Blanching. The crud police.
To achieve purity and alleviate the need for excessive skimming, I tumbled 3 pounds of Quarle's Farm meaty beef shins into a large stock pot along with 2 pounds of Elmwood Stock Farm oxtails. After covering them with cool water, I cranked the heat to high and boiled the bones/meat for 10 minutes to release the crud. I drained the bones into a colander, rinsed the pot, and rinsed the bones before returning them to the pot.

Aromatics. Onions and ginger.
I sliced 2 Shelby County candy onions in half (skin on) and split a 5" hand of ginger before grilling the pieces over flaming hot coals until they were charred. Yep. Blistered caramelization. The quirky looking outer char insured succulent and aromatic sweet flesh.

I bundled 5 gorgeous star anise pods, 1 tablespoon fennel, 5 cloves, 1 large stick cinnamon, and 1 tablespoon whole coriander into frilly cheesecloth, tied it up in a knot, and set it aside.

After tossing the charred onions and ginger into the stock pot with the blanched meaty bones, I added the spice bundle along with a 2" chunk of white rock candy. After throwing an additional cinnamon stick into the pot for good measure, I filled  the pot with 3 quarts of cool water, brought it a boil, reduced it to a simmer, added 1/4 cup Three Crabs fish sauce, and let it rip for a ridiculous 9 hours. Some broths can go for as long as 24 hours. Nope.  9 hours allowed enough time for the aromatics, spices, collagen, marrow,
and beef to amply  flavor the broth.

Just before calling it a day, I drained the broth through a colander double-lined with cheesecloth, quickly chilled it down over an ice bath, discarded the bones, reserved the oxtail meat, and slid the broth into the refrigerator to chill overnight.

When thoroughly chilled, stock/broth should have a thin layer of fat covering jiggly deeply flavored beef gelatin. Beef jelly. After carefully cracking the layer of fat, I scraped it from the top (with a few bits reserved), plopped the coagulated broth into a sauce pan, and brought it to a smoldering simmer.

As the beef jelly slowly melted into the pan, I blanched fresh Banh Pho rice noodles in boiling water for 10 seconds, rinsed them under cold water, and briefly set them aside.

I feathered the rice noodles into large bowls, tucked warmed shards of oxtail meat into the noodles, draped thin slices of raw beef tenderloin over the top, scattered slivered candy onions to the side,  and carefully covered the noodles with the aromatic broth. I served the garnishes on the side to keep them fresh and vibrant for every sensual bite.

Transcendent steaming broth. Tender beef. Slippery noodles. Fiery Sriacha. Spicy sweet Hoisen. Perky mint. Thai Basil. Flowering chives. Crisp jalapenos. Crunchy sprouts.

Pho bo.
Toss the chopsticks
and slurp the magic.

Saturday, August 16, 2014


Pink. Red. Yellow. Orange. Green. Brown. Purple. White. Black. Striped. Rusty Red.
Summer tomatoes.
You can taste the colors. From high sugar/low acid to low sugar/high acid to a fifty-fifty balanced split, the flavors of ripe summer tomatoes are literally reflected in their varying colors.While I might be partial to the lusty dark purple and black varieties, I love them all. Any simple stroll through the sea of tomatoes at the farmers market usually makes my head spin. New varieties pop up all  the time. Expect the unexpected. Depending on my mood on any particular day, I might opt for tangy Green Zebras over the irresistible deep smoky sweetness of Purple Cherokees. Then again, cheery Lemon boy or Yellow Pear cherry tomatoes might out-pretty my bent toward sultry Sun Golds. On some days, I can't choose which way to go. Big. Small. Sweet. Smoky. Tart. On other days, I'll forego the decision making and pick a few from my  garden.

And... then there are those days when I simply choose them all. Boom. Yep. The whole shebang. It happened on a very normal early morning pre-work market romp. Befuddled by the dizzying array of colors dancing under the morning sun, I grabbed every variety and color I could get my hands on. Gone was the notion of characterizing and labeling them by sweet/tart ratios. With that in mind, why not toss them all together with a few market peaches and see how nicely they play together? Sun-kissed tomatoes with warm ripe peaches.

Summer Peach and Tomato Salad.
I can't say I did much. It was a simple salad. With such gorgeous tomatoes, my goal was to not muck it up. Starting with the smaller ones, I halved a few Paw Paw Plantation black Indigo Rose plum, Speckled Roman Roma, and Sun Gold tomatoes before splitting several Stonehedge Farm Green Zebras and setting them aside. After slicing Pulaski County red Mule Team, Amana Orange, Great White, and Virginia Sweet tomatoes into thick rounds, I halved a few Green Doctor cherries and sliced thick wheels of Casey County Purple Cherokee tomatoes before snagging a few dainty Yellow Pears from the garden to add to the mix.

With everything on deck, I overlapped the larger sliced  tomatoes onto Milk Glass plates, scattered the smaller ones over the top, tucked thin wedges of warm freestone market peaches into the tomatoes, and splashed the salad with a faint drizzle of white balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil before finishing with parsley, purple basil, coarsely cracked black pepper and flaked sea salt.

Taste the colors.
Eat summer while it lasts.

Simple. Fresh. Fun.


Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Ajo Blanco. The Other Gazpacho

Long before tomatoes arrived from the new world and made their way into the silken tomato-based gazpacho we're all familiar with, ajo blanco was the gazpacho of Spain. Ajo blanco (white garlic) was a simple chilled peasant soup concocted to supply nourishment to field workers and help quell the blistering heat that pounded the southern provinces of Spain. Like its red cousin, ajo blanco was created in the southern region of Andulacia, specifically Malaga. The region, rich with olive groves and moorish-influenced almonds, made ajo blanco affordable and readily available. Made with pounded almonds, olive oil, garlic, vinegar, and grapes, it's referred to as the gazpacho of Malaga. Nowadays, ajo blanco has been taken out of the fields and gussied up a bit, paving the way for more refined versions to grace the tables in tapas bars throughout Spain. While elevated from its humble roots, the beauty of ajo blanco lies in its simplicity.

Garlic. Water. Bread. Olive oil. Sherry vinegar. Grapes. Peasant food. Ajo blanco. White gazpacho.

We've had a great tomato season here in Kentucky. Beautiful. Plump. Bountiful. Perfect for gazpacho. That said, while we're still in peak season for summer tomatoes, local grapes have also started to hit the farm stands. Demurely tucked in and around the brash darlings of summer, grapes don't crash the markets like thundering tomato tsunamis. They filter in quietly as they ripen and mature. Amused by their unexpected appearance, I bagged a few Graskop Farm Reliance grapes sold by Elmwood Stock and embraced the other gazpacho.

Ajo Blanco.
Without the addition of any cream, good bread provides the faux creaminess that characterizes ajo blanco. I sliced 2 fat Sunrise Bakery tear baguettes in half and ripped the soft bready guts into small pieces. When I accumulated 2 1/2 cups of torn bread, I soaked the pieces in 2 cups of iced water until they softened.

Almonds and garlic.
While the bread plumped in the water, I tumbled 2 cups of raw almonds into simmering water to blanch and help release the skins. Although raw garlic is traditionally used in ajo blanco, I wanted to temper the biting rawness, so I added 4 smashed cloves of Elmwood Stock garlic to the simmering almonds. After 45 seconds, I scooped the almonds and garlic onto a dish towel to drain. When they were cool enough to handle, I slipped the skins off of the garlic cloves and set them aside.  Instead of popping each individual skin from every individual almond, I used the dish towel as friction to slip off the skins and reveal their buttery flesh.  Who knew? Magic.

Back to the bread. I squeezed as much liquid out of the bread as possible, reserved the remaining water, and set the soggy bread aside.

Traditionally, the bread, almonds, and garlic were pounded into a paste using a mortar and pestle. Nope. Didn't happen. I dropped the bread into a food processor along with the almonds, garlic, salt, and white pepper. After adding the reserved soaking water to the processor, I blasted the mixture for 2 minutes before slowly drizzling in 1/2 cup fruity extra virgin olive and 4 tablespoons of Spanish sherry vinegar.

Most folks would've left it at that. To alleviate the slight graininess from the pureed almonds, I strained the soup through a chinois and tossed it into the refrigerator to chill for several hours.

When the ajo blanco was bone cold, I poured the velvety soup into tiny parfait glasses, floated split Reliance grapes over the top, and added a few halved almonds before finishing with snipped chives from my garden.

Funny, while the unlikely combination of ingredients seemed weird, they totally worked together. The soup was deceivingly light and didn't scream garlic. Swirled through the emulsified creamy puree, faint whispers of garlic mingled with the fruity olive oil, pureed bread, buttery ground almonds, and musky tang of the sherry vinegar to create rich complex layers of flavor. While the suspended almonds added crunch, the split grapes provided pops of sweet wet freshness.

The other gazpacho.

A perfect Kentucky summer tapas.