I started thinking about the makings for this spicy beef soup—my own interpretation of Vietnamese pho—while visiting my parents over Christmas. We started talking about Boxing Day on the way home from the airport (on Christmas Day); it brought back a flood of recollections.
Along with the trimming of the tree, the four hour-long Christmas morning gift opening ritual (we’ve finally let this go), and the carols played by my older sister on our old upright piano, one of my most stable memories of Christmas is that of my mother bursting into tears on Boxing Day.
For the unacquainted, Boxing Day is December 26th. It originated in England in the middle of the 19th century under Queen Victoria during which boxes were filled with money for the poor (and, some traditions contend, servants). It is still celebrated in Britain, Canada, and other Commonwealth nations and is typically spent with family, friends and the sharing of plenty of good food and cheer.
My Winnipeg born and bred mother annually felt compelled to make Boxing Day a memorable fete for at least 40-50 of our friends and neighbors. While Christmas was always an idle day, centered around bonbons and books, Boxing Day was an all-action adventure. From the crack of dawn, vacuums roared, mixers whirred, and the detritus of the day before was crammed into every available inch of drawer, closet and cupboard space.
The strain of balancing the roles of working mother, Santa Claus, maid, caterer and hostess extraordinaire, all with three little kids in tow, inevitably culminated in Mom’s tears of exhaustion each year, several hours before party-time. But with several hugs from us kids, kisses from Dad, and ample fortification provided by multiple cups of Earl Grey, she was soon recharged and primed for the final acts of preparation.
And every year was an extraordinary party.
At the center of the seemingly infinite varieties of culinary treats (and here I finally get back to the spicy beef soup connection) was a magnificent slab of English spiced beef, surrounded by a panoply of pickles, chutneys, mustards, and triangles of pumpernickel bread.
The recipe was one passed down from my maternal grandmother (“Gran”). The instructions offered no shortcuts. Come the beginning of December, a 15-pound beef roast is rubbed with a dizzying array of spices and seasonings ranging from cloves to saltpeter (yes—the same ingredient used in gunpowder), then sealed in an enormous bowl for a several weeks of curing in time for Boxing Day.
The morning of the 26th, the aromatic (and, to be honest, gray—a little bit scary pre-roasting) beef was slow-roasted for 2-3 hours. The majestic final effect was a spice-crackled, blackened crust carved to reveal a succulent pink interior so tender it crumbled. Leftovers made ambrosial sandwiches, but only a few scraps would typically survive the revelry.
Now back to the pho.
I didn’t get around to curing a joint of beef in my closet, but I still had a hankering for a spicy beef concoction these early days of January, so I whipped up a batch of pho, with my own modifications and adjustments (in large part to simplify the process). Pho (pronounced fuh, or fur) is Vietnamese beef noodle soup; it is believed to have its roots in French feu (i.e. pot au feu, a once ubiquitous national soup) when they colonized Vietnam.
Month of Vegetavble Tie-In
Part of my aim this month is to incorporate a wide range of vegetables in multiple ways—as opposed to limiting them to sad side dishes or yet another baggie of baby carrots.
So what are the vegetable stars here? Bean sprouts, basil and cilantro. I know, the latter two are technically herbs, but just wait until you hear what they have to offer; you’ll count them as vegetables, too:
Vegetable Star #1: Bean Sprouts (also known as mung bean sprouts)
Sure, these long & slender sprouts may look relatively anemic, but they are packed with vitamin C (one handful has about 3/4 of an adult’s daily vitamin C requirement), as well as B complex vitamins. Plus, they add a bright, fresh crunch to salads & sandwiches, and hot Asian soups, such as this one.
Vegetable Star #2: Fresh Basil
I’m hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t like fresh basil: it has irresistible notes of pepper and cinnamon that complement almost every cuisine. And it just so happens to be a nutritional star, too: it’s a good source of vitamin A (through its concentration of carotenoids such as beta-carotene), magnesium, iron, calcium, potassium and vitamin C. Go basil!
Vegetable Star #3: Fresh Cilantro (also known as coriander and Chinese parsley)
True, it’s not a vegetable, but it is related to carrots, which may help to explain its exceptional vision benefits: one small serving of cilantro has particularly high amounts of vitamin and A and lutein. The latter is found in the retinas of our eyes; it is necessary for good vision, and getting lutein from the foods we eat lowers the risk of cataracts and macular degeneration. Some studies also suggest that lutein may also help to prevent or slow down atherosclerosis, a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Cilantro is used in natural medicine to stimulate digestion.
- ¼ cup roughly chopped fresh ginger (no need to peel)
- 2 whole star anise
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 6 cups low-sodium beef broth
- ½ pound piece boneless beef sirloin, trimmed of any fat
- 3 ounces dried flat rice noodles
- ¼ cup Asian fish sauce (e.g., naam pla)
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice (more or less to taste)
- 2 cups fresh bean sprouts, rinsed and drained
- ⅓ cup minced green onions
- ¼ cup fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
- ½ cup fresh basil leaves, roughly torn
- Sriracha (southeast Asian hot sauce)
- Lime wedges for garnish
- Tie the ginger, star anise, and cinnamon in a piece of cheesecloth. Place in a medium large saucepan along with broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 15 minutes.
- Cut sirloin across the grain into very thin slices (use a very sharp knife); set aside.
- In a large bowl soak noodles in hot water to cover 15 minutes, or until softened and pliable. While noodles are soaking, bring a kettle of salted water to a boil for noodles. Drain noodles in a colander and cook in boiling water, stirring 45 seconds, or until tender. Drain noodles in a colander; set aside.
- Remove cheesecloth of spices from broth; bring broth back to a boil. Stir in fish sauce, pepper and lime juice. Add sirloin and cook 30 to 45 seconds, or until sirloin changes color. Skim any froth from soup. To serve, divide noodles into 4 bowls. Ladle soup over noodles. Sprinkle sprouts, green onions, cilantro and basil over soup and serve with sriracha and lime wedges.