Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Bun Bo Hue

Last weekend I embarked on one of my occasional cooking projects. I call them projects because I find myself baffled over where to find ingredients at the store, and exhausted but still standing at the kitchen stove past 1 a.m. At that point I’m bemoaning my weary feet and reminding myself how hard it would be on my body if I cooked for a living. (I have to tell myself this every so often because I find the thought of owning a pastry shop very enticing!)

In February, I was up past midnight churning raspberry lambic ice cream for DessertFest2007. Saturday and Sunday, it was all about Bun Bo Hue. This spicy beef and pork noodle soup is a specialty of Hue in central Vietnam. It’s the dish I often beg my mom to make when I visit her in L.A., and it’s the dish I gobbled up two mornings in a row when I traveled to Vietnam in 2005.

I started off studying Andrea Nguyen’s wonderfully detailed cookbook, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, for what to buy and basic technique. Her cookbook is an invaluable resource in these instances; asking Mom would take too long and test our patience greatly.

Like most of my Vietnamese cooking endeavors – not that there have been that many – I drove to Hong Kong Market for ingredients. At the store, though, I realized I had no idea what banana blossoms/buds look like. Since I’d only seen them thinly sliced in restaurants, I called my parents to confirm. It would be the first of three consecutive calls.

I wandered over to the vast meat department. I don’t buy much red meat, so I spent some time searching for beef bones and such. I called my parents again, first to see if pork hocks cut earlier the same day were OK to buy and again to discuss seasoned ground pork. I only needed a small portion of beef, but the butcher guy wouldn’t cut me one, so I had to swing by Kroger for a piece of steak.

Bun Bo Hue requires an intense broth cooked for hours. My mom does simmer her version for a long time, but she also uses a prepackaged flavoring base to move it along. I decided that I would mostly follow Andrea's recipe and take no shortcuts. Plus, simmering beef bones would give me delicious bone marrow to enjoy! In short, I sautéed chopped onions with annatto (seeds that impart an orange color), then seared pork hocks and steak in the same big pot. Next, in two 5-quart pots – because I didn’t have a large stock pot -- I tossed in the onions, pork hocks, parboiled beef bones, lemongrass, fish sauce, rock sugar and other seasonings, and let them simmer for an hour. For the second hour of simmering, I replaced the hocks and bones with the beef. I strained and refrigerated the broth and finally settled into bed after 2 a.m.

Here’s the thing about me and Vietnamese cuisine: I’m usually familiar with the dish I’m attempting and have witnessed my mom making it a number of times. Yet there’s generally an ingredient or two I’ve never cooked with. This time, it was those banana blossoms/buds; I didn’t remove all the flowers as I should’ve. Cooking Bun Bo Hue reminded me, once again, how much time my mother used to invest in preparing beautiful dinners for our family every day.

Sunday, I made the lemongrass-chili oil with three tablespoons of red pepper flakes and added lots of freshly ground pepper to the seasoned ground pork before dropping balls of it into the boiling broth (after skimming off a bunch of fat). I also cooked thick round rice noodles and prepared a garnish plate of banana blossoms/buds, mint, cilantro and lime wedges. I sliced up onions and scallions, but omitted the traditional bean sprouts – ick! – and romaine lettuce, instead chopping up Napa cabbage for YouKnowWho. (There were probably more steps, but everything’s a blur at this point.)

Delicious! Not to toot my own horn, but this is a meal I no longer have to beg Mom for. So satisfying. I decided to pack leftovers for CabbageLover and NoLaNative and also ate some more last night.

This morning, I had my blood drawn for cholesterol testing. Oh, boy.

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