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Pho-nomenal

 

 

A good bowl of pho is a work of art. An addictive, delicious work of art, that I crave sometimes with the intensity of a crack addict needing a fix. Maybe that’s a hyperbole, but it feels very true nevertheless.  Over the holiday break I feasted on plenty of delicious foods including a roast goose, a leg of lamb, homemade egg nog, the best fruit punch in the world, and many other delicacies, and yet by the time this week rolled around I was craving a bowl of restorative pho with a scary intensity.

 

I am not alone in my love, there are many addicts roaming the streets looking for their next fix, so I’d like to tell you about the most amazing pho in Calgary. It’s served in a small nondescript restaurant in Chinatown, one of those ones you’ve been to many times, and the decor looks like a hundred other venerable establishments.  It’s located in a building that positively reeks of all manner of dried seafood, so you have to bravely cross that barrier before you get there, but never mind, it’s worth it.

 

 

 

 

A pho lives and dies by its broth, and Pho Hoai’s broth is a work of art. Rich, meaty, silky, it’s as close to ridiculously great as I’ve been able to find in our city. The soup will inevitably contain some noodles, your choice of meat, sliced onions and cilantro if you so desire (I don’t), and will come gilded with a huge plate of the freshest, largest basil you’ll ever see, a hot pepper or two, some lime wedges, and a large handful of bean sprouts to add some crunch. The rare meat slowly cooks in the hot broth as you swirl around the noodles and achieves a perfect tender texture.

 

 

And as you toss in a handful of sprouts and basil, and drizzle in some lime juice (or a metric ton, if you’re like me), and sip that rich broth that tastes like a spicy hug, you can’t help but feel that the universe must be a pretty benevolent place for something like this soup to exist.

 

 

5/5 

PHO HOAI
132 3 Ave SE
(403) 264-8174

 

Pho Hoai Vietnamese Noodle House on Urbanspoon

Pumpkin has a boyfriend

 

 

 

I thought I’d throw out a quick update on the orange kitty we rescued last winter. Last we spoke, he was busily settling into the house, and being a lover not a fighter he was mainly placating all the house cats that didn’t reciprocate his ever loving attentions.  He is the cuddliest cat by nature, and he is now allowing me to pet him, as long as he doesn’t see my hand approach him directly.  He also hisses at the front door if it’s open, and runs away to hide probably hoping that he never has anything to do with the great outdoors ever again.

 

With Alfie, he ended up making peace and now they are happy to run away from scary noises together.

 

With Tweak, he has a mutual pact of non-aggression. He tries to be all loving, but she looks at him sideways and walks away.

 

But it was my big white deaf boy that was the main object of his affections.  He LOVES the big white furball, and follows him around the house worshipfully. And despite the fact that they’re both male, he tries to get frisky with him. And he tries to hold him down and clean him, and groom him, and cuddle up next to him. It’s hilarious and entertaining by turns.  And now I have a big gay orange cat, and poor confused Cheney who has no idea what he’s done to deserve this.

 

PS – He also has a supremely useful trait. When Cheney locks himself in the bathroom to have a yell (see story), Pumpkin runs to the rescue. Upon hearing his plaintive cries, he headbutts the door and lets Cheney out. It’s very sweet to watch, and incredibly helpful as well.

 

“I’m gonna hug him, and squeeze him, and call him George…”

 

A killer stew

 

 

I’m still mired deep in schoolwork with no end in sight. And I’m kind of grateful that it’s winter, because as everyone knows, the winters in Canada are long, dark and deep and there is far less to do, so studying does not feel like such a deprivation. Let’s face it, I’ve spent many a winter surfing the internet aimlessly and dreaming of tropical vacations, so it’s hard to say I’m missing out on much. And James is taking some courses as well, looking for a change from his present career, so we’re both in the same boat of studying every night and weekend. It’s kind of a lovely way to spend our evenings. We swear a lot.

 

It also leaves time for those ambitious, leisurely recipes that I always bookmark, yet seldom take time to make. You know the ones I mean – coq au vin made with a proper rooster, choucroute garnie, pot au feu, biryani, and many other recipes that take plenty of time and ingredients. If there were restaurants that served proper versions of these dishes, I’d gladly pay someone else to do the cooking, but there really aren’t many in Calgary, so in order to experience the glory of poor, regional cooking, I must find the time to make many of them myself. Plus I enjoy mucking around the kitchen as a reward for studying. That and exercise keep me sane.

 

Surfing a Russian recipe blog, I came across a beautiful tutorial for  a beef daube, and it looked so good that it started a veritable craving. The ingredient list seemed pretty reasonable  – not much beyond beef, aromatics, a bottle of wine, bacon, shallots and onions, and it looked and sounded glorious.  Then I remembered seeing a daube recipe on one of the most drool inducing sites, fxcuisine. (Take a peek, the photos are amazing.) I promptly combined the elements I liked in both recipes, and came up with my very own version of a rustic beef stew that was close to divine.

 

If you feel like attempting such a feat, the steps are very easy. The hard part is mentally coming to terms that it will be four days before you eat it.  (Although for the record, everyone cheats and has a small serving the day it’s finished).

 

 

So without further ado:

 

 

3.5 lbs grass-fed stewing beef/chuck/blade (preferably from your local farmer), we used the excellent Hoven farms beef

1 bottle red wine (all the recipes say the best you can spare, but we used a $6.99 store special (Naked Grape?) ’cause, well – it’s stew)

1 orange (I had some mandarins that I repurposed)

5 – 7 juniper berries (I used rowan berries, where we get to the attempted murder part), honestly you can skip it and it’ll be fine, or use gin

3 cloves

8 black peppercorns

1/3 cinnamon stick, or a 1/4 tsp cinnamon

lots of garlic, bunch of thyme, parsley

bay leaf

salt

flour

1/2 package bacon/lard/salt  pork

shallots or onions

1 lb carrots

1 pigs foot (there is no ewwww, you eat the animal, use all the parts)

1 oz whiskey/cognac/vodka (also not mandatory)

 

So the first step was pretty easy. Put the meat into a dish/bowl to marinate. Add smashed garlic cloves, chopped onion quarters, and orange quarters.  In a mortar/bowl/cutting board smash the cloves, bay leaf, peppercorns and cinnamon and sprinkle over the meat.

 

 

 

 

Aaaand this is where I improvised and instead of trying to find juniper berries, I had a stroke of inspiration and grabbed a bunch of rowan berries from the rowan tree in my front yard.

 

 

 

 

I know they have a slightly bitter, astringent taste not too far removed from juniper, although they lack the piney scent juniper has. James saw this turn of events, and proceeded to read me the riot act about how ‘everyone knows those berries are poisonous’ and how this is a plot to kill him. This is partially a long running joke in our house, and partially his very real fear of poisonous berries.  I calmly and lovingly mushed the hard berries in the mortar and added them to the meat, telling him that as soon as ‘everyone’ becomes a botanist, we can discuss the dangers of rowan berries, until then, I’ll take years worth of empirical nibbling over his prejudices. He told me ‘if you put those in there, I’m not eating it’ and I told him ‘then don’t’. On that note, I sprinkled the meat with salt, poured on the wine, and left it wrapped in the fridge to marinate for the next two days.  This was Sunday evening. Do give it a flip every day or so.

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday night was when the stew was actually made. This part of the process took me about 40 minutes, you may well be faster.

 

First, take out your well marinated meat, and strain the marinade into a separate pot.

 

 

 

Then cut up the bacon, carrots and the onions that I used instead of shallots.

 

 

 

Then prepare the bouquet garni – this is where you take the pigs foot, bay leaves, and thyme (also parsley if you have it) and tie it up in a square of cheese cloth.

 

 

 

Brown your bacon, then fish it out and place it at the bottom of your stew pot, ideally cast iron.  Leave the fat alone.  Now, many classic recipes talk about blanching the lardons, including the one from fxcuisine. Apparently this is to remove excess salt and smoke. You know what I like in bacon? Salt and smoke. So I said no way to that nonsense and left the bacon as the golden goodness that it is.

 

 

Brown the onions in the bacon grease.  Also toss them in the stew pot.

 

 

Turn your heat on high, and brown your meat, in batches if you have to. Be sure to carefully fish out the bits of spices, as they’ll burn viciously. The idea is to just sear the edges, not cook much, so high heat, quick tosses. Add it to the stew pot.

 

 

Here you can multitask – turn on your thick, fragrant marinade, and add a splash of hard alcohol.  Let the whole thing come to a boil, and simmer for a few minutes to dissipate the alcohol itself. In the meantime, make a small batch of dough  – about a cup of flour and a bit of water. The reasoning here is that no steam can be allowed to escape, along with any flavor components.

 

 

Place the dough around the rim of your pot, add carrots, tomatoes, and whole peeled garlic cloves. Make a little nest in the middle, and drop in your pigs foot bundle, pour hot marinade into the pot, and smack down the lid.  Cook at 320 or so for about 3.5 – 4 hrs. Then, it’s probably pretty late, so take the whole pot and stick it outside. If it’s not cold enough to stick the pot outside, then there is no reason to be making daube. The idea here is that as the meat cools down, it absorbs a great deal of fragrant liquid, gorging on the sauce and becoming plumper than ever.

 

 

The next day, take in your pot, and break open the dough seal.  Take the substantial layer of fat off the top, and the cheesecloth bundle, and discard. Place on gentle heat to warm up the stew. Inhale the magic fragrance of the steam. See how the pigs foot contributed magical collagen to the stew, making it unctuous and rich. Dip a spoon into the sauce and taste. Now it’s time to gild the lily.

 

Depending on the quality of wine, and how much salt you added, and how acidic the tomatoes were, the stew may need a gentle tweaking of flavors. You can increase the acidity with a spoonful of red wine vinegar, or some lemon juice. You can add some umami by adding a bit of Worcestershire sauce or a mashed up anchovy, or olives, you can mellow the sauce by using beurre manie – butter blended with a bit of flour.  Our cheap vino definitely called for a bit of mellowing, and umami is never a bad thing, so I decided to go with a paste of two or three mashed up anchovies, a tablespoon of butter, and about a tablespoon of flour. While the stew was heating up, I mashed up all the ingredients and stirred them into the pot. Anything with flour should be boiled for a few minutes to remove the raw flour taste, just like gravy.

 

 

To serve, we boiled up some egg noodles and tossed them with a bit of butter and parsley. Mashed potatoes would not have been amiss at all, but we were out of potatoes and too lazy to leave the house.

 

 

So of course, the stew smells amazing and looks like comfort. The offending berries are a long forgotten danger. And James’ resolve melted slowly with the smells of a rich beef ambrosia.  And of course he could not resist the siren call of a daube, and now he’s in the hospital with food poisoning. Just kidding.   🙂   In a way we’re both right – rowan berries do contain a toxin that is neutralized by cooking or freezing, but really, they’re a pretty harmless berry. They’re too bitter to eat raw in any quantity, so they’re great for adding punch to a marinade.  Also, sorrel contains oxalic acid and apricot seeds contain cyanide, so whatever substance rowan berries have, they’re not that exciting in the culinary world.

 

 

Bon appetit! And needless to say this recipe doubles like a charm, and gets better and better each day you eat it.