Facing down Grim

The very flavor of warmth graces the Nguyens' beef stew
By LINDSAY STERLING  |  November 16, 2011

food_vietnamese_main
WARMTH ITSELF Lemongrass is the key.

You won't believe what just happened. I put on my wool coat and wrap my scarf around my neck with no air gaps. Heading out to work to write the latest recipe for Immigrant Kitchens, I slip on our wooden deck. Turns out the deck was covered with the season's first frozen invisible dew. I don't know who decided to call our climate "temperate." That seems like a ridiculous name for what we're about to go through. It's a little joke the climatologists play on us: Temperate. Ha ha ha . . . Even the season names seam a little brainwash-y. Fall, winter, and spring are just looking way on the bright side of cold, cold, and cold. We are now entering the eight-month-long conglomerate season I like to call Grim.

Before you go crying off to Florida, remember, Grim is just a funny game we Mainers like to play. It involves skiing, drinking hot cocoa after ice skating, and sitting around a hole hoping to catch a fish that you throw back in the hole. But I've got something new to do this winter! You've got to try cooking and eating Vietnamese beef stew. It's basically beef stew, but it's made with spices you'd never dream of, soy sauce instead of salt, and it's topped with zingy fresh Thai basil, shaved raw onions, and peppers. My kids and husband gave it thumbs way up.

I learned to make this stew from two brothers from Cam Ranh, Vietnam. Their names are Quang and Minh Nguyen. The soup's name is Bo Kho, but they pronounce it Ba Kah. Their mother used to stay up until midnight making it so she could sell in the morning in front of their house. People in Vietnam eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, at parties and every day. After a couple months of eating Kix, Grape Nuts, and Special K, the brothers called their mom in desperation and had her tell them over the phone how to make the soup.

You sauté minced garlic, onion, and lemongrass in a small sauté pan with a little oil. You put that sautéed mixture into a bowl with stew beef, sugar, ground chili, soy sauce, and deep red Bo Kho paste (made of blended onion, tomato paste, soy sauce, chili, ginger, cinnamon, cumin, star anise, beef bouillon, and paprika). You massage that all together and let the meat marinate for 30 minutes or overnight. Then in a big soup pot you brown the beef in a little oil, add some water, whole lemongrass stems, and cook until the beef is tender. Finally, cook carrot rounds and potato wedges in the soup until you can spear them easily with a chopstick.

Even though there were a lot of spices in the soup, the lemongrass was the aroma that really had me drooling over the steaming pot. Lemongrass is the very flavor of warm. We need it here. The unbelievable thing that happened is this. When I was typing the recipe I was thinking I need lemongrass. Three seconds later, I kid you not, a friend texts me. (He's not Vietnamese. He's a white guy from New Jersey. A crazy gardener dude.) His text says: "Lemongrass in excess. Need any?"

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