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Housewife Tryouts and Bun Bo Hue

3 Oct

I am one of the unlucky many who is being punished due to the insanity in Congress. The silver lining of shutdown thus far has been getting my home back in order after the wedding and honeymoon.  I kept a few items out and around the house from the wedding – which is why I crafted in the first place – but the majority of arts and crafts are now safely stored in the basement. I’ll give things a year before I donate or something. Or something. We’ll see if I can actually part with anything.

Anyways. The novelty of the shutdown has long worn off now that we’re four days in with no end in sight. On day two I fortunately had a packed agenda. My Dad came over with my nephew for a visit and broke me out of jail for a trip to the grocery store. As a one-car household, it’s easy to feel a bit trapped. My nephew had quite the experience going to FreshWorld – I’m sure he saw (well not really…I mean he’s only two months) things that are super crazy and foreign. His head was whipping left and right and his eyes were the size of saucers. I was the same way when I first saw dragon fruit, jackfruit, gigantor catfish heads and crazy animal parts.

I was on a mission for Bún Bò Huế (boon bah way), or beef soup from Huế . Anh *loves* this spicy, rich beef soup but honestly it’s always scared me a bit. Not so much the broth or flavors, but the meat parts. I mean I’m no shrinking violet when it comes to tasting new things, but I’m generally not a fan of animal feet and surrounding parts. This soup has ham hocks with the skin still on. Which is not appealing to my still generally American palette.

Bun Bo Hue soup

Bun Bo Hue goodness….without the pork hock.

But he’s my husband, and I’m his wife, and this is his favorite dish. So I spent a furlough day making it for him. I consulted my trusty Andrea Nguyen Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, The Ravenous Couple and Wandering Chopsticks to compare recipes. Not like I really had any liberty to do so, I went ahead and blended several recipes based on the flavor profiles I know we like best. Acknowledging that my soups still err on the side of bland, I went followed the Ravenous Couple’s lead and picked up a bag of Bún Bò Huế  spice mix to make sure the venture wasn’t a waste of time. 

Despite many many visits to slaughterhouses and meat processing establishments from my former life, I still don’t know what some of these meat cuts are, exactly. Maybe this one wasn’t as flavorful as it should be as I couldn’t find the ham hock and pork shank the collective recipes called for. I’ve tried several times to make soup broth from bones, spices and vegetables, but it just doesn’t taste right so I think I’ve resigned to my reality of using soup bases and pre-packaged stock.

Ok. That’s enough talky. Here are some photos.

Broth and meat ingredients to start. And it was after noon, so a Brooklyn Oktoberfest was completely appropriate. Love this recipe as it calls for a hefty serving of lemongrass for the broth. I didn’t get pork bones and instead got the bone-in pork hocks (upper left).

Beef leg bones, pork hock, beef shank, onions and lemongrass for Bun Bo Hue broth

First you soften the onions with the annato seek oil which gives it the red color, and then in goes the meat to sear in the juicy goodness.

Pork hock, beef shank and onions

Now comes the fun part. Lemongrass and sugar! And fish sauce! My favorite cast of characters. This rock sugar is fun to toss in the pot, but I’m not sure what is the difference in flavor from other options. But hey, I’m not a native Vietnamese chef, so I just do what I’m told.

Beef bones, sea salt, fish sauce, rock sugar and lots of lemongrass

While the broth and meat are simmering happily away, shift attention to the spice mix and other ingredients for the finished soup. I was surprised with this one that you don’t put in all of the spices and flavors for the broth while the bones and marrow are getting happy. In this one you add the final spice mixture towards the end. The flavoring mixture is made of:

  • Fine shrimp paste
  • Fish sauce
  • Annato seeds and oil (strain out the seeds after they bleed their rich color)
  • Sugar
  • Minced lemongrass and garlic
  • Red pepper flake to taste
  • Bun Bo Hue spice packet
  • Oil (canola, vegetable, coconut)

Fine shrimp paste, fish sauce, annato seeds, sugar, lemongrass, garlic, chile pepper flake and Bun Bo Hue spice packet.

The meat will be fully cooked after an hour or so depending on size. Once they’re cooked, remove and soak in a water bath for 10 minutes to avoid discoloration and then move to a plate to cover with plastic wrap so as not to dry it out before serving.

I was really excited to try a new kind of chả, or ham product, for this dish. This one from the Hue region, hence the name, is more sour/vinegary which I love. I’ll definitely be picking this up again. The flavor is so much better than my usual chả lua. The cooked pork blood, on the other hand, was a process. FreshWorld didn’t have any where I looked – assuming it would be cooked and frozen, ready to cook in the broth. Empty handed, I walked up to Phuc Qua – a small hole-in-the-stripmall shop – and asked the woman where I could find cooked pork blood.

“What? Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m making Bun Bo Hue”

“WHAT!? Are you sure you know how to eat that???”

“Yes, my husband is Vietnamese. Now where is the cooked pork blood?”

Thoroughly amused, she pointed me to the ‘butcher’ counter.

Cha Hue or pork luncheon meat, and cooked pork blood.

Hubby got home from work (he’s fully funded, thankfully), I started to get ready for dinner service and assembled the bowls. He doesn’t like the thicker noodles that are usually served with this soup, so I made a smaller variety I had in the pantry. Here is his bowl with all of the ingredients and fixings:

Bun Bo Hue bowl

Clockwise from 12: sliced beef shank, Cha Hue, cooked pork blood, pork shank with skin, and fresh banana blossom atop noodles. I followed the instructions for the banana blossom explicitly this time and soaked the freshly julienned purple leaves in a bowl of water with lemon juice. Not lime like last time. I can taste the difference. It’s good to follow instructions sometimes. After you assemble the ingredients in a bowl, ladle in the piping hot broth.

Fixings on the table are shredded cabbage, bean sprouts, Vietnamese coriander (Rau Ram), mint, and lime.

Bun Bo Hue on the table with vegetable and herb fixings.

I thoroughly enjoyed the meal and don’t know why I was so afraid of the dish until now. Next time, I’ll definitely start with a pre-made broth or stock which may give it more richness and flavor.

As Anh said, “Totally edible, good job Em.”

Now if only the government is allowed to go back to work and I can legally change my name…

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