Friday, March 23, 2018

Beef Pho with Licorice Fern

Everyone at the Mekong Market on Rainier Avenue knew what I was up to. The proprietor, a small gentleman always on the move, paused long enough to grin at the two packages of beef bones in my basket and give me the thumbs up. They were a dollar a pound.

Then he frowned when he saw the big bag of dried noodles—and quickly guided me by the elbow to a refrigerated aisle, where he pointed at the fresh rice stick noodles.

At the checkout, as I unloaded a bunch of basil, bean sprouts, a box of yellow rock sugar, and those fresh noodles, the Vietnamese lady in front of me said, "So you're making pho?"

I explained that I had a sick kid at home and this was his request. It was my first attempt. Did she approve of the beef bones?

Indeed. "But make sure to boil out the impurities," she added. This is a common refrain. All my online sources recommend a brief (three to five minutes) initial boil to exorcize from the beef bones what some call impurities and other call, simply, the scum.

I'm all for getting rid of the scum.

Here in Seattle there is likely more pho noodle soup for sale than any other dish. It's our favorite fast food. My kids have grown up with it and have some opinions. I wanted to do it right.

Besides making comfort food for my ailing boy, I also wanted to test an idea that had been percolating in my head for a couple years. There are two ingredients in a typical pho meant to impart a hint of licorice-like flavor, specifically star anise and fennel seeds. Star anise is native to southeast Asia. I wondered if I might use our native licorice fern instead of a spice from halfway around the world. (Read more about licorice fern here.)

I split my batch of pho and designed a simple A-B test: one pot spiced with star anise and the other with licorice fern.

The short answer is that both phos were smashing. The licorice fern, however, won't end up as a local substitute for star anise in my future attempts. Instead, it proved to be yet another possible variation in an eminently malleable dish that's always been a cultural mashup from its earliest beginnings in French-colonial Vietnam.

After testing the two batches, I recombined them. The fern root can't take the place of star anise, but like a stick of black licorice candy, it adds a back-of-the-palate sensation of spicy coolness—a palpable sensation similar to the way Sichuan peppercorn numbs and tingles the lips.

There are plenty of very similar recipes online for pho. Most of them recommend using cut up beef bones (knuckles, shins, etc.) and doing an initial boil to cook out the foam and impurities. This results in a broth that isn't murky. Charring the onions and ginger in the broiler before adding to the broth is another crucial step. I adapted my recipe from this video.

5 - 6 lbs beef bones
6 quarts cold water
2 medium onions, quartered
4-inch piece of ginger, halved lengthwise
1/4 cup fish sauce
1 1/2 tbsp salt
1-inch piece yellow rock sugar
2 cinnamon sticks
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tbsp fennel seeds
6 star anise
6 cloves
2 pencil-sized licorice fern roots, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch pieces
thin-sliced beef such as rib-eye, skirt, ti-tip, sirloin, etc.
1 package thin bánh phở rice stick noodles
sprigs of basil, mint, cilantro
bean sprouts
lime
thin-sliced red pepper
sriracha and hoisin sauce

1. In a large stock pot, cover beef bones with cold water and heat over high flame.

2. Meanwhile, heat oven on broil and place onions and ginger in a roasting pan just beneath heat. Roast 15 - 20 minutes, turning occasionally with tongs, until charred on all sides.

3. Toast spices (cinnamon sticks, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, star anise, and cloves) in a dry pan over low heat for 5 minutes, careful not to burn.

4. When stock pot comes to boil, cook 3 minutes so that scum rises to the surface. Drain in sink and rinse bones and pot with warm water. Return bones to pot and cover with 6 quarts of cold water. Bring to boil once again, then reduce heat to simmer.

5. Once broth is simmering, add roasted onions and ginger, fish sauce, salt, yellow rock sugar, toasted spices, and licorice fern. Simmer, uncovered, at least 3 hours. Skim off any scum that rises to surface.

6. Remove bones with tongs, then strain broth through a fine mesh strainer to remove remaining solids. Refrigerate broth overnight to easily separate remaining layer of fat, if desired.

7. To assemble finished dish, add rice noodles and thin-sliced beef to bowl. Cover with hot broth and serve with bean spouts, lime wedges, hot pepper slices, and sprigs of basil, cilantro, and mint, along with condiments such as sriracha and hoisin.


Friday, February 16, 2018

Spring Foraging Classes

I've partnered once again this spring with both Bainbridge Island Parks & Rec and The Field Trip Society in Seattle to offer a variety of spring foraging trips, from short, after-work wild edible ID walks in a Seattle park to all-day shellfish extravaganzas on Hood Canal. Two of these classes are already sold out, so don't delay.

Below are the classes and dates. Please do not contact me for registration—click on the links. Also, check back for additional classes.
  • April 3: After-Work Wild Edible Walk, Seattle, WA SOLD OUT
  • April 17: Shellfish Foraging & Cooking, Dosewallips State Park, WA
  • April 24: After-Work Wild Edible Walk, Seattle, WA SOLD OUT
  • April 27: ***NEW*** Wild Edible Hike, Issaquah, WA
  • April 29: Shellfish Foraging & Cooking, Dosewallips State Park, WA SOLD OUT
  • May 13: Shellfish Foraging & Cooking, Dosewallips State Park, WA SOLD OUT
  • June 15: Geoduck Foraging & Cooking, Dosewallips State Park, WA SOLD OUT

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Matsutake Sukiyaki Hotpot

I GOT A CALL from Doug (of The Mushroom Hunters) the other day. He's bivouacked somewhere down in Humboldt or Mendocino County picking blacks and hogs. Meanwhile, Norcal friends of mine have been heckling me with texts and photos of their matsutake hauls of late.

Matsutake was still on sale (for outrageous prices) at Uwajimaya in Seattle last time I looked, so if you don't live in California you might be able to make this dish with fresh store-bought mushrooms. Me, I had some just before the holiday season, which occasions this post, and probably won't enjoy it again until next fall.

***

AS A CHILD of the seventies, I'm well acquainted with regrettable fads, from pet rocks to Farrah Fawcett haircuts.

Fondu is not among them.

Our family loved fondu, one of many food crazes during that unfairly maligned decade, and we went through a few different fondu cooking sets just as Star Wars was beginning its long run. Invariably the slender forks got lost or broken, and anything made of wood ended up scorched by the little Sterno tins. But under the Christmas tree each year there would be a fresh new set to put to work.

Forget the Euro-Swiss cheese thing. We all preferred meat fondu, cooked in a pot of boiling oil that could have easily sent one of us kids to the ER with a misplaced elbow, not that anyone worried about stuff like that back then. My dad would bring home good beef from the butcher, pre-cut into small cubes; Mom kept the cupboard stocked with the few sauces available at the time, most of them with a Kikkoman label.


I WAS REMINDED of these good times around the fondu pot after spending an evening with my friend Taichi Kitamura recently at his top-notch Japanese restaurant, Sushi Kappo Tamura, devouring Sukiyaki Hotpot.

It was the tail-end of matsutake mushroom season in the Pacific Northwest and Taichi invited me to partake in a traditional preparation. With a dozen of us at the table, he had three bubbling hotpots along with platters overflowing with matsutake mushrooms, thinly sliced rib-eye and short rib, Napa cabbage, tofu, and pre-cooked cellophane noodles.

Taichi doesn't use beef stock in his broth, or any stock for that matter, and I soon discovered that a simple mixture of water, sake, and soy sauce (sweetened with sugar) becomes increasingly profound as more ingredients, especially fresh slivers of matsutake buttons and premium cuts of beef, are cooked in it over the course of the evening.

The matsutake gives the broth its signature taste that is reminiscent of cinnamon and spice yet earthy and, for lack of a better word, fungaly. Autumn aroma is how the Japanese describe this tantalizing flavor. By the end, all the guests were clamoring for to-go containers so they could take home the rich dregs of this amazing broth mixed with a little rice.

Now I'm shopping for a fondu set—or maybe even a traditional Japanese or Korean hotpot. Regular readers will know that I've posted a Matsutake Sukiyaki recipe in the past, but Taichi has convinced me that it can be so much simpler and just as delicious. From now on I won't be sautéing any of the sukiyaki ingredients; it's just as tasty (even more so) to cook all the ingredients right in the pot, while sitting around the table with friends and family just like the old fondu days.

This same method is easily accomplished in the woods, by the way, after a long day of mushroom hunting, which puts it on an even higher level in my book.

3 cups water
1 cup soy sauce
1 cup sake
1/3 cup sugar (or more, to taste; Taichi will use as much as 3/4 cup)
3 - 4 (or more) matsutake buttons, thinly sliced
1 lb beef, thinly sliced (rib-eye, short rib, etc.)
1 lb cellophane noodles, pre-cooked
1/2 small Napa cabbage, sliced into wide ribbons
1 package tofu, cubed
1 small onion, sliced into half-moons (optional)
rice to accompany

1. Make rice and prepare raw hotpot ingredients: arrange beef on a platter, cube tofu, slice matsutake mushrooms and cabbage, and boil noodles until al dente before rinsing with cold tap water.

2. In a pot mix together water, sake, soy sauce, and sugar. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat slightly. Allow some of the sake alcohol to burn off before adding matsutake. Cook matsutake at a low boil or high simmer for a few minutes until its flavor has infused the broth, then begin adding raw ingredients in small portions. Add noodles last, just before ladling into bowls and serving with rice. Repeat. And repeat again.

Serves 4.