By Rosie Hawthorne on February 26, 2013
On the Outer Banks, the shortest month of the year can seem like the longest. February can be bone-chilling, achingly damp, gray for days, blustery, rainy, with the occasional nor’easter thrown in for good measure.
It’s sit-around-the-fireplace weather, and there’s no better way to warm your insides than with a bowl of comfort and nourishment — soup.
During the winter months, the Hawthornes always have oysters on hand and a quick Oyster Soup satisfies both appetite and soul perfectly, especially since it happens to be snowing as we make this today, a rare treat for Outer Bankers.
1 quart shucked oysters, with liquor
2 TB butter
1 TB oil
½ leek, sliced
2 celery stalks, chopped
4 mushrooms, chopped
2 cups skim milk
1 cup half and half
1 cup heavy cream
1 tsp Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Seafood Magic Seasoning, or more, to taste (You could substitute Old Bay.)
¼ cup cornstarch
Freshly ground salt and pepper
Heat pot over medium heat. When hot, add in butter and oil. The butter is for flavor. The oil is to raise the smoke point, so the butter doesn’t burn. When butter is foamy, add in leeks and celery. Sauté about one minute, then add in mushrooms and cook another minute.
Strain the oysters, reserving the oyster liquor.
Make a cornstarch slurry: Combine ¼ cup of the oyster liquor with the cornstarch. Stir to mix well. This will be used later to thicken the soup.
Slowly add the reserved oyster liquor to the pot, except for the last tablespoon or so. Discard the last bit of the liquor since you want to avoid any pieces of oyster shell which might have settled to the bottom.
Add in 2 cups skim milk. Heat through over medium low heat.
Add in oysters.
Season with two or three grinds of salt and seven to eight grinds of pepper.
Add in a heaping teaspoon of Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Seafood Magic. You could substitute Old Bay Seasoning.
Add in the half and half and heavy cream.
Stir the cornstarch slurry to combine and add to the soup. Cook over medium-low until thickened.
Ladle into bowls and top with fresh parsley and thyme.
Notice the recipe calls for skim milk, half and half and heavy cream. This isn’t etched in stone. We use what we have on hand. We always have skim milk and heavy cream. If you have those two, you have everything you need. But if you had 1%, 2%, or whole milk, go ahead and substitute that for the skim and half and half. The heavy cream is essential though. This is a wonderfully creamy, velvety soup that has an oyster or two in every spoonful and, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a few crabbies in there too.
Or a pearl.
My next soup offering for you comes with a soup story.
Last spring, Mr. Hawthorne and I drove across country. For whatever reasons, he decided to go on a diet a week before we left — low carbohydrate/low fat/high protein. And we’re on a two-month road trip.
“How does this affect Rosie,” you ask? It means that because of Mr. H.’s diet regimen, I ate at more Chinese restaurants than I can shake a chopstick at.
Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Chinese, if it’s good, but after a few weeks of this, I was craving anything else. Fast-forward to Larned, Kansas. Mr. Hawthorne was actually going to let me pick a restaurant for our early-bird dinner. There’s a Mexican place down the street, which I’m making a bee-line to; however, before we get there, Mr. Hawthorne sees the Peking Garden Chinese Restaurant. The truck automatically turns in.
As always, he immediately heads for the buffet to pick and choose what he’s allowed to eat. The special that night was Pho Bo, which I ordered. It was the most ethereal, ambrosial broth I’ve ever tasted. It was a bowl of exquisite and delicately balanced flavors and it was one of the best meals I’ve ever had.
In case you’re not familiar with pho, it’s a Vietnamese noodle soup. Pho bo is made with beef; pho ga is made with chicken. Pho is Vietnam’s national dish and has a long history of forming and developing.
It is believed to have originated in Hanoi in northern Vietnam when the French colonized the country in the late 1880s. At this time, Vietnamese did not eat beef — the cow was a cherished beast of burden for them, not a food source. The French, however, tried to popularize beef during their colonization of Vietnam, introducing the idea of slaughtering cows for food.
The northern regions of Vietnam were not as rich as the southern regions, and food scarcity was no stranger to the North Vietnamese household. They got their food where they could find it and learned to take beef parts and bones that the French didn’t want to use, incorporating them into their cuisine.
The general theory holds that the word “pho,” pronounced “fuh,” is a corruption of the French word “feu” or “fire.” Pho could be a Vietnamese adaptation of the French soup, “pot au feu,” basically a beef stew which the French brought with them when they moved into Vietnam. The use of charred ingredients for the broth is similar to the French method and sets this soup apart from other Asian noodle soups.
In 1954, when Vietnam was split in two, many northerners migrated southward to escape communism and they brought their pho culture with them. In South Vietnam, pho made a brash turn away from its conservative northern traditions. Unlike North Vietnam, South Vietnam was rich and abundant in food and the South Vietnamese put their taste for the lavish on the traditional pho, experimenting and using other ingredients such as chicken.
In the south, pho was embellished with more of everything — more meat, noodles, bean sprouts, chilies, scallions, cilantro, basil, and hoisin sauce. For northern pho purists, this liberal adulteration of their well-balanced bowl is not representative of authentic pho and they consider it an affront to them, their pride, and their reputation.
The fall of Saigon in 1975 saw masses of Vietnamese fleeing for their lives. In that chaotic period of history, the Vietnamese found themselves displaced from everything that was familiar to them. As a result, they sought comfort in familiarity — in their own food — in their pho. Because of the Vietnamese diaspora, refugees established Vietnamese restaurants in their far-slung communities and pho was introduced to their non-Vietnamese neighbors.
Before 1975, pho was not well-known outside of Vietnam. Now, it’s become a global dish thanks to more than 2 million Vietnamese living on five continents. Pho, because of its adaptive nature, began to see an evolution. The basic ingredients were retained, but recipes evolved using what ingredients were locally available.
I’ve wanted pho ever since Wednesday, April 18, 2012, when I ate it at the Peking Garden in Larned, Kansas. I guess if I want a proper pho, I’ll have to figure out how to make it myself. And I did. And I’m sharing with you. And you’re welcome.
(Makes 6 quarts of broth.)
10 pounds beef soup bones with marrow
3 pounds lamb bones (Not original to authentic pho, but they were on sale. I threw caution to the wind and added lamb bones.)
4 large onions, skins on and halved
8 inches of fresh ginger root, sliced
Oil for drizzling
1 tsp whole cumin
1 tsp fennel seeds
8 whole cloves
5 cardamon seeds
3-inch long cinnamon stick
5 star anise
1/8 cup sugar
Thin strips of flat iron steak, cut on the diagonal
Chinese bean or rice noodles
Jalapenos and Serrano peppers, red and green, sliced
Place the bones in a 16-quart stock pot, cover with cold water, and let them sit for an hour.
While the bones are bathing, prepare the onions and ginger root for charring. Leave the skin on the onions and slice in half. Peel the ginger and slice it thinly, about an ⅛-inch thick. Place on an oiled baking sheet and drizzle oil over top. Place under the broiler and char both sides of the onions and ginger. Remove the onion skins and smash the charred ginger pieces. The charring will impart a lovely mellow and naturally sweet flavor to the broth. Set aside.
Note: I buy bunches of ginger root at a time, slice them into 1-inch cubes, and freeze. That way, I always have ginger on hand. We do a lot of stir frying in the Hawthorne household, so the ginger comes in quite handy for both stir fries and sauces.
After the bones sat in a cold-water bath for an hour, I refreshed the water, added in the bones, and brought it to a boil. Boil 5 minutes to remove impurities, skimming off scum. After 5 minutes, dump out the water, clean out the pot, and refill with cold water. Scrub the bones with a brush to clean a bit. Add bones back to pot. Bring to a boil, skimming any foam that comes to the surface. This took about 45 minutes to come to a boil. Reduce to simmer and add the charred onions and ginger, the sugar, and all the spices to the pot.
You want a very bare simmer, for at least three hours. From what I’ve read, all the flavor is extracted from the bones within three hours. Throughout the three-hour period of a bare simmer, continue to skim off scum and fat that pools on the surface.
I got to three hours and it was already 11 p.m. I wasn’t going to wait for the broth to cool before I put it in the fridge, so I turned my burner to the lowest of lows, covered the pot, and let it sit throughout the night.
Pour the broth through a chinois or a colander. Save the marrow bones for your 4-legged critters. They will love you for this. Then re-pour the broth through a double layer of a cheesecloth-lined chinois or colander.
Cover the pho broth with plastic wrap touching the surface and refrigerate it overnight. Let the fat congeal. The fat will all come to the surface and when you pull off the plastic, the fat adheres. Discard the fat.
I ended up with six quarts of pho broth, which I labeled, dated, and froze.
When you’re ready to make pho bo, bring out one quart of pho broth and let thaw.
Pour boiling water over the bean noodles to cover and let sit for 20 minutes.
Heat up 1 quart of pho broth and bring it to the boil.
Drop beef strips into the boiling broth and turn off heat. Add noodles to bowls and ladle broth and beef strips over noodles.
I have sliced mushrooms, sliced jalapenos and serranos, sliced scallions, lime wedges, bean sprouts, basil, cilantro, and mint. If you want to scale back on the heat, seed the peppers.
Add in the accompaniments and serve.
The best part is I now have five more quarts of this broth in the freezer so I can whip up a bowl of soup any time I get a yen for pho. Ahhh, Larned, Kansas, I’ve missed you and Peking Garden Restaurant, but I don’t need you anymore.