There was a time when chefs would hazard to describe their food with the dreaded c-word, “comfort.” Even inspired-by-“comfort” caused immaculately kept whites to crease, chefs bristling at the criticism. Comfort was the realm of lesser dining establishments like pubs, road houses, cafeterias, food trucks, and street carts.
Times have changed.
The post modernist patron (modernist as in cuisine not sociological epoch) is selectively aware of many things food, tunnel-vision thanks to the Food Network. They know about 15-minute meals, “unctuous” baked desserts, kitchen challenges, and Guy Fieri’s penchant for garbled pop culture references and triple-“D” fare (diners, drive-ins, and dives). Some think professional kitchens operate like studio ones with ample space for HD cameras, lighting, sound equipment, and drama.
With such expectations, even higher end restaurants readily serve takes on comfort food, departures that resemble familiar dishes but are inherently “chef-y.”
Why has comfort proven popular? The obvious reason has to do with the prevailing economic climate. Few are willing to spend their hard earned cash on extravagance. Both employers and employees have implemented austerity budgets.
A less apparent reason has to do with human interaction. Just as patrons who frequent food trucks can identify with operators because of their sheer proximity to the service window, comfort food allows for a more intimate exchange between kitchen and patron. Even fancier interpretations of comfort food seem earnest and genuine.
This is what I grew up eating. This is a dish whose recipe was passed down from one generation to another. This is what I want to tuck into after a long day.
Consider a wonderful rendition of a stew, called bo kho, at a Vietnamese noodle house in the west end of the city, Ox Head Restaurant (790 Kanata Avenue). Served as a noodle soup with rice or egg noodles, bowls of “mi bo kho” are earthy, fiery (sinus clearing hot!), and redolent of star anise.
Ox Head’s bo kho comes with the characteristic roll-chopped carrots, thinly sliced onions, fried shallots, and either cilantro or garlic chives.
Tucking into a bowl the first time, my brow beaded with sweat. For reference, I season my pho with a good deal of sambal or sriracha. My loving sisters-in-law made me do Tabasco shots during my wedding.
Now, I crave Ox Head’s bo kho, a hidden gem item on a menu that features pho.
To better appreciate the dish and its complexities, I made bo kho at home.
And, I first served it akin to a comforting braised beef dish from one of my favourite restaurants in Ottawa, Murray Street Kitchen, Wine and Charcuterie (110 Murray Street).
Chef Steve Mitton’s kitchen plated his braised beef with fries. I happened to have been experimenting with making potato pave.
[Adapted from Bo Kho Vietnamese Beef Stew Recipe from The Ravenous Couple]
What You’ll Need
- 2-3 lbs of beef stew meat (sinewy shank, intercostals, or brisket work best)
- marinade (more of a cure) for every 2 lbs of beef stew meat
- 1 medium white or yellow onion
- 4 cloves of garlic (approximately 2 tbsp chopped)
- 2 tbsp lemon grass (approximately 2 stalks worth, depending on how woody)
- 1-2 tbsp fish sauce
- 2 tbsp Hungarian paprika
- 1 tsp cayenne pepper powder (or another chile powder)
- 1 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper (approximately 2 tsp black peppercorns)
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon powder (1-2″ of bark, ground)
- 1/2 tsp star anise powder (1-2 stars, ground)
- 1/2 tsp clove powder (5-6 whole cloves, ground)
- 2 tsp brown or raw sugar
- 3″ finger/knob of ginger
- 1 stalk of lemon grass, bruised
- 3-4 medium carrots
- 2 bay leaves
- 5-7 dried red chiles
- beef broth or stock for braising
- kosher salt to taste
- lime wedges
- Sriracha (or another sambal)
- accompaniments (optional)
- braised beef tendons
- rice pho noodles
- bird’s eye chiles
- deep fried shallots
- If the stew meat came whole, cube it into 2-3″ pieces.
- Prepare the marinade by finely chopping the onion and garlic and placing them into a lidded container that can hold all of the stew meat.
- Prepare the lemon grass by removing the woody green ends and roots from two of the three stalks. Then remove and discard the outer most layer.
- Finely chop the lemon grass and add it to the container.
- Add all of the powdered spices to the container.
- Grind the remaining whole spices and add them to the container as well.
- Add the fish sauce to the container and mix everything together.
- Add the stew meat to the container and coat each piece in the marinade.
- Lid the container and place it into the fridge for 2-3 hours.
- Peel and roll cut the carrots. Set the carrots aside.
- Bruise the remaining lemon grass stalk with the back of a French knife or cleaver and set it aside.
- Peel and cut the ginger into larger pieces.
- Without washing off the marinade, sear the pieces of meat in a metal-bottomed pan (2 minutes on each side), set to medium heat, with some vegetable or canola oil. This will need to be done in batches.
- After each batch of meat is seared, deglaze the pan with beef broth or stock.
- Add both the seared meat and deglazing liquid to a larger pot that can hold the stew meat and beef broth or stock.
- Continue searing and deglazing the remaining stew meat pieces until all of the stew meat is in the pot.
- Add the sliced ginger, bruised lemon grass, bay leaves, and dried chiles to the pot.
- Pour in as much beef broth or stock as is required to just submerge the meat.
- Bring the pot to a simmer on medium heat.
- Once it is at a simmer, turn the heat down to low and place the lid on top of the pot.
- After 2 hours of simmering, check the meat. It should be near tender. Add the carrots and continue braising for another hour.
- Braised dishes like this taste best after aging overnight. Otherwise, you could skim the fat and serve immediately.
- To age the stew, remove the meat and carrots into a separate container, discarding the ginger, lemon grass, bay leaves, and dried chiles.
- Strain the braising liquid into a new container.
- Place both in the fridge overnight. The fat in the braising liquid will rise to the top of the container and solidify by the next day. Remove it in once piece.
- To serve, reheat the stew meat in the braising liquid and taste for flavour. Adjust with sriracha, lime juice, and salt. It should be deeply rich, earthy, and spicy. The lime juice adds brightness for contrast.
- If the braising liquid is too strong, dilute with broth, stock, or water.
- Plate the stew meat with plenty of braising liquid. Add freshly cooked rice noodles and braised beef tendons. Optionally, garnish with fried shallots. Optionally, fry chopped bird’s eye chiles in oil and add both to the stew.
- Needless to say, serve the bo kho hot!
Ox Head Restaurant
790 Kanata Avenue
Tags: bo kho, featured, Food Network, gastropost, noodles, Ox Head Restaurant, slow cooked, stew