There are few foods as comforting as noodles on a cold day, particularly after a snowy commute home. Needless to say, I am quite the proponent of noodles, be they served on a plate dressed in cheese, egg yolks, and crisped pancetta (or better still pan-seared lardons of guanciale); or served in a bowl bathed in a long simmered savoury soup with assorted adornments (herbs, fried onion or garlic, young green stems, sprouts, flavoured oils, nuts, etc.)
Noodles are actually my last meal request.
Got hu tieu?
One of my favourite noodle soup dishes is pho. Yes, the archetypal Vietnamese street food that is meal-appropriate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and snacks in between). Consider the large bowls of thin rice noodles and characteristically spiced soup. The flavour profile is recognizable whether the soup is made from chicken, pork, beef, lamb, or any combination thereof: blackened onion, ginger, cloves, star anise, cinnamon, and black peppercorn.
The bounty that makes up my favourite “the works special” or “dac biet” on noodle house menus is actually specific to North America, a regional adaptation. Authentic-to-local bowls are simpler topping-wise and smaller serving-wise.
Ever since winter set in in Ottawa, Jenn and I have established a weekly noodle soup ritual, ordering delivery from Hu Tieu Mi Gia (121 Preston Street), known as the “Vietnamese Noodle House” on Just-Eat.ca.
We’ve even made our own pho.
Thing is, any fan needs to realize pho is a bit of a regional adaptation of “pot au feu,” Vietnam having once been a French colony. Hence, the word “pho” is actually pronounced reminiscent of “feu.”
During our honeymoon in Nice, Jenn and I discovered the boiled meat and vegetable meal is so revered in France that supermarkets sell kits for making it from scratch at home. In North America, we have “sauce-in-a-bag” kits for 15-minute meal solutions like hard shelled tacos; just add the ground meat and shred some lettuce. Overseas, the only shortcut afforded families looking for a hearty dinner is roughly chopped root vegetables. People are actually expected to participate in a tradition that can be relegated to making stock.
Pot Au Feu
What You’ll Need:
- 1 lb of pork tails or trotters
- 4 quarts of water (preferably filtered)
- 1 tbsp black peppercorns
- 1 lb boneless shin of beef (aka: beef shank) or brisket
- 4 large carrots (peeled, roughly chopped, and separated)
- 3 stalks of celery
- 2 large onions (halved and separated)
- 6 whole cloves
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 large waxy potatoes (peeled and roughly chopped)
- 1/2 head of savoy cabbage (chopped into 6th wedges)
- Prepare a pork and peppercorn stock by putting the pork tails (or trotters) and peppercorns into a pot with the water and gently simmering everything for 3 hours. Alternatively, cook the mixture on low in a slow cooker for 6-10 hours. Skim the stock of scum regularly.
- Clarify and de-fat the pork and peppercorn stock. To clarify the stock, remove and discard the stock material and run the liquid through a cheese cloth-lined sieve or chinoise. To de-fat the stock, skim the fat with a spoon and discard it. Alternatively, chill the stock overnight in a fridge and let the fat rise to the top. It can be lifted off the surface as a disk.
- Now, portion out the stock; half for braising the beef and half for cooking the vegetables.
- Press the whole cloves into two of the onion halves.
- Season and sear the beef in either a metal-bottomed or ceramic-coated cast-iron pot, 2-3 minutes per side.
- Remove the meat.
- De-glaze the pot with stock, return the cut of meat to the pot, and add more stock to come up 3/4 of the beef’s height.
- Bring the liquid to a simmer, lower the heat to low, and gently braise the beef with half of the carrots, the celery, the clove studded onion halves, and bay leaves for 2 hours. Skim the liquid regularly.
- With a half hour remaining, gently cook the remaining carrots, onion, potato, and savoy cabbage in the remaining pork and peppercorn stock until fork tender.
- Discard the braising vegetables.
- Slice the beef.
- Recombine the stock and season to taste.
- Serve everything with the boiled vegetables and grainy mustard. Other accompaniments include horseradish cream and a spicy pepper sauce.
Pot au feu is a meal of simple flavours. The magic is in its textures, everything from vegetable to meat is cooked perfectly. It is NOT stock, served with spent vegetables.
With a little tinkering, it isn’t difficult to determine how adjusting the flavours and adding some ingredients, pot au feu could evolve into pho.
On that note, in the village of Villeneuve-Loubet (located just outside of Nice), we found the most dreadful bowl of beef pho I have ever had the misfortune to come across.
Chewy meat that was likely originally prepped for a Chinese stir fry; incredibly greasy sauce diluted to make a too sweet soup; dry rice noodles originally meant for Pad Thai. All of this from a purportedly Vietnamese restaurant.
When in France, stick with French food.