The Story

The Nguyen’s Beef Stew
By Lindsay Sterling
You won’t believe what just happened. So I put on my wool coat and wrap my scarf around my neck with no air gaps. Heading out to work to write the latest recipe for Immigrant Kitchens, I slip on our wooden deck. Turns out the deck was covered with the season’s first frozen invisible dew. I don’t know who decided to call our climate temperate. Temperate seems like a ridiculous name for what we’re about to go through. It’s a little joke the climatologists play on us: Temperate. Ha ha ha…. Even the season names seam a little brainwash-y. Fall, winter, and spring are just looking way on the bright side of cold, cold, and cold. We are now entering a little eight-month long conglomerate season I like to call Grim.
Before you go crying off to Florida, remember, Grim is just a funny game we Mainer’s like to play. It involves skiing, drinking hot cocoa after ice skating, and sitting around a hole hoping to catch a fish that you throw back in the hole. And I’ve got something new to do this winter! You’ve got to try cooking and eating Vietnamese beef stew. It’s basically beef stew, but it’s made with spices you’d never dream of, soy sauce instead of salt, and it’s topped with zingy, fresh Thai basil, shaved raw onions, and peppers. My kids and husband gave it thumbs way up.
I learned this stew from two brothers from Cam Ranh, Vietnam. Their names are Quang and Minh Nguyen. The soup’s name is Bo Kho, but they pronounce it Ba Kah. Their mother used to stay up until midnight making it so she could sell in the morning in front of their house. People in Vietnam eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, at parties and everyday. After a couple months of eating Kix, Grape Nuts, and Special K, the brothers called their mom in desperation and had her tell them over the phone how to make the soup.
You saute minced garlic, onion and lemongrass in a small sauté pan in a little oil. You put that sautéed mixture into a bowl with stew beef, sugar, ground chili, soy sauce, and deep red Bo Kho paste (made of blended onion, tomato paste, soy sauce, chili, ginger, cinnamon, cumin, star anise, beef bouillon and paprika). You massage that all together and let the meat marinate for 30 minutes or overnight. Then in a big soup pot you brown the beef in a little oil, add some water, whole lemongrass stems, and cook until the beef is tender. Finally cook carrot rounds and potato wedges in soup until you can spear them easily with a chopstick.
Even though there were a lot of spices in the soup, the lemongrass was the aroma that really had me oo-ing and ah-ing. Lemongrass is the very flavor of warm. We need it here. The unbelievable thing that happened is this. When I was typing the recipe, I was thinking: I need to get some lemongrass. Three seconds later, I kid you not, a friend texts me. (He’s not Vietnamese. He’s a white guy from New Jersey. A crazy gardener dude.) His text says: “Lemongrass in excess. Need any?”
We are in Maine. It is November 12th. We are entering Grim. This is what we do. We defy the growing season by building greenhouses. And then we defy the climate by planting surprisingly adaptable tropical plants in them and harvesting them two weeks before Thanksgiving. Maine? Temperate? Damn cool is more like it.

copyright Lindsay Sterling 2011