How an immersion blender saved Christmas
Plus, a Vietnamese beef stew recipe
I knew it was wrong the minute I dumped it into the pot.
Lemongrass doesn’t behave like garlic and onions, which simply melt into oil if you cook them for long enough. You’re more or less whittling down a wooden stick, peeling back the fibrous layers, feeling the slip of your knife as it drags through the stalk into round, yellow circles the diameter of a Bic pen cap. I should have minced the pile a few more times, but it’s hard to think straight when your toddler is simultaneously begging for you to play with her new Peppa Pig dollhouse.
(For anyone who yearns for food blogs to get to the point, there’s the recipe in PDF 👆 I’m having issues getting that Download button to work, so right-click and select “Save Link as”)
But when it’s Christmas Eve and your family is expecting a meal, you keep going. So I continue dumping ingredients into the pot—fragrant star anise pods, a lump of rock sugar, a quart of coconut water—before letting it simmer on the stove for the next two hours. The house smells amazing; it’s just those damn lemongrass flecks floating that’s ruining the otherwise smooth texture of the stew.
And that’s when I remove the beef chunks with a slotted spoon and blitz the liquid with an immersion blender, or what TV chef Emeril Lagasse refers to a “boat motor.” Even though a cranky Vietnamese cookbook claims carrots are an import of the French and therefore, not authentic, I add in six to spite the author, because I grew up eating bo kho with lots of carrot chunks and like how they soak up the broth.
For you, this might sound like an average day in the kitchen. For me, it’s a milestone in feeling confident that I can cook Vietnamese food. Maybe not better than my mom, but with my own tweaks and solutions I’ve learned from dabbling in every other cuisine since I was 19 years old. I’ve been so afraid of being crucified on the Internet about what’s traditionally Vietnamese when I’m the troll who once picked a fight with a (white) food blogger about her addition of parsnips in her pho broth. Now reflecting back, I was wildly uncomfortable with the idea that someone who wasn’t Vietnamese knew more about the pho making process than I did.
The good news is that’s what finally prompted me to ask my mom for her recipe.
The bad news is, I haven’t made it since she dictated it to me 15 years ago 😬
So that’s one of my goals for 2023: Cook and publish more Vietnamese recipes, without worrying if someone’s going to call me “Americanized” (News flash: I was born and raised in the suburbs of Seattle, which makes me “American.”) I’ll eventually work up to all-day recipes like pho, but today, you get a recipe for a Vietnamese beef stew scented with lemongrass and star anise—no super duper mincing required if you own an immersion or upright blender.
Vietnamese Beef Stew with Lemongrass and Star Anise
Serves 4-6 as an entreé
Just like American beef stew, every Vietnamese cook has their own je ne sais quois for making bo kho. This is my version, with ingredients you can track down at your run-of-the-mill grocery store.
Adapted from The Red Boat Fish Sauce cookbook
For the Stew
3 pounds beef chuck roast steak, cut into 1 ½ inch cubes
2 teaspoons sea salt, divided
3 tablespoons neutral oil, divided
3 yellow onions, diced
3 stalks of lemongrass, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste or ketchup
1 tablespoon five-spice powder
2 star anise pods
1 small cinnamon stick
2 bay leaves
1 quart coconut water
1 tablespoon of rock sugar or maple syrup
6 large carrots, cut into 1-inch pieces
Good quality fish sauce, to taste
1 cup Thai basil or spearmint leaves, shredded to a chiffonade
1 lime, cut into six wedges
Crusty bread or cooked rice noodles
Mix the cubed beef with the sea salt.
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large pot over medium heat. Working in batches, sear the beef on all sides, transferring to a platter for later. Note: This is probably going to get messy, so have a splatter cover ready, or wear an apron.
In the same pan, add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil and add in the onions and the remaining teaspoon of sea salt. Sauté for 5-7 minutes, or until they're just browning.
Add the minced lemongrass, garlic, ginger, five-spice powder, and tomato paste or ketchup. Cook until the mixture is fragrant (About 2-3 minutes.)
Add in the seared beef, star anise pods, cinnamon stick, bay leaves, coconut water, rock sugar or maple syrup, and an additional 2 quarts of water. Bring to a boil, skim for impurities, and then reduce to medium low. Cover the pot and simmer for 2 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally.
Using a strainer or slotted spoon, remove the beef onto a platter or bowl (It's okay if some stray onions or lemongrass are clinging to the meat). Discard the star anise pods, cinnamon stick, and bay leaves.
Using an immersion blender, puree the liquid until smooth. (You can do this in an upright blender, you'll just have to work in batches and have some extra bowls on hand.) Add the beef back into the pot, as well as the onions. Bring up to a boil again and then reduce the meat to medium-low. Simmer for another 30 minutes.
Adjust for seasoning, adding additional fish sauce to suit your palate.
Serve the stew in bowls, accompanied with a chunk of crusty bread or ladled over noodles. Garnish with the Thai basil and/or mint and wedges of lime.
If you can't find five-spice powder, you can substitute for Madras curry powder. The flavor will be different, but still good.
If you're having trouble tracking down fresh lemongrass and don't have a dairy allergy, try prepared lemongrass paste, available at most grocery stores in the fresh herbs section.
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So it turns out a break on my manuscript is what this writer needed, because I randomly pumped out a 5,000 word short story (!!!) right before Christmas! The piece features another character in the same universe, and may have unlocked what I’ve been looking for to advance my protagonist to the next plot point.
Of course, none of this is surprising to my husband, who frequents Zen Buddhist retreats and says off-hand phrases that end up being deeply profound, like:
The best way to unknot a tangled rope is to throw it in the ocean.
So from now on, I’m planning on doing a few things to keep writer’s block from happening again:
Publish more—meaning you’ll see more newsletters and social media posts this year.
Shortening my manuscript milestones, so my editor provides feedback sooner than later.
Trying for more literary submissions, because even if I get rejected, I’ll probably write something that leads to something else. (Plus, what better way to prepare for the query trenches?)
My sister was visiting, so my husband and I squeezed in another date! (Two in a month, this has to be some sort of record.) We tried a new bakery, watched the water from a park bench, strolled around our neighborhood, and pushed the boundaries of my lactose-intolerance with these crab and lobster rolls. So much brown butter goodness!
But one of my favorite moments of the day was when a blue Subaru pulled into the bakery parking lot with a Baby on Board sign turned sideways. It didn’t take long to understand why—a bleary-eyed man with mussed hair rolled out of the driver’s seat, followed by a mom lugging an infant car seat. It was a stark reminder of what those early days as a new parent are like, where a simple outing is equivalent to taking an international trip. I wanted to tell them it gets easier, that there will be a day your kid sleeps through the night (mostly) and you won’t obsess about producing enough breast milk.
In the end, I said nothing, simply waving to the chubby-cheeked baby as we left the bakery. Still wondering if I should have said something about the sideways sign 🙊
My husband had the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, so I assumed, “Wow, I’ll get so much writing done!” Turns out…so did everyone else. As an INFJ, I’m easily mistaken for being an extrovert, so people are always surprised when I turn down invitations for social get-togethers in favor of lounging at home—especially if it requires driving to two different locations in one day.
That said: Knowing your boundaries is part of being an adult, but so is staying open to new experiences. I’m still learning what works best for my family of three, and I suspect it will ebb and flow as my daughter gets older and I (maybe?) create more psychological space in my life.
CURRENTLY READING 📚
Atomic Habits by James Clear. Thanks to my consulting work for SaaS companies, I’ve studied lots of books on habit formation—Nir Eyal’s Hooked and B.J. Fogg’s Tiny Habits comes to mind. While I don’t find Clear’s research as academically rigorous as the previously mentioned authors, I appreciate his foundational approach to starting and keeping a habit, which boils down to:
Decide the type of person you want to be. Prove it to yourself with small wins.
Even though I’ve written for most of my career, I still struggle with calling myself a writer because people follow up with, “Do you have a book published?” and it makes me second-guess myself about when I’ll have a full second draft finished. Which leads nicely into…
CURRENTLY STREAMING ⏯
A fellow writer turned me onto Ellen Brock’s Youtube channel and finally, I can put a name to the type of writer I am: Methodological pantser! Also known as, the type of writer “goes back and forth between plotting, writing, and editing” to build up an idea.
More thoughts on this type here if you’re curious, but essentially, Ellen validates what I’ve discovered during this year and a half I’ve battled to finish this manuscript:
You’re going to run out of steam at the 20% to 60% mark (How did she know?!)
This type of writer adds and subtracts words a lot (hides the 5 different 1,000 word setups before I decide on the one I like best)
Start editing as soon as you’re ready (See above’s Write section, as well as last newsletter.)
I thought something was wrong with me for writing so slowly, and I’m so relieved someone’s assigned a label to what I assumed was artistic stubbornness.
CURRENTLY COOKING 👩🏻🍳
If you’re in the mood for something sweet, I received The Essential Book of Vegan Bakes for Christmas and am so excited for the plant-based twists from Holly Jade, a self-taught British baker. Already making plans to try the Black Forest cupcakes, Funfetti cookies, lemon bars, and Speculoos cheesecake and truffles. I’ve thumbed through a lot of vegan baking books over the last decade, and this is one of the better ones; striking a good balance between creativity, ingredient accessibility, and technique.
Catch you next time,
P.S. What are your 2023 New Year’s Resolutions? Are you planning to complete a half-marathon? Take music lessons? Start a novel draft? Leave me a comment below and let me know.