I have a confession. I am addicted to puzzling.
I had a crazy blizzard weekend. On Friday night I watched Bottle Shock (RIP Alan Rickman ??) and did my taxes while pho broth bubbled away on the stove. On Saturday morning, I did laundry and made myself a frittata (coming soon, I promise). And then things went downhill. My friend Jessie came over. And she brought a puzzle. And at first, everything was casual. We ate some pho. We laughed. We got out the puzzle and shrugged — what could go wrong?
The storm got a little worse. Snow piled up outside our windows; we lit a fire and opened a bottle of wine. Jessie bundled up and braved the storm to walk the few blocks home around the same time I decided against venturing out for a dinner party in the dark and windy streets. I took a bath and hunkered down in front of the puzzle table.”Just for a few minutes,” I think, “Just until I’m ready to go to bed.”
The next thing I know, I have watched the entire first season of Chef’s Table, it’s way past my bedtime and I’m manically hovering over the puzzle table, promising myself for the hundredth time, “just one more piece and then I’ll go to sleep.”
On Sunday, when everyone else was shoveling their sidewalks and cross country skiing down the streets of Brooklyn, I took some time to soberly assess my relationship with The Puzzle in the bright winter morning. And I decided to use a puzzle buddy system. I can trust myself to puzzle with someone else — friends don’t let friends sacrifice their sanity to assemble an image from Peter Pan — but I can’t puzzle alone. That’s when things get weird.
So I’m detoxing from my puzzle the best way I know how: with tons of my homemade pho. The broth is rich and spicy, the beef and noodles are hearty, but everything else is light. It’s crunchy and bright (thanks, lime juice!) and just the right amount of spicy. Perfect for a cold winter day, when all you want is to be inside doing a project while snow gently falls.
- 4 lbs. beef oxtails (or beef shortribs)
- 1 T. salt
- 2 T. vegetable oil
- 2 cinnamon sticks, broken into pieces
- 4 star anise pods, broken into pieces
- 2 t. fennel seeds
- 4 whole cloves
- 1 onion, cut in half
- 3" fresh ginger, unpeeled and sliced in half
- ¼ c. vegetable oil
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 T. red pepper flakes
- 1 T. sesame seeds
- 1 T. sesame oil
- Salt to taste
- 1 lb. beef round, frozen slightly and sliced thinly
- Rice vermacelli
- Escarole leaves, chopped
- Green onions, sliced
- Jalapeno rings
- Basil leaves
- Lime wedges
- Fish sauce
- Sriracha sauce
- Sesame oil
- In a large stockpot, cover the oxtails with cold water. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat and drain the water off the beef.
- Add 4.5 quarts of water (18 cups) to the drained oxtail and bring to a boil. Once it boils, reduce to a simmer.
- While the oxtails are boiling, heat 2 T. vegetable oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the cinnamon, star anise, fennel seeds and cloves and toast until fragrant. Scoop the spices out and add them to the oxtail broth. Add the onion and garlic to the fragrant oil -- both cut side down -- and allow them to char over high heat. You want them dark brown, and it's okay if they're a little black. Add them to the broth, scraping in any oil left in the skillet.
- Simmer the broth for 2-4 hours. Breathe deep -- it should smell delicious.
- When the broth is done, strain it through a colander. Separate the oxtail meat from the bones.
- Refrigerate the oxtail meat and broth separately, each over night.
- In a medium skillet, heat ¼ cup vegetable oil over medium heat. Add the minced garlic and saute until it's fragrant, about 2 minutes. You don't want it to get too much color -- if it's getting brown, take the skillet off heat to slow everything down.
- Add the red pepper flakes and sesame seeds and toast until those are fragrant, another minute or two.
- In a small bowl, combine the garlic oil with the sesame oil and salt to taste. Set aside to serve.
- Skim the fat off the refrigerated broth and reserve the fat for another day. Bring the broth to a boil over high heat.
- Add the rice vermacelli to a medium bowl and ladle boiling broth over the noodles until they're submerged. Cover the bowl and allow the noodles to sit for 5-10 minutes, until tender.
- Lower the thinly-sliced beef round into the boiling broth in a strainer, and allow to boil for 30 seconds to 1 minute, until cooked through.
- Add the cooked beef round, chilled oxtail meat and cooked vermacelli to a bowl, and ladle a few scoopfuls of hot broth into the bowl.
- Serve hot with a sideboard of: sesame chile sauce, chopped escarole leaves, sliced green onions, jalapeno rings, basil leaves, lime wedges, fish sauce, sriracha sauce and sesame oil.