The Nasty Bits: Bones and Broth


This is a whole tail, which happens to have come from a yak though it tastes very similar to oxtail. My original plan was a nice braise that I could serve with root vegetables and what have you, but then I got sidetracked and had no time to brown and monitor the tail as it braised.

So I did what I always do when I have a bony cut that needs long cooking—I put it in a pot with water and wine and left it over the lowest heat on the stove. The broth will make a nice base for any number of noodle soup dishes, the easiest one-pot meal there is if you wilt some greens into the pot at the last moment.

With noodle soup broths, complexity is not required, or even desirable. What you want is to sip on soup that is a simple union of water, meat, and bone, with only a few spices or aromatics added in. Restraint is key. The liquid should be light and clear, something that warms the cockles of the heart during the winter months.

Here is something about eating meat in broth, a small point, but one to which I have given a lot of nit-picky thought over the years. Why is that, when you are eating at a pho joint, or almost any Chinese or Vietnamese place where noodle soups are served, the meat that comes with your broth is always lackluster? At pho joints, grey pieces of flank meat are the most common, and they seem unavoidable even if you insist to your waiter that you only want rare slices of meat and well-cooked tripe in your bowl, please!

So you eat the noodles, you drink the soup, and if it is too tough or stringy, you leave the stewed meat behind. But even if the meat is tender, you may eat it halfheartedly, knowing that the star of the show was the restorative broth you just drank, or the bouncy noodles you heartily slurped. (Of course, this problem of plain meat is not endemic to restaurants or specific cuisines. I don't mean to single out pho establishments, though there certainly are a lot of bouillon-based joints out there.)

By now, the solution should be clear, no?

Rule No. 1: Don't make the meat tough. Rule No. 2: Flavor your tender meat in a dipping sauce or oil of some kind, so that you and your guests do not have to masticate on bland muscle.

Case in point: Pot-au-feu, in which inexpensive cuts of meat or poultry are simmered very gently in water, with just a few root vegetables, taking care of the bland-meat problem by making a vinaigrette to go along with the dish. The vinaigrette is easy: some broth from the pot, oil, vinegar, and mustard.

I've always wished that pho joints (here we go again) provided, in addition to an assortment of bottled sauces at the table, a "house-sauce" of sorts that you can use to flavor all that flank meat they give you. It doesn't have to be too complex, but I think there ought to be a savory component, some oil, and some heat in the sauce. Fish sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil, chili oil. Also, some spices, like ground and roasted Sichuan peppercorns, or cinnamon and cloves.


This is what I have to go along with my pork neck and ginger broth at home: a little jar of olive or sesame oil with some toasted and ground dried chili peppers, some toasted and ground Sichuan peppercorns, and salt. It's everything I need to take an interest in the tender meat in the soup bowl, and it makes all the difference, too, in end.

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