Dinner zen: Beef and cilantro soup

Transcendent soup experience! Soup zen! Souper soup!
Transcendent soup experience! Soup zen! Souper soup!

When Huzzybee and I were hanging out in Shanghai a few years ago we set out one morning in search of breakfast. We crossed Nanjing Road and walked underneath Xizang Middle Road into a quiet neighborhood near People’s Park, where rows of middle-aged residents were gracefully doing some morning calisthenics, and the smog obscured the rest of the city, making us feel like we were walking in a crystal ball. We were in search of food, but we didn’t know what we would find, and the only words either of us could speak in Mandarin were “hello!”, “thank you!”, “I am an American”, “I like to drink coffee” and “hurry up”. After meandering like dumb tourists down some side streets we eventually found a long line of locals who were queued up to eat in a tiny soup dumpling shop. Naturally, we got in the line. When we reached the soup counter we found cooks ladling fragrant beef broth from several massive cauldrons into white ceramic bowls. Nearby, several men were busy roasting soup dumplings on a grill until their tender skins were toasted a dark brown. People sat quietly on wooden benches, opening the steaming dumplings and sipping spoonfuls of broth. The quietness was in stark contrast to the chaos of money-obsessed Shanghai outside. The diners were eating their food with reverence. Huzzybee and I knew we had struck soup dumpling gold.

Although there is no way I can truly replicate the soup nirvana that we entered after our first bite that morning, I have clumsily assembled an approximation of the beef and cilantro broth that was served to us. My recipe omits the overnight boiling of beef bones and cheats with ready-made broth or bouillon. There is no way I can figure out how to make BBQd soup dumplings on my own.

So, four years after our religious soup experience, this is my go-to meal when I am out of ideas, exhausted, want to appear impressive, and have a bunch of cilantro loafing around the house (those four conditions are present in my life more often than they should be because I have a busy toddler and wild cilantro growing all over my yard). This meal is fast, easy, and very tasty.

Beef and Cilantro Soup

Ingredients:
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 lb of cubed stew beef
4 cups beef broth or 4 cups water plus 2 tablespoons beef bouillon
2 cloves of diced garlic
1 medium onion, diced
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves, washed and removed from stems
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 packet dried rice noodles or 1 cup of white rice (optional)

Method:
Have all of your ingredients ready ahead of time. Heat the vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed pot until the oil starts to shimmer but not smoke. Add the stew meat and sear, turning the meat so all sides are cooked. After about 3 minutes add the diced onion and cook onion until slightly translucent and fragrant. Pour in the beef  broth and add the 1 tablespoon soy sauce. Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to low and simmer for at least 2 hours. I like to let mine cook for 3 or 4 hours on very low heat. Toss in the cilantro just prior to serving. For a healthier meal, eat the soup as-is. To bulk it up a bit, pour over fresh, steaming white rice or freshly prepared rice noodles.

This can also be made in a crock pot. Just add about 1 cup of additional broth to the recipe and cook on low for 6 hours. As above, add the cilantro and rice/noodles just prior to serving.

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