It takes a few leisurely hours to draw the magic out of meaty beef bones. Boiled at length, they produce a savory base for all sorts of soups, from borscht to pho.
On a dreary midwinter afternoon some years ago, I was standing in line at the supermarket checkout, my usual chaotic weekly haul heaped in tottering stacks on the belt. Behind me, a woman waited patiently, holding a small package of meat. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I am an incorrigible checkout-line spy, and I couldn't help peering a little more closely.
The package held two big, rosy chunks — thick, fresh-looking rings of meat surrounding a great pale cross-section of bone. Dog owner? Flintstones fan? After a moment, I traded the rudeness of staring for the friendlier intrusiveness of conversation, and asked her what cut of beef it was. "Shenk bun," she said, revealing an indeterminate Eastern European accent. "Ah, shank bone," I translated aloud, for my own benefit. "And what do you do with it?"
She explained that it was for soup — that you boiled it a long, long time, and put in vegetables and maybe some grains such as oats or barley. "Very, very good," she declared, hugging herself for emphasis. "Yes, I'm sure," I said, smiling, and indeed, in a flash I envisioned it — the glowing stove top, the little pot simmering away through a cold, rainy, afternoon, the aromatic steam rising up like a soft anthem of hope.
The woman with the shank bone went off to live her story, and I went off to live mine, but the idea stayed with me, returning each gray winter with its promise of comfort and sustenance. Like the world's slowest soup, it took three or four years of simmering before it was done.
Because we buy a beefer every fall, I enjoy a yearly bonanza of beef soup bones — frozen, meaty and bargain priced. Now, I don't have anything against chicken stock. Chicken stock is lovely. But the broth you make from a beef shank bone is a veritable elixir, rich in dissolved gelatin and calcium. Chicken soup may heal the soul, but beef soup makes it invincible.
I've learned to give myself at least a few leisurely hours to draw the magic out of those great bones. You can roast them for more browning and flavor, if you like. You can take them in a hearty peasant direction, like the woman in the checkout line. You can dedicate them to a hot, heady borscht, dolloped with cool sour cream. You can infuse them with roast ginger and onions and steer straight toward pho, the staggeringly delicious beef noodle soup of Hanoi.
The first time I made pho, the children came home from school and halted, quivering, transfixed, on the doormat. "What's that?" they asked. "Something smells good!" I explained, with a heavy emphasis on the noodles. The next time I made it, they opened the door, took a sniff and shouted in unison, "I smell pho!" In other words, the idea of pho claimed them for life, and I can't say I blame them.
I like pho when I'm just getting over a cold, because it helps me feel like I'm getting better faster. I like pho when I'm about to get a cold, because it makes me feel cozy and comfortable. I also like pho when I'm perfectly fine, because it reminds me of how perfectly fine I feel. I like pho when it's cold outside, but I also like it in the warm season, when the spicy green chilies have a kind of sweaty grandeur. I like it pretty much anytime.
You don't have to go farther than your local supermarket to find soup bones. They might be called cross-cut shin bones, beef shank or beef soup bones. Whatever they're called, once you find them and learn to draw out their fortifying power, you'll have forever in your repertoire a soup that sustains the body, strengthens the will and stimulates the imagination. And if in the checkout line you should meet someone directing a curious gaze at your beef bones, don't be shy about sharing.