When the skies are grey and full of constant, gloomy wet, I find myself yearning for the steamy comfort of slurpable soups like this brothy beef soup. There’s something about its aromatic, savory broth that feels both comforting and rejuvenating.
Like a winter stew, this beef soup will warm you to your bones. But unlike a stew, it won’t weigh you down with thick, heavy gloop. Like I said, this brothy bowl is about rejuvenation, not hibernation.
The simple flavors and method of this quick and easy beef soup are heavily inspired by a mishmash of recipes in Vietnamese Any Day, by Andrea Nguyen.
Browsing through this book is where I first learned about canh, a Vietnamese soup style that is, as Andrea puts it, “…fragrant, wholesome, and fast…” She defines canh as generally water-based, leaning on a mess of greens and a bit of protein for the flavorful core, with aromatics like onion and fish sauce for depth.
Recipe Stars: Beef and Baby Watercress
The main body of this soup comes from good quality ground beef and baby watercress. The beef helps transform the water into broth while it simmers, infusing its fat and flavor into the whole pot.
The baby watercress is tender and lightly peppery. The thicker stems add some crunch without the toughness or stringiness of other greens. Play with the ratios here–you may like less protein and more greens, which would be lighter and better as a starter or for warmer weather.
Shallot, Lemongrass, and Fish Sauce
Rounding out the savoriness of the beef are some key aromatics: shallot (or onion), lemongrass, and fish sauce. These ingredients add depth and make the broth wonderfully rich and fragrant.
Fresh lemongrass is getting more and more common in my local big-box grocery stores. If you can’t find it, however, one or two large strips of lime or lemon zest might work in its place. Different, but still a nice touch.
Herbs are More than Garnish: Cilantro is Key
It’s probably familiar to add a sprinkling of fresh herbs as a garnish for your soup, but in this beef and watercress soup I want you to shift into thinking of cilantro as another core green. It’s not just for pretty!
The stems, which are sturdier, can be added with other aromatics to further boost the broth’s dimension. The more delicate leaves are treated like the watercress. Stir them in just before serving so they mingle with everything without losing their punchy, fresh flavor.
On the Method: Applying the Simple Elegance of Vietnamese Canh-Style Soups
Again, Andrea’s general blueprint for canh preparation is what makes this brothy beef soup so delightfully easy. Start with the aromatics, add water and seasonings, and simmer your main ingredients until you have what she aptly calls a “multidimensional broth.” Adding more delicate greens like watercress or herbs at the end softens their texture while keeping the flavors bright and lively.
You can use pretty much any green you like, just keep in mind their differing textures and flavors. Tender greens like baby spinach or baby arugula should be added at the end, just like the watercress. Heartier greens like kale, collards, or mustard greens will need to cook longer.
“What if I hate cilantro?“
Skip it. Either up the amount of watercress to compensate, or add a different green like arugula or spinach. If you love parsley, go for it, but that wouldn’t be my personal choice.
“How do I make this vegan?“
Vegan beef is an easy sub. While I’ve never tried it, I imagine you could also replace the beef with mushrooms. For similar texture, finely chop or slice a whole mess of them, ideally different types for the best depth of flavor. Mix them with seasonings and add to the pot just as you would the beef. You could also try small cubes of tofu. In place of the fish sauce, try soy sauce, maggi seasoning, vegan oyster sauce, etc.
Looking for more comforting recipes to chase away the grey?
Polenta Soup with Kale and Crispy Prosciutto
Tomato-Braised Green Beans and Potatoes
White Beans with Sage, Spinach and Fennel
Brothy Beef Soup with Watercress and Cilantro
- 2 stalks lemongrass, trimmed to the bottom 6 inches
- 2 cups cilantro, stems and leaves reserved separately
- 1 pound 80% lean ground beef
- 3 tablespoons fish sauce, divided
- Kosher salt and black pepper
- 3 tablespoons neutral oil
- 4 medium shallots, halved and thinly sliced
- 2 cups baby watercress, roughly chopped
- Step 1Bruise the lemongrass by smacking it with the back or flat of a large knife. Cut into three pieces, roughly 2 inches each. Set aside.Chop the cilantro leaves and set aside for later. Mince the cilantro stems. In a medium bowl, mix the cilantro stems, beef, 2 tablespoons fish sauce, and 1 teaspoon black pepper. Make sure everything is evenly distributed.
- Step 2In a large saucepan or medium pot, heat the oil over medium until shimmering. Add the lemongrass and shallots and stir until the shallots are very soft, about 3 minutes. Add the beef mixture and stir to break into small pieces. Stir in 6 cups water and 1 teaspoon salt, then increase heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to maintain a lively simmer, and cook for about 10 minutes, to let the flavors meld. Off heat, stir in the remaining fish sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt, pepper, or fish sauce.
- Step 3Just before serving, stir the watercress and cilantro leaves into the hot soup. Serve immediately.
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