My mom became a widow when she was only 28, an age when many of us are still trying to figure out how to navigate life. My parents had only just begun to plant the seeds to the life and future that they were hoping to cultivate for our young family. But before those seeds could even begin to take root and sprout, those hopes and dreams were violently crushed to a pulp within an instant. Our lives were derailed without forewarning, and my mom was abruptly propelled into single motherhood when my younger brother and I were only 6 and 4 years old. We suddently became three and New Orleans no longer had anything left for us.
We packed up what was left of our lives and headed west to California to be closer to my grandparents and my mom’s siblings. Though the Golden State offered a fresh start, my mom often worked two, sometimes even three, jobs to make ends meet. Because of her long work hours, my brother and I were often left home alone having to prepare our own dinners and put ourselves to bed. We were too young to know how to cook then, so she often made one-pot meals that could easily be heated up over the stove or in the microwave.
My mom and I didn’t always see eye to eye when I was growing up, and I kept moving further away from home until there was an ocean between us. In seeking to find my footing and build my own life, I started to gain clarity as well as a greater appreciation for the adversity that she endured during our childhood. As a result, our relationship has blossomed from one of pure kinship to one of deep friendship.
Life is always full of surprises, and we may not always be ready for what is thrust upon us. Yet, my mom handled the imperfect hand that she was dealt with stride and resilience. Her singular purpose was to give my brother and me the best life that she could given the circumstances, and she succeeded.
Today is her birthday, and I regrettably can’t be in California to fete with her. Nonetheless, I wanted to make a dish that reminds me of her and my childhood, to celebrate the person whose unwavering support always lifts me up when I falter. This Vietnamese ragu was among the many one-pot dishes that she would make for my brother and me when we were kids. This hearty dish is typically made with chicken, but I prefer to make it with pork ribs, which yields a much richer broth. When I’m feeling homesick, I often turn to this dish, which always transports me back to the carefree days of my youth.
Pork Rib Ragu
Makes 5-6 servings
700 g pork ribs, cut into 4×3 cm morsels
1 onion, diced
3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
1.5 tsp salt (+ to taste)
1 tsp sugar
½ tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp garlic powder
2.5 tbsp tomato paste
3-4 bay leaves
4 carrots, cut into 2 cm long pieces
5-6 potatoes*, cut into 5 cm pieces
125 g white button mushrooms, quartered
140 g peas (fresh⁺, canned, or frozen)
1.25 liters hot water
¼ tsp fish sauce
1 tbsp corn starch + 1 tbsp water
1.5 tbsp cooking oil (vegetable or olive)
Chopped cilantro for garnishing
- Season the pork ribs with the salt, sugar, ground pepper and garlic powder. Set aside.
Heat oil over medium-high heat in a cooking pot, and sauté the onions and garlic until fragrant, but not browned. Add the seasoned pork ribs and stir continuously. Once the ribs are no longer pink, add the tomato paste and continue stirring until the ribs are well coated. Pour in the hot water, add the bay leaves, lower the heat to medium-low and simmer covered for 20 minutes.
Taste the broth to see if it the salinity is adequate. If not, add some salt to taste. Then, add the carrots and continue to simmer covered for another 10 minutes. Add the potatoes and mushrooms and continue simmering covered for another 15 minutes. Finally, add the peas and fish sauce and bring to a gentle boil.
In a small bowl, thoroughly mix the corn starch with 1 tablespoon of water and stir into the ragu. Once it has come to a gentle boil, it is ready to serve. Garnish with ground black pepper and chopped cilantro.
My favorite way of eating this ragu is over a bed of steamed white rice, but it can also be enjoyed with a baguette.
*Choose a variety that has a firmer, waxy texture, rather than a starchy one.
⁺If using fresh peas, either boil them beforehand or add them in with the carrots. Otherwise, if using canned peas, be sure to rinse and drain them before adding to the pot.
Bonne dégustation & thanks for reading!