Havdalah in a Pot

Culinary traditions evolve in weird and wonderful ways, often from a collision of necessity and circumstance. Here’s a story from the kitchen of my friend and Pursuit of Spark colleague, Julie Burstein.

The story begins with Julie’s longtime tradition of making beef broth whenever anyone gets sick. How does she make it? She asks her butcher for 3 or 4 beef shank bones (organic) with some meat left on them, roasts them with vegetables until everything is nice and brown, dumps it all into a soup pot, covers with water and cooks it “forever,” which means “2 hours or 6 hours, whatever’s convenient -- I can do it all day!”

Why beef instead of chicken? Beef feels more nourishing, Julie says, and the kids demonstrate their approbation by yelling “Soup!” when they smell the broth. They don’t yell for chicken soup.

Recently, Julie’s elder son, Zeke, confided that the soup was good but it was also boring. So Julie said, no problem, why don’t you look through a cookbook and see what sounds good. Zeke has always been an incredibly adventurous eater; he loves anything spicy and is particularly fond of all things Asian. He was, therefore, very excited to come across a Vietnamese-style beef noodle soup called Hanoi Noodle Soup flavored with star anise, cinnamon, and fresh ginger. The next time Julie made soup, Zeke experimented.

Hanoi Noodle soup was delicious. Zeke was pleased.

Meanwhile, Zeke’s younger brother, Micah, just turned 13. He and his friends are all having bar mitzvahs, and Julie needed to come up with a lot of gifts. Another consequence of the bar mitzvahs was that she found herself exploring Jewish traditions to which she hadn’t previously paid much attention.

She was particularly taken with a ceremony called havdalah, which, she explained, marks the transition from any sacred holiday to the everyday. (Research revealed that havdalah is the Hebrew word for “separation.”) Julie describes it as a “bittersweet” ceremony. “Shabbat can be a lovely peaceful day of rest. Havdalah signals the transition to the hecticness of the rest of the week."

As part of the havdalah ceremony, you light a braided candle, drink some wine, and smell some wonderful, sweet spices. So Julie, who loves working with clay, hit on the idea of making havdalah spice boxes for bar mitzvah gifts. She threw a bunch of clay containers, punched holes in the top, and filled each of them with a mixture of spices she found in her kitchen cupboards: star anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.

One of these spice boxes went to Micah’s friend, Matt, who lives next door.

The story ends one day this past winter when Julie was in the kitchen making Zeke’s new and improved beef soup. Matt walked into the kitchen and said, “Oh my God, this smells like Havdalah in a Pot!” Which was amusing to Julie at the time, but even more so when Matt’s mother called the next day to ask, “How do you make this Havdalah in a Pot? Matt wants to make it here!”

A few days later, Matt reported that he had successfully made up the soup himself. Julie still calls it Hanoi Beef Noodle Soup but, at Matt’s house, the soup will forever be known as Havdalah in a Pot.

The recipe, adapted from Hanoi Noodle Soup in Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, is below. It’s a good recipe for kids because there’s very little knife work. The original Hanoi Noodle Soup recipe calls for the addition of thin-sliced chicken or meat but Julie omits that step: instead, she rescues the beef from the broth, cuts it into pieces, and serves it in the soup. 


Serves 6 as a main course

Julie has fresh thyme growing on her windowsill so she puts it into the soup but don’t bother if it means an extra trip to the supermarket. She reserves this recipe for weekends because, though much of the cooking time is untended, it takes several hours to make. 

For the Broth

3 or 4 pounds meaty beef bones such as shank, shin, or short ribs

2 onions, peeled, and cut in half

5 or 6 carrots, trimmed, rinsed, and halved lengthwise

4 or 5 stalks celery, trimmed and halved lengthwise

10 sprigs fresh parsley

Several sprigs fresh thyme (optional)

3 or 4 cloves

10 peppercorns

For the Soup

3 star anise

1 cinnamon stick

4 cloves

1 (1-inch) chunk peeled fresh ginger

1 onion, rinsed and quartered

1/2 pound rice vermicelli

2 tablespoons soy sauce

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Lots of chopped cilantro

Lime wedges

1 fresh jalapeño chile, stemmed, seeded, and chopped

1.  For the beef broth, preheat the oven to 475˚F. Put the beef bones, onions, carrots, and celery in a large roasting pan, put the pan in the oven and roast, shaking the pan occasionally and turning the ingredients once or twice with a spatula, until everything is nicely browned, about 30 minutes.

2. Use a big spoon to transfer everything to a large soup pot. Add 4 quarts water, the parsley, thyme, if using, cloves, and peppercorns. Bring to a simmer over high heat.

3. Meanwhile, pour off the fat from the roasting pan. Put the pan over high heat. Fill a 4-cup measure with water and add enough to the pan to cover the bottom. Bring the water to a boil and cook, scraping up the browned bits with a wooden spoon. Pour that mixture into the soup pot along with any water that’s left in your 4-cup measure.

4. Bring the contents of the soup pot almost to a boil. Partially cover and adjust the heat so that the contents of the pot simmers very slowly. Cook until the meat falls off the bones, at least 2 hours.

5. When the broth is cooked, ladle 8 cups into a large, clean pot; strain and freeze the remaining broth for another use. Remove the meat and vegetables to a cutting board; discard the bones and parsley. Cut meat and vegetables into large chunks and add to the pot. Add the dry spices, ginger, and quartered onion. Bring to a simmer and cook at least 20 minutes (if it goes longer, that’s fine too).

6. While the soup cooks, put the rice noodles in a bowl. Add hot water (from the tap is fine) to cover and soak until softened, 15 to 30 minutes. Rinse under cold water, drain, and add to the soup pot. Add the soy sauce, salt and pepper to taste, and chopped cilantro.

7.  Ladle into soup bowls and serve with the lime wedges and chopped chile. Fish out the spices as you go.