Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Diary of a Secret Housewife: Pho (Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup)

It's a slushy, wet day here in Boston, and in weather like this, nothing satisfies the soul or the belly like a steamy bowl of broth and noodles.  So I made pho.  Pho bo, to be specific.

Image source: Viet World Kitchen

I know, I know.  You think I'm nuts.  Make pho?  From scratch?  Pho sho.  (Hahahaha! I'm hilarious.)

Since pho is practically the national dish of Vietnam, recipes abound.  Andrea Nguyen's recipe is probably the go-to one for many pho lovers.  I, of course, can't leave well enough alone and so tweaked the recipe a bit, mainly for efficiency's sake.  If you're lazy or if your Louboutins pinch after standing at the stove for too long, you'll want to try my version instead.

Trust me.  I'm queen of shortcuts.

Step one is to char two onions (preferably yellow, but I made do with red) and a knob of fresh ginger.  If you're an old Vietnamese grandma, you squat over a fire on the street and charbroil these items over a rickety chicken-wire grill.  If you're Andrea, you stand over a hot stove with a pair of tongs and roast each item by hand.

If you're Amanda (that's me), you turn on your broiler, throw the onions and ginger (both unpeeled) onto a baking sheet, and broil the suckers for about 15 minutes, until the onions and ginger appear slightly charred on the outside and have a gentle give when squeezed with tongs.  When the items are cooled, peel the onions (the outer peel should pop right off) and pare the outer layer of skin off the ginger.

While the onions and ginger are doing their thing, parbroil some bones for the stock.  Get some beef bones -- preferably marrow bones -- from your local butcher (our Asian market has very inexpensive beef bones in the freezer by the meat aisle).  Put the bones into your stock pot, fill the pot with just enough cool water to cover the bones, and bring the water to a boil.  Boil the bones over high heat for about 3-5 minutes, until a frothy, disgusting layer of scum (blech!) lifts off the bones.  At that point, pour out all the scummy water, give your pot a quick scrub, and rinse off the bones (a colander will come in handy for this).

Here's the thing: If you're lazy like me, you'll be tempted to skip the whole parbroil process.  After all, you're probably thinking, this sounds like the juju Asian moms often perpetuate; despite my mom's nagging, for example, I never rinse my rice before I cook it, and I'm still alive.  But I'm showing you the above photo of the nasty scum for a reason: if you don't parbroil the bones first, all of those impurities are going to be in your soup, and you will not get a clear or clean-tasting broth.

After the parbroiling process, put the clean bones, the charred onion and ginger, about 1/4 cup of Vietnamese fish sauce (I'm a fan of the Three Crabs brand), a tablespoon of sugar, and a large parsnip* into your stock pot, along with about 6 quarts of water.  Bring the water to a rolling boil, then simmer, for about 2 hours, on low heat, uncovered.  With good bones, the stock will turn a gorgeous caramel color, as in the photo above.

* Andrew Nguyen's recipe calls for an ounce of yellow rock salt.  I didn't have that, so I put in the regular sugar and the parsnip instead.  I always put parsnip in my stocks, and I find that it adds a sweetness and depth to the soup that you don't get with mirepoix alone.

Now, if you're Andrea, you would put into the stock 5 star anise, 6 whole cloves, and one 3-in. cinnamon stick.  If you're Amanda, you giggle immaturely at the phrase "star anise," recognize that none of the above spices are available in your pantry, and go for the cheat instead.  The cheat is to pick up one of the commercially prepared pho spice sachets available in the spice section of your local Asian grocer or online.  The one depicted above is my mom's favorite brand, but if you know of other good ones, let me know in the comments.

The pho spice sachet looks just like a large tea bag.  It has the appropriate amount of the pho spices bundled together into a little pillow of goodness.  After simmering the stock for two hours, add the sachet, and the stock will magically transform from beef broth (yawn) to pho (yum).

Simmer for another hour.  While you're waiting, go write something.  Like a dissertation.

At this point, the kitchen will be fragrant with the delicious aroma of pho, and you'll be so transported you'll swear you were squatting in an outdoor hawker stall in Saigon.  Taste the broth now to check its salt level; add fish sauce if needed.  If you're not going to cool the stock down before eating it, take time now to skim the fat off the broth.

Tip: A piece of toast floated on the surface of the broth will help attract residual fat after skimming.

When you're ready to eat, assemble the ingredients for your bowl.  You'll need thinly sliced sirloin (meat specially cut for shabu shabu is perfect for this); some onion (usually yellow, but again I only had red), sliced paper thin; as well as banh pho, the cellophane noodles, which are available either fresh (usually near the dairy aisle of your Asian grocery) or dry.  If you get the dry noodles, you'll have to blanch them before you use them.  If you get the fresh kind, all you'll need to do is pour some boiling water over them in a colander, and they're ready to go.

I'll let you figure out which one lazy Amanda used.

For garnish, I recommend soybeans, quickly blanched in boiling water; a lime wedge, some pepper, and Sriracha; and an assortment of fresh herbs, including green onion, cilantro, and mint.  Some people like hoisin sauce too.

Put the noodles in the bowl first, followed by the raw sirloin, and the onions.  Pour the hot stock over the ingredients; the broth will cook the thin sirloin in the bowl.  Add your preferred garnish.

Voila!  Pho!


Woman with a Whisk January 19, 2010 at 11:28 PM  

Your pho is beautiful! My vietnamese friend told me that her mom always puts some daikon in her pho to make the broth clearer, so good call on the parsnip!

Mrs. Hot Cocoa January 19, 2010 at 11:40 PM  

@ Woman with a Whisk: I had no idea that the parsnip (or daikon for that matter) could make broth clearer. Awesome! Thanks for teaching me a new trick.

Ravenous Couple January 20, 2010 at 3:55 AM  

nothing with shortcuts if you know how it's done without the shortcuts :) Great job and perfect for the cold weather!

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