Why buy a $4 bowl of pho, the deliciously aromatic and savory national dish of Vietnam, from the local Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall when you can spend four hours making it yourself?
Ok, that's not very convincing. I guess there aren't many compelling reasons except I'm bored and underemployed right now (anyone out there have a part time job to offer?). I'm also obsessed with using all of the stuff in my fridge before it goes bad. I had some mint languishing in the crisper, so I turned to my stacks of cookbooks checked out from the library for inspiration. I came across a recipe for Pho Bo in the beautiful cookbook, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen, and thought "Wow, I have all of those ingredients right now!" Strange ingredients like beef bones, rice noodles, fish sauce, star anise, cloves, etc. And to think, that morning I got anxious about the lack of food in the fridge and considered going food shopping...
Admittedly, I've always been intimidated by this noodle soup, but Nguyen encouraged me with the words "nothing beats a homemade bowl" of pho. I didn't follow her directions to a T because I'm a big advocate of using whatever you have on hand (and I also took some short cuts), but it still turned out fragrant and flavorful, and dare I say better than any pho I've had at a restaurant. Here's how I made it:
Pho Bo (Beef Pho) recipe adapted from Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen
- 1 yellow onion, unpeeled
- Chubby 2-inch piece of ginger, unpeeled
- 2 pounds beef or lamb bones (I bet pork, chicken, or whatever bones would do in a pinch)
- 3 quarts water
- 2 star anise
- 3 whole cloves
- 2 inch cinnamon stick
- 3/4 pound boneless beef chuck, rump, brisket
- 3/4 tablespoon salt
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- Vietnamese style rice noodles
1. Place the onions and ginger directly on the gas stove with a medium flame. Let the skin burn, using tongs to rotate the onion or ginger occasionally. After 15 minutes, the onion and ginger will have softened slightly and become sweetly fragrant. There may even be some bubbling. You do not have to blacken the entire surface. When amply charred, remove from the heat and let cool.
2. Remove the charred skin from the onion. Trim off and discard the blackened root and stem ends. Slice onion into rings. Use a vegetable peeler, paring knife, or the edge of a teaspoon to remove the ginger skin. Halve the ginger lengthwise and bruise lightly with the broad side of a cleaver or chef's knife. Set the onions and ginger aside.
3. Pile the bones, beef, onions, ginger, star anise, cloves, and cinnamon stick into a stock pot and cover with the water. Add salt, fish sauce, and brown sugar and cook, uncovered, for 1 1/2 hours, adjusting the heat if needed to maintain a simmer.
4. At this point, the beef should be slightly chewy but not tough. Fish it out of the broth with some tongs and transfer it to a bowl of cold water to cover. Let the meat soak for 10 minutes to prevent it from drying out and turning dark. Drain the meat, set aside on a plate to cool completely, and then wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate. Meanwhile, maintain the broth at a steady simmer for 1 1/2 hours longer.
5. Strain the broth into a bowl and return it to the stock pot with the heat turned off. Prepare the rice noodles according to the directions on the package and add to the broth.
6. Remove the beef from the fridge and slice into thin slices against the grain. Add beef slices to the broth to be warmed through.
7. Ladle the pho into soup bowls. Set out a plate with garnishes like lime slices, cilantro, mint, basil, sliced chiles, green onions, and mung bean sprouts for guests to garnish the soup to their liking. Don't forget to make some Siracha available. Accompany it with a tall glass of jasmine iced tea like they serve at my favorite Vietnamese restaurant in New Orleans- Pho Tau Bay!
In the end, I realized there were other reasons to make pho besides being bored. Nguyen writes, "for the most fragrant and flavorful broth, I recommend the bones of grass-fed or natural beef." I used these, as well as some very high quality beef chuck, and I think it made a big difference in the flavor, which was much brighter that what I've eaten at some cheap pho places.
Also, for a city where you can find almost every type of ethnic cuisine imaginable, New York is surprisingly lacking in the Vietnamese department. When I lived in New Orleans I ate Vietnamese food on an almost weekly basis. If I can make up for New York's lack of quality Vietnamese restaurants by making it myself, then all the better.