Fool for Pho

Citizen Chef and I share several passions. Good cooking, fine dining, a nice wine, those he and I share in common.

The obscene man-crush on Fabio from Top Chef isn’t a shared feeling; though I do feel that Fabio is a great chef.  (news on the Fabio front)

Another thing that we share is our inspiration for, and enjoyment of, is Pho. Pho (pronounced “Fuh” by most people – actually, the pronunciation is a variable as far as I can tell, as no one pronounces it the same way twice) is a world famous Vietnamese noodle soup involving beef and beef related products swimming with some rice noodles and a nice clear beef broth. That is Pho Bo (aka Beef Soup). There is also a chicken related Pho, but that could be another post. So for our purposes, we are going to concentrate on the beef soup.

This is the Pho I made!
This is the Pho I made!

Now you may be asking yourself, “Self, why would Squidlegs really like a Vietenemese dish since he is not, pretty obviously, from said region of the world?” And you would be asking yourself a very good question. And I have an answer for you… And yourself. Recently on the wonderful “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations,” there was an episode where he and his old boss from his restaurant in New York got up early just to go eat a good bowl of Pho for lunch. Yes.. There was that much waiting around. But they both agreed that it was worth it. If Tony says something is that good, I gotta go try it. I was inspired. I ran right out and… Well I totally forgot about it. Forgotten, until Citizen Chef came back from vacation, talking about Pho and how it was pretty darned good.

So then he and I had to try it together. On his home turf, we made arrangements to go try a good Vietenemese place near by. But it was closed the night we were going out. So his town actually had a second Vietenemese restaurant. Off we went. And it was pretty darned good.With some spring rolls and slow food delivery, we made a good time of it and enjoyed the food. We also made commitments that he would try the place we were going to be trying and that I would try the one restaurant in my neck of the woods. I managed to pull one over on Citizen Chef though, because two nights later, I went to other restaurant in his town and tried Pho again. Sneaky, aren’t I? It was pretty good. I thought that the broth, one of the key components, was a little lacking, but I did get this batch of Pho to-go, so I may have missed some of the nuances in the really hot broth or fresh noodles. I also tried the restaurant in my home town and, again, while good, wasn’t great! so the quest continued.

Now, all of the above was a set up for me telling you that I have the secret to good American Pho. I say American Pho as I am sure many of our Vietnamese readers or friends will tell you that no one over here can really get the ingredients or knows the secrets of real Pho. But this stuff is pretty damned good if I do say so myself. I found this recipe online (please check out the full page for the recipe… it’s somewhere in the middle.) All of the pictures in this post are from my attempt at cooking this, but the writer of the blog above also has some great pictures.

Finished Broth
Finished Broth

2 onions, halved
4″ nub of ginger, halved lengthwise
5-6 lbs of good beef bones, preferably leg and knuckle
1 lb of beef meat – chuck, brisket, rump, cut into large slices [optional]
6 quarts of water
1 package of Pho Spices [1 cinnamon stick, 1 tbl coriander seeds, 1 tbl fennel seeds, 5 star anise, 1 cardamom pod, 6 whole cloves – in mesh bag]
1 1/2 tbl salt
1/4 cup fish sauce
1 inch chunk of yellow rock sugar (about 1 oz) – or 1oz of regular sugar

Char: Turn your broiler on high and move rack to the highest spot. Place ginger and onions on baking sheet. Brush just a bit of cooking oil on the cut side of each. Broil on high until ginger and onions begin to char. Turn over and continue to char. This should take a total of 10-15 minutes.

Parboil the bones: Fill large pot (12-qt capacity) with cool water. Boil water, and then add the bones, keeping the heat on high. Boil vigorously for 10 minutes. Drain, rinse the bones and rinse out the pot. Refill pot with bones and 6 qts of cool water. Bring to boil over high heat and lower to simmer. Using a ladle or a fine mesh strainer, remove any scum that rises to the top.

Boil broth: Add ginger, onion, spice packet, beef, sugar, fish sauce, salt and simmer uncovered for 1 1/2 hours. Remove the beef meat and set aside (you’ll be eating this meat later in the bowls) Continue simmering for another 1 1/2 hours. Strain broth and return the broth to the pot. Taste broth and adjust seasoning – if you want a little more flavor, add a few dashes more of fish sauce, large pinch of salt and a small nugget of rock sugar (or large pinch of regular sugar).

Everything ready for the broth
Everything ready for the broth

2 lbs rice noodles (dried or fresh)
cooked beef from the broth
1/2 lb flank, london broil, sirloin or eye of round, sliced as thin as possible.
big handful of each: mint, cilantro, basil
2 limes, cut into wedges
2-3 chili peppers, sliced
2 big handfuls of bean sprouts
Hoisin sauce
Cock sauce (Sriracha)

Prepare noodles & meat: Slice your flank/london broil/sirloin as thin as possible – try freezing for 15 minutes prior to slicing to make it easier. Remember the cooked beef meat that was part of your broth? Cut or shred the meat and set aside. Arrange all other ingredients on a platter for the table. Your guests will “assemble” their own bowls. Follow the directions on your package of noodles – there are many different sizes and widths of rice noodles, so make sure you read the directions. For some fresh rice noodles, just a quick 5 second blanch in hot water is all that’s needed. The package that I purchased (above) – needed about 45 seconds in boiling water.

Ladling: Bring your broth back to a boil. Line up your soup bowls next to the stove. Fill each bowl with rice noodles, shredded cooked beef and raw meat slices. As soon as the broth comes back to a boil, ladle into each bowl. the hot broth will cook your raw beef slices. Serve immediately. Guests can garnish their own bowls as they wish.

Everything needed to make a good bowl of Pho
Everything needed to make a good bowl of Pho

There are a couple of notes about the recipe above.

  • I used flank steak and I got a little over a pound. I used half for the broth and then shredded it for the actual bowl and then thin sliced the other half for the “raw’ portion that gets cooked by the broth.
  • The broth is really fatty if you use soup bones, so at one point my kitchen looked sort of like the soap-making scene in “Fight Club,” but without the chemical burns. Just fair warning, you will want to use a ladle and get the first inch to two inches of liquid off the top of the broth before proceeding to the second 1-1/2 hour simmer. I actually poured the liquid into a seperator and out of 4 cups of liquid, had less than a cup of broth, all of the rest was fat.
  • It doesn’t say to, but I toasted the spice pack before I put it together. I recommend that. It was really nummy!
  • This is not a race, take your time. It will take a whole afternoon to make this.
  • While I was at the store getting items for this dish, I found some beef/tendon meatballs in the asian frozen food section. I highly recommend that in addition to the other meat in the dish. You boil them for 15 minutes right out of the freezer and cut them in half and put it in the soup bowl, as I did. I really encourage you to add this, as it brings a great flavor and texture to the game.
  • There are a couple of other condiments that you should consider.
    • Chili Garlic Paste (found in asian sections of big grocery stores, or oriental food markets
    • Beef Paste, found in the same place
    • Fried Minced Garlic, which I actually didn’t find, so I didn’t try it, but I have had it in a restaurant and it adds another layer of flavor.
  • About the hoisin and “cock” sauce (so called because of the rooster on the bottle, get your minds out of the gutter!), you don’t see it in the photos, but I did add it. It is about a tablespoon of each, but that will spice it up, so you may want to use less of the cock sauce.

So that’s it. The secret to great Pho. It was awesome and I am not just saying that because I gloating. Though I am. It was just really, really good. And once the excess fat was removed, it is even pretty healthy. I hope you try it and enjoy!


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