So my first experience with pho was in Burlington, Vermont at Pho Hong, a spectacular authentic Vietnamese no-frills restaurant that had great Yelp reviews. I was in town for some work training. Ray and I met some of his friends there. When I ordered (I got the chicken, rookie error, pho is traditionally a beef broth with beef slices and it’s infinitely better that way), I just got the “normal” portion and not the large. They plonked it down on the table and it was, in classic American style, an utterly enormous vessel of food. It looked so excellent. Slightly opaque, slippery noodles, crunchy bean sprouts and sweet onions, thai basil, bursts of lime juice and pieces of chicken and oh.. what’s this? …. ONLY THE MOST DELICIOUS, FLAVORFUL BROTH-BASED SOUP I’VE EVER TASTED IN MY ACTUAL ENTIRE LIFE. At this point I massively regretted not getting the large.
The bad news is that there’s nowhere to get pho, or any decent Asian food for that matter, in my town. I can’t just be going to Burlington all the darn time to get pho. You know what that means: time to make my own.
A lovely online friend of mine with whom I share a love of dogs and cooking shared this recipe with me because she thinks it’s very authentic and had tested it herself a bunch of times. I’m not going to retype the recipe, more like I’m just going to tell you the basics of how I make it in my kitchen – I don’t have a gas stove or a BBQ (grill) so that changes things a little bit for me.
Here’s the thing about pho: you gotta be committed. Put a whole damn day aside. And I’m not talking starting at 10 or 11 after a leisurely morning of bagels and the Sunday paper. I’m talking about starting at 8am and having dinner on the table around 7pm. Of course, a lot of this is just letting the broth simmer so you can get some stuff done during that time (I did some laundry and shopping, for example) but I also recommend being in the house so you can obsessively breathe in the delicious cooking smells you’ll experience during this time.
If you are the kind of person who looks at this recipe, or looks at the phrase “simmer gently for 8-10 hours” and runs howling into the hills, you won’t like this recipe. I actually love an all-day cooking project. There’s something so deeply satisfying about it to me. The prep, the steps, the measuring, the skimming, the smells… ahhhhh. Still interested? Read on.
Yesterday Ray and I went to an Asian Supermarket in Albany, NY (on Chinese New Year, ugh, we’re morons) and got about 8lb of what was labelled as “beef feet” but is not hoof – it’s shin and fetlock I guess? Anyway, you could also use normal marrow bones or chuck bones, whatever’s good for soup is good for this. The first step for this recipe is to chuck them all in a large pot (really large, at least 16L), cover them with water and bring to the boil.
Next, the recipe says that you need to use a gas flame, like a bbq (“grill” for Americans) to char the onions and ginger. I don’t have that, nor do I have a rangehood, so I need to use the broiler (“grill”, to Aussies, life is weird sometimes) in my oven. I set it to high, cut the onions in half and set them cut-side-up on a baking sheet with the ginger and set them in the oven with the door a little bit ajar. It takes around half an hour depending on the strength of your grill/broiler. Turn everything at least once. What you’re looking for here is to soften the onion and ginger and to see it blackening a little and smelling sweet. Aw yeah! Let them cool down then get rid of any blackened parts and peel the ginger as directed.
Back to the bones. You want a really hard boil for at least 2-3 minutes. You’ll see a bunch of gross looking foamy scuzz on the top of the water. Tip the bones into a very clean sink, rinse them with warm water. Quickly scrub out the pot and put the bones back in.
From here the recipe is pretty straightforward. Give the bones another quick boil, get rid of the scuzz then bring the boil to a simmer. Add the rest of the broth ingredients.
From here, apart from getting the piece of steak out after an hour or so and setting it aside, it’s just a waiting game. The broth needs to simmer for at least 8 hours – 10 is better.
It’s all a matter of what timing works for you. After the broth has had time to simmer, it needs to be reduced. For this, you need to strain the broth through a fine sieve into a large bowl to get all the bits out. Careful of the bones – don’t let them splash back into the broth. Once you’ve strained it, return the broth to the pot and bring it back to a simmer.
Now starts the, IMO, trickiest part. Or at least the most tedious. It’s time for The Skimmening.
The fat will rise to the top obviously, and you just need to skim it off. I use a 1/3 cup measurer (though there are special implements for this!) and just press the edge of the cup under the surface of the fat, letting it flow into the cup. The key is to just try not to get too much of the actual broth in the cup, so as not to waste it. Tip the fat into another receptacle and dispose of it appropriately. If you’re not sure that you’re doing it right, check out the color of the stuff you’re skimming. If it’s yellow, it’s fat. If it’s brownish, it might be broth. Fat will also “feel” oily like fat if you smoosh it in your fingertips! It takes a bit of practice but it’s really worth it for a clear, clean broth! Trust me!
From here it’s just about letting the broth reduce a little. It’s a good time to taste the broth and see if it needs more salt (or fish sauce) or a little extra rock sugar. It’s better if it’s a tiny bit too salty because noodles, bean shoots etc are all unsalted and they’ll mellow it out a tad. Yesterday, I left the lid on while it simmered which did leave me with more liquid than normal, however, I had to boil the heck out of it to get it to reduce. But I think I’d do it that way again because lemme tell you, I really nailed it this time, the flavor was perfect.
You can add a little more fish sauce, salt or rock sugar if you don’t think the flavors are balanced enough, but don’t add anything that won’t completely dissolve.
I usually prep the bowl assembly ingredients while this is happening. If you have dry noodles it’s time to start soaking them in warm water. If you have fresh noodles, just untangle them and run them under cool water. Slice your sweet/yellow onion as thinly as you humanly and safely can and put them in cold water to soak. Slice up the green parts of scallions on the bias (it looks nicer, you will note I forgot to do this). Put your steak in the freezer to get a little more firm so it’s easier to slice thinly. Rinse your bean shoots. Slice your limes. Tear up some nice looking coriander and thai basil leaves. Thinly slice a red chilli if you have some. You will think it’s silly, but I really do take such joy in getting all the garnishes ready!
Look at all that beautifulness! Yesssssssssssss ahhh ok ok ok I’m fine. *deep breaths*
So are you ready to go? Let’s do this, in point form.
- Using fresh noodles? Untangle them in a colander while rinsing with cold water, then blanch them, a batch at a time, for like 30 seconds tops in a pot of boiling water.
- If you’re using dry noodles, take them out of the water they’ve been soaking in and blanch them in boiling water (again in batches) until tender (each brand will have different instructions).
- Put the noodles in the bowls. They should take up about 1/3 of each bowl. Place strips of beef over the hot noodles, then add your garnishes (sliced onion, bean sprouts, scallions, coriander, thai basil and chilli if you’re having it).
- Bring the broth to a rolling, hard boil then ladle the boiling broth over the noodles and garnishes, ensuring that the thinly sliced beef is cooked as you do so.
- Squeeze lime into the broth to taste. Ray only likes a wedge or two, I use about four. He adds some sriracha sometimes too.
- EAT IT Hhhhnnnnggggghh
So there you have it. Beef pho (pho bo). Is it as good as you have at a Vietnamese restaurant? Hell no. But it’s pretty damned close. And, I am told, a lot of Vietnamese people feel the same way (it’s a restaurant dish, not an everyday dish to make at home).
If you enjoy settling into a warm, steamy kitchen with a few episodes of House on Netflix and happily puddling around doing not-very-much for the most part, then you’ll love this. It’s a great winter dish without the stodgy richness of most traditionally winter dishes. It’s a great combo of warm, tasty broth with fresh flavors, slurpy, thin, delicate noodles, chewy tender beef and crunch bean shoots! So it’s fine for summer too. If you’re up for a day of cooking, with only short bursts of actually doing anything, I really urge you to give this lady’s recipe a try (link in first paragraph).
PS. You’ll note that I didn’t talk about calories in this dish. It’s because I don’t really care. You can do the math if that’s something that’s important to you. I wouldn’t think it’d be super high, plus you have nutritious veges and all that jazz.