Pho Bac - Vietnamese Beef and Noodle Soup
If you've never had, or even heard of Pho before, my guess is that you will soon. Pho is the accepted shorthand for pho bo, a Vietnamese beef and noodle soup, whose popularity seems to have been growing dramatically over the past few years. Around Boston the number of Vietnamese style noodle restaurants has been growing steadily, even in the suburbs. Perhaps the biggest sign of the emergence of Pho on the culinary map here is the replacement of Jae's (a symbol of the ascendency of Asian/fusion cuisine in the '90s) with Pho Pasteur at the Atrium in Chestnut Hill. While I've known about pho for a while, I only tried it for the first time a few months ago, having made it myself after looking for something else to do with the fish sauce I purchased to make Pad Thai a while back. Since then, I haven't been able to get enough of it.
Pho epitomizes what I call honest cuisine. Simple and pure in flavor, it appeals to all the senses. For the eyes pho offers an intriguing composition of carefully arranged layers of noodles, vegetables and meat surrounded by a shimmering broth that was clearly boiling in its stockpot only moments ago. Leaning over the bowl you inhale deeply to capture the heady aroma of the rich broth spiced with anise, cloves and roasted ginger and the delicate fragrance of fresh basil, cilantro (and sometimes even mint). Working nimbly with chopsticks and spoon, you fill your mouth with the rich feel of well prepared stock, the chew of the slippery noodle and textured meat, and the crunch of bean sprouts or other vegetables cooked only by the broth that envelops them. The flavors you smelled evolve in your mouth, the beefy goodness (and sweet heat too if you added a squirt of chili sauce) intensifying and subsiding, delicately coating your tongue and warming the back of your throat. As you eat you are entertained by the alternating sounds of slurping noodles and sipping soup. A bowl of pho is simultaneously a transcendent, humble and happy experience, and clearly plain old good eats.
At it's core, pho can truly be considered a cultural and political statement. And, like any subject that instills such levels of passion, there is anything but unanimity about how pho came to be or, indeed, what goes into it. Pho appears to be the soup equivalent of barbecue. Every pho cook has his or her own rules of what can and cannot go into the bowl, and even how it should go into the bowl. Are bean sprouts authentic? If so, are they served in the soup, or on the side with fresh basil for the diner to add as desired? Is basil OK? How about mint? Cilantro? Care to finish it off with a squeeze of lime, or lemon? To the pho phanatic the preceding questions contain nothing but fighting words.
As with barbecue, I am agnostic when it comes to pho cooking and eating. The only constants (as far as I can tell) are a rich beef broth flavored with fish sauce (nuoc mam), star anise, cloves and ginger, rice noodles (though, to be honest, Chinese bean thread noodles work very well too), thinly sliced beef, a fresh herb and a fresh vegetable. Beyond that any and all variation is a good and welcome thing.
Pho Bo — Vietnamese Beef and Noodle Soup
(as interpreted by Simmerstock)
Serves 6 adults as the only course.
Beef Stock3 pounds oxtails cut into 2 inch pieces
3 pounds beef chuck blade steak (don't get wimpy and try a leaner cut. We end up skimming off all the fat, so all you'll loose is flavor.)
5 quarts water
Soup Broth1 large red onion, quartered
4 inches fresh ginger, quartered lengthwise
1 stick cinnamon (about 4 inches long)
1 piece star anise
1/4 cup fish sauce (nuoc mam)
1 gallon of beef stock made with ingredients above
Accompaniments1 pound skirt steak, sliced very thin against the grain in 3 to 4 inch strips.
1 pound dried rice noodles (preferably bahn pho)
4 cups mung bean sprouts
2 limes sliced into 1/4 inch wedges
1 cup sliced or chopped green onion
1 cup shredded Chinese (napa) cabbage
1/2 cup basil leaves (preferably the Asian variety, but any will do)
Vietnamese chili sauce (Sriracha) (optional)
Hoisin sauce (optional)
First off, let me just say that I like rich brown beef stock made with roasted meat. I say this now because most of the recipes I've seen for pho include white beef stock where the bones and meat are not browned first, and some people may not appreciate my tampering with pho this way. I make no apologies. Roasting adds good flavor and gets rid of most of the fat right from the start. I also cheat a bit by leaving out the bones. While bones do add body to a stock, using all meat cuts the cooking time considerably (a good stock made from beef bones can take upwards of 12 hours), and the use of oxtail compensates fairly well for the lack of bone. If you have a problem with my adding flavor and cutting cooking time, keep it to yourself.
- OK, preheat the oven to 450°.
- Wash the meat with cool water, dry it well with paper towels and spread the meat on a sheet pan or roasting pan (anything with a rim so the fat doesn't end up on the floor of your oven).
- Roast the meat for half an hour, turning the pieces over after the first 15 minutes, until the meat develops a nice brown crust. Be careful not to burn the meat or the good stuff that drips onto the pan.
- Using tongs or a fork, remove the meat from the roasting pan, drain on paper towels, and place it in a 10 quart or larger stock pot.
- Pour off all the fat from the pan and place the pan over two burner on the stove. With both burners on high, deglaze the pan with 2 cups of the water and pour the resulting liquid into the stock pot.
- Pour the remaining 4-1/2 quarts of the water into the stockpot, turn the heat on as high as it will go, and cover the pot.
- As soon as the water starts to a boil remove the cover and turn the heat down to low. With a ladle or large spoon, skim whatever foam, fat or other detritus comes to the surface of the stock. Continue simmering the stock (uncovered) for at least four hours (six, or even eight would be better), repeating the skimming process every 15 minutes or so.
- Strain the stock through a sieve lined with at least two layers of cheese cloth. You should have at least a gallon of stock. If you're down by less than a quart, just add some water. If you're down by more than a quart, you can make up the difference with chicken broth .
At this point, if you're not going to make the soup right away, you can cool down and refrigerate the stock for up to a week.
The stock was the hard part. To make the soup itself we simply roast the ginger and onion, throw all of the soup ingredients into the stock and simmer it for about 45 minutes.
- If you have a gas stove use tongs to roast pieces of ginger and onion over an open flam until the pieces are lightly charred. Otherwise, place the ginger and onion on a sheet pan and broil in the oven as close to the heating element as possible, turning the pieces over once, until the surfaces are lightly charred.
- Wrap the clove, cinnamon and anise in some cheese cloth and tie the bundle up with some string.
- Place all of the soup ingredients (roast onion and ginger, spice bundle, fish sauce and stock) into a pot and lightly simmer, partially covered for about 45 minutes.
- Strain the soup and keep it warm in the pot until you are ready to serve.
To make the noodles, bring two quarts of water to a boil (I just use a tea kettle) and pour the boiling water over the noodles in a bowl. Let the noodles sit in the hot water for about 10 minutes until they become, well, noodly, and drain.
Pho tai chin is pho served with half the beef fully cooked and the other half cooked only by the hot broth in the serving bowl. To fully cook some or all of the beef up front, bring the soup to a boil, drop in whatever portion of the meat you want to cook and let it simmer for three to five minutes. Then strain the soup and set aside the cooked meat for serving.
I like to serve pho family style, which means everyone gets to make their own dinner. This serving method goes over particularly well with the kids, as they essentially have permission to play with their food. To do this I just set out the accompaniments in their own serving bowls, set the soup on a hotplate in the middle of the table, give each diner and empty bowl and let them go at it.
I assemble my pho by adding some noodles to my warmed bowl, followed by a few bean sprouts, some shredded cabbage, a few slices of raw beef and few slices of cooked beef. I then sprinkle on top a torn up leaf or two of basil and some of the chopped green onion, pour in some piping hot broth. I finish the bowl off with a little squeeze of lime and chili sauce, and I'm ready to go.
How you assemble your own personal bowl of pho is entirely up to you.
© Copyright 2002, Richard L. Chase
Posted on May 30, 2002 @ 07:08 PM
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