The Definitive Pho Recipe
Makes enough for twelve, with some leftovers, probably.
It’s raining again. It’s the kind of cold, hard rain that makes your bones shiver and your thoughts grim and indistinct. The kind of rain that demands hot tea, cozy blankets, a warm lover cuddling next to you, and old Woody Allen movies. Also for me it’s the kind of rain that requires pho.
|Damn, I love this food!
My mother is Vietnamese, and for me pho is the ultimate comfort food, speaking to me soothing words of family, warmth, and conversation. What’s not to love about hot broth, tender beef, crisp bean sprouts, a squeeze of lime juice, fiery chilies, and loads of herbs?
Part of what intrigues me about pho is the adaptability of it. It is designed for individual tastes – add or subtract what you like or don’t. The only requirements are excellent broth and pho noodles.
Pho noodles are best fresh, which you can find in good Asian-specific markets with a large selection. There are plenty of decent dried versions, but if you have trouble finding those any dried rice noodles will work. Pad Thai noodles are a fair substitute, although wider than pho noodles, generally.
The broth takes time, but most of it’s unattended. Choose a rainy day where you can linger inside most of the time to check your broth periodically. An added bonus: your house will smell fantastic all day long!
YOU’RE GONNA NEED for the broth:
10 pounds of beef bones, neck or knuckle or a combination
|Exotic? Not really.|
3 pounds of oxtails
1 thick, three-inch chunk of fresh ginger
12 quarts water
2 white onions
20 whole cloves
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon white peppercorns
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
6 star anise
1 cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 3-inch chunk of rock sugar (or 2 tablespoons light brown sugar)
1 tablespoon monosodium glutamate*
half cup Vietnamese fish sauce (I prefer Three-Crabs brand)
2-3 pounds beef brisket
To MAKE THE BROTH, do this:
Put beef bones and oxtail into a large pot and cover with cold water. Over high heat bring to a boil, which will take 20 minutes or more. Meanwhile, do the following…
|Char that ginger!|
Over a hot flame on your stove top, hold the knob of fresh ginger with a pair of metal tongs. Char the skin of the ginger knob, turning slowly to blacken all over, until the whole thing is charred. Put to one side to cool for a few minutes, and scrape the skin from the ginger. I use the back edge of the bowl of a teaspoon to scrape, loosen, and remove the blackened skin. When you’re finished rinse the ginger under warm water to clean.
Also, peel the white onions, keeping them whole. Into one onion shove the pointy ends of the whole cloves until they stick into the onion flesh. The onion will end up looking like a WW2-era anti-submarine mine. This is a fun task for the kids. Bennet helped me with this step.
Returning to the pot, once the water boils cook the bones at a rapid boil for about three minutes. A floating, foamy scum will rise to the surface. Dump bones into a colander in the sink and discard water. Wash pot thoroughly. Rinse beef bones in cold water and put back in pot.
To the pot add 12 quarts of cold, filtered water. Add cooked ginger, both white onions, peppercorns, fennel, coriander, star anise, cinnamon, salt, rock sugar, fish sauce, and if you prefer, the MSG. Bring to a boil over medium-high. Reduce heat to low and simmer for one hour.
Meanwhile, wash your brisket well in cold water. Add to the pot and simmer in the broth for two hours. During this process, if any scum floats to the surface skim it off. Remove brisket and place in a large bowl of water, which prevents the meat from drying out and turning dark. Once fully cooled, slice this meat across the grain for the soup.
Take some time to skim unwanted fats from the surface of the broth at this time. You can collect this skimmed fat in a plastic container. When you’re finished refrigerate the container and by morning the cooled fatty broth will have separated into beef fat and some excellent broth, which you can add to your broth later. Also, you should check your broth for seasonings. Add salt if you feel it needs it. Add a bit more fish sauce if you think it necessary.
I generally simmer the broth for another hour or so until it’s very rich. When you’ve reached the flavor you want, remove the bones and oxtails and strain the broth through a cheesecloth or fine metal sieve into another pot. Your pho broth is now ready.
|Regina is hungry for pho.|
When the bones have cooled enough to handle, discard any without any meat. Slice any palatable meat for the soup. From the oxtails use your fingers to remove any of the succulent meat. Personally I love oxtail meat – rich, fatty, super tender, and all goooood!
Reserve all of this meat for the soup.
Now, switch gears…
FOR THE SOUP, you’ll need:
1 lb of beef filet, neatly trimmed of fats and other tissue
cooked and rinsed pho noodles, about a cup and half per person
white onion, thinly sliced into rounds
scallion greens, thinly sliced
cooked brisket, oxtail, and other meat, reserved from the broth-making process.
ground white pepper
sliced chilis — jalapeno, Serrano, or thai bird chilies]
mung bean sprouts, washed well
fresh herbs – purple-stemmed Thai basil, cilantro, and fresh mint
chili sauce – sriracha or sambal oeleck
Prepare the beef filet by first freezing it for about 20-30 minutes until firm but not hard. Using a sharp knife cut the filet into thin slices, an 1/8-inch thick if possible.
Assemble a bowl of pho by putting noodles in a bowl, topped with sliced onions and a handful of scallions. Add a few slices of cooked brisket and other meat. Add a dash of white pepper.
|Personalize your pho.|
Now bring your broth up to a rolling boil. Take a few slices of raw beef filet and place in the hollow of a soup ladle. Holding down the meat with a pair of chopsticks, lower ladle into the boiling broth to blanch the raw filet. When lightly poached (a minute or less), remove the partially cooked beef filet and lay over noodles in the bowl. Pour hot broth over the noodles to cover and to fill the bowl.
On the table put out chilies, beans sprouts, herbs, limes, and condiments. Suggest to your guests that they personalize their soup as they see fit, with perhaps a squeeze of lime, a handful of bean sprouts, a few torn herbs, and a dash of one or more the condiments.
I usually like it with lots of chili sauce, a few slices of fresh chilies, lots of bean sprouts, some herbs, mostly basil. Sometimes a squeeze of lime, sometimes a teaspoon of hoisin sauce, sometimes both.
I love to eat pho, especially on days like today. It warms my soul. Perhaps it’ll touch yours too. Give it a try.
* I know some people have sensitivities to MSG in large amounts, but I have no qualms about its usage. Small quantities like this are harmless. But omit it if necessary. Its use, however, results in a richer broth, full of deep umami notes.