I was introduced to Pho when working on the trading floor in downtown Calgary – we were across the street from Chinatown and Pho was a sort of a weekly (or daily) pilgrimage, depending on who was feeling like it and who partied too hard the night before (if you don`t know about Pho`s incredible hangover-curing properties, then have I got news for you!).
If you have eaten restaurant Pho before, you know that it can be completely loaded with salt and MSG – it feels soo good to eat, but then hits you like a truck, usually right when sitting back in front of the computer. We even coined it a term: `soup coma`, `How`s it going this afternoon`, `Oh man, soup coma…` Or maybe it was soup sauna, since you`d be there face-first in a steaming bowl of soup, sweating, disrobing, then back in -25c for a trek back to the office. Those were the days.
Traditionally, you`d use beef bones for the stock, but these can be somewhat hard to come across where I live. I`ve even been told by a helpful Safeway lady that `restaurants will snag them up from distribution before they make it to stores.` This could be because we have 1,455,687 Vietnamese restaurants in this city.
Many traditional recipes will specify using oxtail bones – I don`t know about you, but over here oxtail is a very premium item, it`s even worse then regular beef bones. I did use it before just out of curiosity, but it didn`t make enough of difference to justify the cost. So for the broth, I usually use beef knuckle, chicken bones, or turkey necks and backs – it’s much easier to source these out. As far as cooking goes – pho requires a rather large pot, but if I`m making the soup in smaller quantities, say 4-6 bowls, my 6 qt Le Creuset dutch oven does just fine.
Update: I recently discovered that adding and dissolving 1 tbs unsalted peanut butter (or better yet, roasted and finely crushed peanuts) at the end of the cooking process yields wonders for the tastebuds! It’s not seen often and it’s a South Vietnamese way of doing it, however, my local Vietnamese restaurant does something very similar (I am still “working on them” to disclose :p)
Update 2: I’ve been adding the spices and fish sauce too soon! This ruins the taste by overcooking and dulling the flavors – yet you see these directions all over the place. Also, overcooked fish sauce tastes terrible. Add all spices in the last 15 minutes! That is ALL the time you need. I wish it didn’t take me like 2 years to find out.
(Enough for 8 large bowls, adjust accordingly)
- meat and bones:
- 4 lbs of beef (preferably knuckle bones), chicken, or turkey bones
- 1 lb beef brisket (optional)
- broth herbs and vegetables:
- 2 large white onions, charred
- 1 3 inch piece of ginger, charred
- 1 tbs salt
- 2 tbs palm sugar
- one bunch of fresh cilantro (optional)
- 1 tbs fish sauce (add in the last 15 minutes only)
- for the spice pouch
- 3 star anise
- 2 BIG cinnamon sticks
- 1 tbs fennel
- 1 tbs green anise seed (this is not star anise, but a small seed similar to fennel, but more potent with stronger licorice taste. If unavailable, substitute 1 tbs of fennel instead, making it a total of 2 tbs of fennel in the recipe)
- 5 cloves
- 2 tbs coriander seeds, lightly crushed
- meat garnishes:
- 1 lb eye of round beef, thinly sliced against the grain (2 mm thick). Flank steak can be substituted. Purchase the meat and use whatever quantity you like, the 1 lb is simply a guideline.
- side dipping sauce for meat:
- half schirraca/half hoisin sauce, sprinkled with peanuts
- herb garnishes:
- thai basil
- thinly sliced white onions
- satay sauce, or hot chili sauce
- bean sprouts
- rice noodles for Pho
- First, pre-boil the bones for a few minutes to get rid of impurities, discard the water, rinse the bones and set aside.
- Cut the onions and ginger in two. Broil, or barbecue the onions and ginger and the pre-boiled bones until lightly charred. Remove any blackened onion skins when finished. The charring step is essential - the smoky aroma will greatly enhance the stock.
- Add the charred onions, ginger and cleaned bones to a large cooking pot and cover with 6-8L of water, then bring to a boil for a couple of minutes, then cover and reduce to a simmer. The water ratio is approximate, but use your judgement, we want a strongly flavored broth, without diluting the flavors. It`s better to make less than more. Add the salt and sugar. When the pot is brought to a boil, there may be some more impurities and foam that rise to the surface. Remove this with a large shallow spoon, you will need to skim several times.
- Simmer for 5-6 hours, if using beef bones 8 hours of slow simmer is ideal.
- Important: Do not add the spices or fish sauce yet.
- minutes before end of cooking: roast your spices in a skillet, careful not to burn. When cooled slightly, put the spices into a small cheesecloth and tie it together. Add to the broth. Add the fish sauce. Cook this for 15 minutes, then discard the spices.
- Optional 1, if using brisket: In the last hour of cooking, place the brisket in the broth and continue simmering. It will be removed and thinly sliced at the end, to be served with the soup.
- Optional 2: Put one bunch of fresh cilantro into the broth, the entire thing. (Don`t do a Bridget Jones here, remove the elastic/metal tie wrap, of course). It will infuse the Pho with a wonderful fresh flavor. Add and dissolve the peanut butter, or the roasted and finely crushed peanuts.
- When the simmering is done, discard the broth ingredients - I usually use tongs and a small fine mesh colander, and separate the fat that rose to the top. To do this quickest, I use a large gravy separator and pour off the broth into another pot.
- Noodles and garnishes: prepare the noodles by soaking them in hot water, according to package directions. If you made them ahead and they`re now cold, reheat in the microwave for 45 seconds. The broth won't lose heat as you pour it over the hot noodles.
- Lay the thinly sliced eye of round beef on the warmed up noodles and ladle boiling broth over it to cook the meat. Garnish with remaining ingredients and serve immediately.