What the pho?
Google released a report last year that analyzed what everyone’s cooking, buying and ordering. Google analyzed all the food-related search queries between January 2014 and January 2016. They listed the top five topics based on rapidly increasing interest. One of the top five trending topics was “pho.”
Pho (pronounced “fuh”) is Vietnamese beef or chicken noodle soup. It is traditionally eaten for breakfast at street vendor stalls. Rice noodles and meat are placed in a bowl and hot broth, fragrant with ginger, cinnamon, star anise and clove is ladled over. The diner then garnishes the pho with fresh herbs, jalapeno slices and bean sprouts.
A few years ago, in preparation for a trip to New Orleans, I searched “New Orleans restaurants” online and found an article about Chef Emeril Lagasses’ favorite NOLA eateries. He rhapsodized passionately about the pho at Pho Tau Bay. Emeril raved about their pho broth and said he has unsuccessfully begged the owners to divulge their secret recipe. During my four days in New Orleans I ate there three times. The pho was that good. I was allowed to peek into the kitchen where a 10-gallon stockpot of pho broth was bubbling away. However, no secrets were divulged.
According to Google, interest in this soup has increased every year of this decade, especially since 2013. Last month saw the release of The Pho Cookbook: Easy to Adventurous Recipes for Vietnam’s Favorite Soup and Noodles by Andrea Nguyen. Andrea Nguyen is a San Francisco-based author and teacher who emigrated from Vietnam at the age of six. Her earlier work, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, is my go-to Vietnamese cookbook. Her website, vietworldkitchen.com, is a wonderful source of cooking information and recipes. Her cookbooks make Vietnamese cooking accessible to the contemporary Western home cook.
Though the word “pho” refers to the rice noodles in the soup, everyone judges pho by the quality of the broth. In The Pho Cookbook, Nguyen offers an easy entry into making pho by presenting a recipe using store-bought stock. A credible pho can be created from this doctored-up stock. It’s a great way to introduce oneself to pho.
For those who want to take it to a higher sensory/culinary plateau, Nguyen guides you through the process of creating a clear, sublimely flavorful stock. This is the route I selected a few weekends ago. I will describe my pho broth experience, which took up the better part of a Saturday, so that you can live it vicariously through me. But start with the following easy recipe and work your way up to the higher levels of stock making.
Saturday morning I picked up eight pounds of beef knucklebones, marrowbones, neck bones and a chuck roast from Stan at Triple S Farms. I blanched and rinsed them to remove impurities and then returned them to the pot and brought them to a boil. I charred whole ginger and unpeeled shallots over a gas flame. These were then peeled, chopped and added to the pot. Star anise, cloves and a cinnamon stick are added. The broth then simmers for three hours. The bones are removed and the broth is strained through a cheesecloth-lined sieve. The process took a whole Saturday afternoon and yielded a mere four quarts of deliciousness.
Quick beef pho
Takes about 40 minutes
When a fast beef pho is in order, try this recipe. To let pho aromatics and spices shine, mix beef and chicken broth. The combination creates a lighter, appropriate canvas for painting a pho profile. Broths that taste like beef or chicken and not much else work best.
Thinly sliced roast beef sold at deli counters is fabulously convenient, and because it’s minimally seasoned, it plays well with the pho flavors. Leftover cooked steak is terrific, too.
- 3/4-inch section ginger
- 2 medium-large green onions
- 1 star anise (8 robust points total)
- 1 1/2 inches cinnamon stick
- 1 or 2 whole cloves
- 1 3/4 to 2 cups low-sodium beef broth
- 1 3/4 to 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
- 2 cups water
- About 1/2 tsp fine sea salt
- 5 oz. dried narrow flat rice noodles
- 4 to 5 oz. very thinly sliced roast beef or cooked steak
- 2 to 3 tsp fish sauce
- About 1/2 tsp organic sugar, or 1 tsp maple syrup (optional)
- 2 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro, leafy tops only
- Pepper (optional)
To take a shortcut for rare steak pho, buy about 5 ounces of thinly sliced beef carne asada. Pound the meat a few times with a meat mallet to thin out further, then cut it into bite-size pieces for a quick pho topping.
Peel then slice the ginger into four or five coins. Smack with the flat side of a knife or meat mallet; set aside. Thinly slice the green parts of the green onion to yield 2 to 3 tablespoons; set aside for garnish. Cut the leftover sections into pinkie-finger lengths, bruise, then add to the ginger.
In a 3- to 4-quart pot, toast the star anise, cinnamon and cloves over medium heat until fragrant, one to two minutes. Add the ginger and green onion sections. Stir for 30 seconds, until aromatic. Slide the pot off heat, wait about 15 seconds to cool a bit, then pour in the beef and chicken broths. Return the pot to the burner, then add the water and salt. Bring to a boil over high, then lower the heat to gently simmer for 30 minutes.
While the broth simmers, soak the rice noodles in hot water until pliable and opaque. Drain, rinse and set aside. Bring the beef to room temperature.
When the broth is done, pour it through a fine-mesh strainer positioned over a 2-quart pot; line the strainer with muslin for super clear broth. Discard the solids. You should have about four cups. Season with fish sauce and sugar (or maple syrup), if needed, to create a strong savory-sweet note.
Bring the strained broth to a boil over high heat. Put the noodles in a noodle strainer or mesh sieve and dunk in the hot broth to heat and soften, five to 60 seconds. Lift the noodles from the pot and divide between the two bowls. Lower the heat to keep the broth hot while you arrange the beef on top of the noodles and garnish with the chopped green onion, cilantro and a sprinkling of black pepper.
Taste and adjust the broth’s saltiness to your liking one last time. Return the broth to a boil and ladle into the bowls. Enjoy with any extras, if you like.
Reprinted with permission from The Pho Cookbook: Easy To Adventurous Recipes For Vietnam’s Favorite Soup And Noodles, by Andrea Nguyen, copyright © 2017. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.