Wednesday, February 15, 2012

For the Love of Pho: Beef Noodle Soup to Free Your Soul

There are a few truly great soups in the world: Japanese miso shiru, Thai tom yam or tom ka, French onion soup, American New England clam chowder, Spanish gazpacho, Chinese hot and sour soup, and lastly, Vietnamese pho soup. Pho, pronounced fuh, is a beef broth soup made from cooking bony, fatty pieces of beef--the undesirable bits--in water with roasted ginger, onions, and star anise. The broth becomes aromatic and rich, while the odd slices of beef the soup may be served with are more of an afterthought than the main event.

Part of the fun of eating pho is that you get a plate of garnishes, so that you can add to your soup bowl as your taste dictates, composing your own soup experience. I'm a sucker for the make-your-own at the table art of cuisine. Somehow food tastes better because you chose the combo.


Making the Broth
1 large yellow or white onion
3 inch piece unpeeled ginger root
2 to 3 pounds beef soup bones (leg, knuckle bones, oxtails--any bony, soup cuts of beef)
1/2 pound flank steak or sirloin (optional)
5 star anise
3 whole cloves
1-inch cinnamon stick
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
1 gallon water
Peel and cut the onion in half. Place it in a nonstick frying pan, along with the ginger root, unpeeled and sliced in half lengthwise. Char these for a few minutes to soften. Add these as is to the pot of water, along with the beef. Heat to boiling, and when impurities float to the top, skin them off repeatedly and discard.
Add in the star anise, cloves, cinnamon stick, salt, fish sauce, steak (if you used it), and sugar. Simmer about one and a half hours.
When cooking is complete, strain the broth through a cheesecloth in a colander to remove any impurities. Discard bones (here's where your family dog gets lucky). If you used steak, set it aside for slicing. Then, either skim off the layer of fat on top of the broth, or refrigerate and then scoop off the fat. You want a clear, delicate—not heavy—broth.
Garnishes a Go-Go
Assemble the following on a large plate, feeling free to substitute, as needed:
· Chopped cilantro
· Green onions, sliced into small rings (optional--we don't like raw onions in my family)
· 1 cup fresh bean mung bean sprouts
· 2 Limes cut into wedges
· 1 bunch mint leaves
· 1 bunch Thai basil or Italian basil
· 2 chili peppers, thinly sliced (although Thai hot peppers are preferred, we use jalapenos, as they are less intense, but still pack some heat), with seeds removed
· Watercress or other greens, if you have them (saw-tooth herb is authentic, but not easily found)
· Sriracha hot chili sauce and hoisin sauce

Prepare 12 ounces of rice noodles as directed on the package, rinse in cold water, and set aside.
Creating the Pho Bowls
If you used steak, slice it against the grain in very thin slices. Heat the broth to boiling over medium heat Prepare the rice noodles as directed. Blanch the bean sprouts until wilted but still crisp. Fill each bowl approximately 1/4 full with noodles, place slices of steak (if used) on top of the noodles. Garnish this with sliced green onions (if used). Ladle the hot broth into each bowl. Serve the garnishes plate along with the pho soup.