The Vietnamese have a saying: “Rice is the dutiful wife that you can rely on [while] pho is the flirty mistress that you slip away to visit.” Maybe that’s because few other dishes provide the same relief that a steaming hot bowl of soup noodles can, particularly on a cold winter’s day. “The Pho Cookbook,” by food writer Andrea Nguyen, is a love letter to this quintessential dish and its special place in Vietnamese culture.
Pho aficionados argue that pho bac, the Hanoi-style of pho is the purest form out there. Compared to the Saigon-style bowls that are typically doctored with Sriracha, hoisin sauce and all manner of condiments, pho from North Vietnam is a spartan soup. The sole focus is the flavor of one’s broth, bolstered by dried shrimp, scallops or anchovies for extra umami. Nguyen’s recipe, which she’s been refining for years, calls for a pig trotter for viscosity and a Fuji apple for a hint of sweetness. Top with the usual cooked and raw beef, slivers of green onions and cilantro.
HANOI-STYLE BEEF PHO (PHO BAC)
A proper bowl of pho is a time-intensive labor of love, so set aside at least 5 hours when making this recipe.
Yield: Makes 8 servings
Pho Beef Broth (recipe follows)
Cooked beef from the broth, sliced to about ⅛- inch thickness (see below)
Raw steak, thinly sliced (8 servings, available at any Asian supermarket)
1¼ lbs thin flat dry rice noodles, or 2 pounds of fresh pho noodles
4 to 6 stalks of green onion, cut on a sharp diagonal into long, thin slivers
2 Fresno, Thai or Serrano chiles, thinly sliced
8 to 12 sprigs of fresh mint
½ cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
Freshly ground black pepper (optional)
Garlic Vinegar (recipe follows)
A large pot for boiling noodles
A noodle strainer
Prepare the noodles: In a large bowl, soak the dried noodles in hot water until they turn pliable and opaque. Then strain, rinse and drain any moisture to liquid. Or, if using fresh noodles, untangle and/or separate the strands, snipping as needed. Divide the noodles among 8 soup bowls. Reserve and set aside.
Prepare the beef: Thinly slice the cooked beef against the grain. Arrange on a plate and reserve. Next, arrange the thin slices of raw steak on a plate. Set both plates of cooked beef and raw steak aside and cover, if not using within 15 minutes.
Prepare the garnishes: Transfer the sliced green onions and chopped cilantro into separate bowls. Nguyen suggests lining them up with the plates of beef and black pepper to create a pho assembly line. Place the sliced chiles, mint and Garlic Vinegar on the table.
Boil the noodles: Bring a pot of water to boil over high heat. One at a time, place each bowl’s portion of noodles into a noodle strainer or mesh sieve, dunking the noodles in the boiling water to cook. Once the noodles are soft, about 50 to 60 seconds, remove the strainer from the water and shake the noodles over the pot to drain any excess liquid. Then transfer the cooked noodles to the bowls.
To serve: Top the noodles with the cooked beef and the thin slices of raw steak, if using. Garnish each bowl with a generous amount of green onions, cilantro, mint and a sprinkling of pepper.
Return the Beef Pho Broth to a boil, then ladle about 2 cups into each bowl. Enjoy immediately with the garnishes on the table.
BEEF PHO BROTH
The amount of time you invest in your pho broth only adds to its complexity of flavor. Expect to set aside 4½ hours for this recipe: An hour of prep, plus 3½ hours for the broth to simmer and cool.
Yield: Makes 4 quarts of beef broth
A 4-inch thick section of ginger, unpeeled
4 large, firm shallots (12 to 16 oz total), unpeeled
6 lbs beef marrow, knuckle and neck bones
A 1 lb pig’s trotter, precut into 4 or 5 pieces (optional)
5½ qts water
1½ to 2 lbs boneless beef brisket, chuck or cross-rib roast, cut into 2 or 3 pieces
½ to ¾ oz dried scallop or dried shrimp
5 star anise (a total of 40 robust points with seeds)
A husky 3-inch stick of cinnamon
A large pod of Chinese black cardamom, crushed to expose the seeds
2 tsps fennel seeds
A medium (6 oz) Fuji apple, peeled, cored and cut into thumbnail-size chunks (optional)
1½ tbsps fine sea salt
About ¼ cup fish sauce
A 12 qt stock pot
A small stove-top grilling rack (optional)
Char the aromatics: Using tongs, roast the ginger and shallots until the skins turns splotchy and black. (If working indoors, turn on the exhaust fan and open a window.) If you have a small grilling rack available, you can also position it over the open flame and place the ginger and shallots on it. Be sure to rotate the ginger and shallots since they’ll char at different rates due to their uneven shapes and sizes. After about 10 to 15 minutes, they should soften slightly and become sweetly fragrant. Remove from heat and allow to cool for about 10 minutes.
Prepare the aromatics: Once cool enough to handle, remove the charred skins from the shallots and rinse under warm running water to dislodge any stubborn dark bits of skin, if needed. Trim and discard the blackened root and stem ends, then halve or quarter the shallots and set them aside.
Use a vegetable peeler or the edge of a teaspoon to remove the ginger skin; rinse under warm water to remove any blackened bits. Halve the ginger lengthwise and cut into chunks. Then using the broad side of your knife or a meat mallet, lightly bruise the chunks of ginger. Set the ginger aside to add to the stock pot.
Parboil the ingredients: To achieve a clear pho broth, parboil the bones and pig’s trotter (if using) in a 12-quart stock pot. Drain the liquid and rinse and rub off any impurities from the bones and trotter. Clean the pot and return the parboiled bones and trotter to the pot.
Prepare the broth: Now pour 5½ quarts of water into the pot and bring to a boil over high heat, partially covered. Once boiling, uncover and lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Use a ladle or a skimmer to remove any scum that rises to the surface. Then add the charred ginger and shallots, the boneless beef, dried scallop (or dried shrimp), star anise, cinnamon stick, black cardamom, fennel seeds, chunks of apple (if using) and sea salt. Adjust the heat accordingly to maintain a constant simmer and cook, uncovered, for at least 3 hours.
Separate the meat: After 1½ hours, remove the boneless beef and transfer it to a bowl. (The meat should feel very firm, making it easier to slice thinly later.) Add water to the bowl to cover the meat and soak for 10 minutes to prevent the meat from darkening and drying out. Drain the water and set the meat aside in the bowl, partially covered, to cool completely. (Note: The cooked beef can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 3 months.)
Meanwhile, keep the broth at a steady simmer for the remaining 1½ hours. Once done, let the broth rest for 20 minutes to allow any impurities to settle. This will further concentrate the flavor. Then using your tongs, remove the bones and any other large retrievable bits from the broth. Discard the solids. (Note: If you plan to save and/or salvage any edible bits of meat from the bones, soak them in water first for 10 minutes. Then drain, prep and store the meat and bones accordingly.)
Strain the broth: Position a muslin-lined mesh strainer over another large pot. Try to skim any remaining fat from the surface of your broth and then strain the liquid through the muslin-lined mesh strainer into the second pot. You should end up with about 4 quarts of broth. If using the broth immediately, season it with fish sauce and extra salt, to taste. Otherwise, partially cover the unseasoned broth, allow to cool and then transfer to the refrigerator.
To store: This broth can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or kept in the freezer for up to 3 months. Reheat and season with fish sauce and salt just before serving.
Nguyen says this punchy vinegar works on everything from noodle soups, pan-fried and stir-fried noodles to fried rice and dipping sauces.
2 cloves garlic, bruised with the broad side of your knife
2 Thai chiles or 1 large Serrano chile, partially split lengthwise
¼ cup unseasoned Japanese rice wine vinegar
½ cup water
A glass jar with lid
Combine all of the ingredients in a glass jar. Cover with a lid and transfer to the refrigerator to infuse overnight.
Adjust the flavor: Nguyen says this condiment’s “zing ideally comes from the garlic, with the chile playing a minor supporting role.” To temper the garlic or chile flavor, add more vinegar and water using a 1:2 ratio. Or add more garlic if you prefer extra pungency. Extra chile will give the vinegar more heat. Cover again and return the Garlic Vinegar to the refrigerator to infuse overnight if you adjusted its seasoning.
To serve: This Garlic Vinegar can be used the day after it’s made. Allow your guests to serve themselves.
To store: It keeps in the refrigerator for months. As the vinegar begins to run low, simply add fresh ingredients to the jar.