In Vietnam, pho is traditionally eaten at breakfast, and it’s no wonder why. At heart, pho is a beef bone broth, which means it uses a relatively inexpensive and highly nutritious part of the cow: the bones. It is chock full of gelatin, calcium and other nutrients. It is deeply satisfying, but not overly satiating, and, with the addition of rice noodles, has the right balance of energy to get you up and going. Plus it is a safe bet for food allergies (minus the fish sauce).
So imagine my disappointment when our Vietnamese host asked if I would like my eggs scrambled or in an omelet. Not wanting to be rude, I said I was happy with just fruit. Later, during our spring roll cooking class, I took my opportunity:
“So what does the crew have for breakfast?”
“Oh, we have pho.”
“Well then that’s what I want.”
“Oh no, it’s just a simple pho.”
“We use instant noodles.”
“That’s okay. If that’s what you’re having for breakfast, then I want it too.”
The next day, we had breakfast with the crew. A simple pho. And it was perfect.
Equipment recommended: pressure cooker
2 lb (1 kg) beef bones, shank
2 in (5 cm) ginger
3 in (7.5 cm) cinnamon stick
2 star anise
1⁄2 tsp (2.5 ml) whole coriander
2 tbsp (30 ml) white vinegar
3 tbsp (45 ml) salt
1 tsp (5 ml) rock sugar or palm sugar
3 quarts (3 L) water
16 oz (500 g) flat rice noodles—dry or fresh
Note: the traditional northern pho is a beef broth with noodles. The addition of garnishes and other cuts of beef is a southern development, but a tasty one.
12 oz (375 g) steak—skirt, flap, or thick-cut ribeye
1 small cucumber
2 oz (65 g) spring onion or scallion
2 oz (65 g) fresh basil
2 oz (65 g) fresh coriander/cilantro
4 red Thai bird chillis
- Parboil the beef shank: put the beef bones in a large pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 5-10 minutes. Drain and rinse.
- Char the aromatic vegetables: while the shanks are coming to a boil, prepare the vegetables. Slice leeks in half lengthwise. Rinse well by fanning under running water. Pat dry and cut into large (3in/xxxcm) pieces. Slice the ginger in half lengthwise. Char the leeks, ginger, and shallots until blackened. Options: 1. sear in a cast iron skillet over high heat, 2. char directly on the flame of a gas stove, or 3. broil for 3-5 minutes in the oven.
- Toast the spices: heat a cast iron or heavy bottomed skillet over high heat. Add the whole spices and toast, stirring frequently until they are fragrant and the color has turned dark but not burned. Place the toasted spices in a cheesecloth bundle (or set aside to add directly to the broth).
- Make the broth: Place the parboiled shanks, charred vegetables, spices, vinegar, salt and rock sugar in a pressure cooker. Add water to generously cover. (If you have a large pressure cooker, use the full 3 quarts/liters of water. If you have a smaller one, use as much water as possible.) Seal the pressure cooker and bring to high pressure (15 psi) over high heat. Reduce heat to the lowest setting that maintains a steady steam. Cook for 2 hours. (Do not leave unattended as the heat may need to be adjusted to maintain pressure.) Remove from heat and use the natural release method to depressurize. [Note: many recipes call for fish sauce. Instead, I am using coriander, vinegar and a generous amount of salt. Vinegar has the added benefit of drawing more calcium out of the bones. If you find your broth is lacking in umami, you may want to consider trying beef tendon (instructions below).]
- Soak the noodles: prepare according to package directions. If using dry noodles, soak in cold water for 10-20 minutes, separating gently to prevent sticking. Start boiling a pot of water to finish cooking the noodles just before serving.
- Slice the steak: to make slicing easier, put the steak in the freezer for 15-20 minutes until slightly firm. Slice as thinly as possible against the grain.
- Prepare the garnishes: first, julienne the cucumber by cutting into 1/8″ (3mm) slices on a bias and then into 1/8″ (3mm) strips. Slice the spring onion thinly on a bias. Chiffonade the basil by rolling the leaves and slicing thinly into strips. Roughly chop the coriander. Cut one lime into quarters (reserve the second lime for adjusting the broth). De-stem the bird chillies and slice into thin strips. Place each garnish into a separate dish for serving.
- Finish the broth: skim any foam or scum from the surface of the broth. If the broth seems too oily, skim some of the fat from the surface as well. Remove bones and discard. Strain the broth through a fine sieve or cheesecloth into a clean pot. Taste the broth and adjust as needed. A pho broth should “sing,” so add lime juice, salt or sugar as needed. If the beef flavor is too concentrated, dilute with hot water. Bring the broth back to a boil.
- Finish the noodles: briefly cook the soaked noodles in boiling water until just tender.
- Assemble and serve: portion the noodles into soup bowls and top with raw sliced steak. Immediately pour hot broth over and serve with garnishes. [Note: if you try any of the variations below, always add the raw steak to the bowls just before the hot broth, since it is the broth that cooks the steak.]
- To prepare without a pressure cooker: in step 4, place the parboiled shanks, charred vegetables, spices, vinegar, salt and rock sugar in a large stock pot and add 4 quarts/ liters of water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and gently simmer for 5 hours.
- To prepare with beef tendon (Pho Gan): Beef tendons add depth and body to the broth, as well as a distinct texture in the final dish–both chewy and gelatinous. Add tendons to the broth in step 4. When finishing the broth in step 8, gently remove the tendons before straining and set aside. They should be very tender and gelatinous. You may find that the extra gelatin gives the broth too much body, so adjust with additional water as needed. Allow the tendons to rest while the broth comes back to a boil (they should firm up a bit as they cool), slice and add to the bowls before the raw steak.
- To prepare with tripe (Pho La Sach): tripe should be prepared separately. It is probably not for the faint of heart (or sensitive of nose). The smell can be overwhelming, but I find using a pressure cooker helps considerably. Rinse 3-4 times in cold water, scrubbing any loose tissue. To cook in a pressure cooker, add cold water to cover, seal the cooker and bring to high pressure (15 psi). Cook for 35 minutes and depressurize using the natural release method. Drain, rinse and slice into thin strips. Add to the bowls before the raw steak. Tripe is an interesting addition for its texture, but I found it also adds an electrically pungent kick, almost like a black peppercorn sauce.
- To prepare with brisket (Pho Gau): if using brisket, you cannot use the pressure cooker method for pho, as the brisket will come out tougher than leather. Instead, use the simmer method and test the brisket after about 2 hours. Remove from the broth when it is fork tender. Let rest for 20 minutes then chill until the broth is finished. Slice just before serving.
- There is an additional variation called Pho Bo Vien, pho with meatballs. If anyone knows the recipe (rather than buying premade), I’d love to hear about it.
Thanks to Vietnam Navigator for the translations: http://www.vnnavi.com/en/dishes/beefnoodlesoup.html