OMPG…that is, Oh My Pho-king God. This pho is really, really good! You know those meals that take a long time to make, but when you finally sit down to eat them you are overwhelmed by just how good they are and know that every minute was worth it? This is that meal.
I’m taking Monday off from work, thus making this a three-day weekend. Although I am sticking around the city, I wanted to make it special and feel like a true holiday. What better way to do that than to re-visit one of my favorite countries–Vietnam. The summer before last I spent a couple months backpacking around India and southeast Asia, and Vietnam just felt so special to me. Actually, all the counties felt special but Vietnam was the perfect blend of everything I loved about my trip. It was also the first point of my trip that I was traveling solo, thus making it all the more special.
So yesterday I wanted to “re-visit” my experience. Unfortunately, in New York we don’t have large enough of a Vietnamese population to create a “little Vietnam,” but our Chinatown is quite impressive and sells a lot of food items that are staples throughout Asia. So I jumped on the subway and got off at Grand Street where I then entered into the closest experience we have to Asia. Like Vietnam, the markets were all bustling along the streets as hoards of people were scattered about buying their produce, fish, noodles, etc. English was certainly rarely spoken. This isn’t Vietnam of course, but feeling the energy of the place and smelling a lot of the familiar scents that I associate with Vietnamese markets just made me really happy. I hopped in amongst the masses of people and made my way around the markets grabbing everything I needed to make my pho.
Once home, I immediately started the long process knowing that I had about 4-5 hours ahead of me. This recipe calls for making the beef broth from scratch, which is the key to why this soup is so amazingly good and fresh tasting. The spices are also key to pho and are what make it unique from any other beef and noodle soup. An interesting combo of star anise, black cardamom, cinnamon and fennel seeds are infused into the soup adding a special depth to the flavor. Ginger and shallots are also thrown in, making the broth all the more richer and tastier. The process may take a while, but I found it soothing and relaxing. I sipped on wine as the broth simmered and infused my apartment with its rich fragrance, which lead me to reminiscing about my time in Vietnam.
Finally the pho was ready to eat. I sat down with my bowl and immediately dug in, at which point I was elated by just how good it was. More memories flooded in as I recalled times sitting out on the streets in cities and towns like Hanoi (where I first ate Pho), Hoi An and Dalat. I remembered walking around Hanoi’s food markets early one morning and observing all the locals eating pho at the street-side tables (in Vietnam, pho is actually a breakfast food). I also recalled one of my favorite experiences in Vietnam–riding a bike through the countryside outside Hoi An, where there was nothing but rice paddy fields and water buffalo around me. I also reminisced about my last night in Vietnam where I sat on the steps that overlook Dalat’s market square thinking about the amazingly special day I had meeting some darling schoolgirls and how sad I was to leave.
It’s so amazing to me how a meal can transform my experience to something more than just eating. If you’ve been to Vietnam or want to “visit,” you should certainly make this pho and soak in all of the aromas of this special place.
So here is the recipe slightly adapted from Andrea Nyugen’s in Saveur (yes I know all my recipes lately come from here, but it’s truly the best cooking magazine out there). In the original recipe, it has you slice up and add to your serving bowl the beef chuck that was used in making the broth. Although I appreciate not wasting this meat, I found it to be overly dry and tasteless since all the flavor had been transferred to the broth. Therefore, I’d recommend not using this for your serving and instead focusing on the fresh sirloin for the meat. Because of this, I increased the portion of sirloin. As for obtaining the ingredients, you should be able to find everything in the Asian section of your market. The dried scallops may be more difficult to find, but you can substitute it with a little MSG. This makes 8 servings. Even if you are only serving one, make the whole recipe for the broth portion (up through the fish sauce) and then freeze what’s left (see note at bottom).
- 4 large shallots, unpeeled
- 1 four inch piece ginger, unpeeled
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- 5 star anise
- 1 three inch stick cinnamon
- 1 pod black cardamom, crushed
- 5 lbs. beef leg bones, cut into 2″–3″ pieces
- 1 1/2 lbs boneless beef chuck, trimmed and cut into 4″ x 2″ x 1 1/2″-thick pieces
- 1/2 oz dried scallops (the smallest ones are fine)
- 2 tbsp kosher salt, plus more
- 1/4 cup fish sauce
- 8 scallions, green parts thinly sliced, white parts left whole
- 1 1/2 tbsp unseasoned rice vinegar
- 2 serrano chiles, stemmed and thinly sliced crosswise
- 2 lbs. small flat rice noodles, similar in size to linguine
- 16 oz beef sirloin, cut across grain into 1/16″-thick slices (suggest to your butcher that he/she use the deli slicer). Cut into bite size strips.
- 1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced, soaked in cold water for 30 minutes
- 1/3 cup cilantro leaves
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Place bones in a 12 quart stock pot. Cover with cold water by one inch and bring to a boil. Cook for 3 minutes, then drain and rinse the bones. Also rinse the pot out.
- Meanwhile, turn the broiler on in your oven. Arrange the shallots and ginger on a foil lined baking sheet and place 4 inches under the broiler. Flip shallots and ginger periodically until they are blackened (about 20 minutes). Let cool and then remove skins from each. Cut ginger in half lengthwise, then take the side of your knife and smash the two sides to flatten them. Set all aside.
- Over medium heat in a small skillet lightly toast the fennel seeds, star anise, cinnamon and black cardamom. This will take about 3 minutes. Pour out into a small bowl or plate and set aside.
- After the stock pot and bones have been drained and rinsed from Step 1, place bones back into pot. Add the reserved shallots and ginger, as well as, the beef chuck. Cover with 6 quarts of cold water and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to medium low and add reserved toasted spices, dried scallops and 2 tbsp of salt. Let simmer for 1 1/2 hours, periodically skimming the surface.
- Remove the beef chuck and reserve for another use.
- Continue simmering the broth for another 1 1/2 hours.
- Discard the bones. Pour broth through a fine strainer lined with cheesecloth into a 6 quart pot. Skim any remaining fat. Place pot over low heat to keep broth hot.
- Add fish sauce and scallion whites to the broth.
- Mix serrano chiles in a small bowl with vinegar and set aside.
- Prepare the rice noodles per the packaging. Rinse in cold water and drain. Place noodles in each serving bowl.
- Top noodles with raw beef sirloin strips, onions, scallion greens and cilantro. Add ground pepper to taste.
- Ladle broth into the bowls over the noodles (the hot broth will cook the beef). Use white scallion pieces in the broth to garnish. Serve with serrano chiles on the side.
My friend’s mom once gave me an excellent suggestion for freezing soup. Once the soup has cooled, ladle individual servings into zip lock bags and then lay them flat in your freezer in stacks. As a result, they pack efficiently in your freezer and you can easily just grab the number of servings that you need at a given time. I also place wax or parchment paper in between the bags to help insure that they do not freeze together.