Mike thinks that he doesn’t like Pho. I know that he actually does but he just wants to be contrary.
You see, Pho is one of those cult favorites that swept into fashion about 15 years ago in our neck of the woods. Over night, the 11:45 am chatter shifted from bickering about whether to go to Timmy’s or McD’s for lunch, and everybody started waxing poetic about a beef noodle soup. I mean, it wasn’t just soup. It was Pho. Had YOU tried Pho? Did you know where to get the BEST pho? Had you perfected your garnishing technique and did you consider yourself an expert on what defined the quintessential bowl of delicious, lip-smacking, addictive and awesome Pho? No? Because let me tell you, everybody else had.
It was like the movie which everybody told you was SO GREAT and YOU GOTTA SEE IT and YOUR LIFE WILL BE CHANGED FOREVER, so all of a sudden you had no interest in going to a theater…ever again. Even if the popcorn came with free buttery topping. That’s what happened to poor Mike when it came to Pho. The first time he tried it, with five eager faces peering brightly at him, breaths held in anticipation of his impending pho-gasm, I imagine that he thought, “Huh. This sure is some…tolerable beef soup.” It’s not that he didn’t like Pho, but rather that he didn’t love Pho with the same rhapsodic ecstasy that everyone else seemed to enjoy. And then he turned away.
For five years I have been trying to coax Mike into going out for Pho with me, but to no avail. I say it is delicious, he tells me that it is greasy. I say it is a perfectly balanced meal, he says that I am trying to starve him to death on a liquid diet. I complain that we NEVER get to go for Pho, and I LOVE Pho, and it’s ALL THAT I WANT IN THE WORLD, and he reminds me that I made him eat octopus; I owe him one.
For five years I have been cold and Pho-less, only sneaking in the occasional clandestine bowl for a quick lunch or evening out with the girls. And then I thought, huh. If I can’t bring Mike to the Pho, I might as well bring Pho to the Mike. I have no idea why it took me that long to start making Pho at home.
Before I tell you about this Pho, however, which is a quickie-shortcut-lazybones-who-the-hell-cares kind of poor man’s Pho, you need to understand the real deal. Let’s start with pronunciation. Just so you know, if you and I were in conversation and the topic happened to turn to our favorite Vietnamese soup, I would probably say, “Ooooooh, yeah! Man oh man, do I ever just LOVE Pho!” And I would pronounce it ‘FOE’. Not ‘fuh’, which is the correct pronunciation, or ‘faaah’, which is almost correct but smacks of halitosis. No sir, no ma’am. I shamelessly mispronounce it as ‘foe’ every time, despite the fact that I know better and I would scold other people for the same thing. It just feels more phoenetic to me that way. Oh shoot, I mean, it feels more FOE-netic.
Good Pho is a labor of love. Starting with good marrow rich and flavorful meat covered bones, such as oxtail or shank, the stock starts to take shape. Aromatic onions and ginger are blackened over an open flame until they build a depth of charred flavor and get added to the stock along with a handful of exotic spices like star anise and cinnamon. This simmers together for at least two hours, and preferably the better part of a day. At that point, the stock is strained and the meat gets shredded to be added to the final bowls along with the thin, raw strips of beef. Some of the residual fat gets skimmed away, but the broth runs the risk of being horribly greasy unless refrigerated overnight so the fat can be easily skimmed off and discarded. That, of course, just takes up more time.
This is shortcut version of the real deal. The slowly simmered beef stock is abandoned in favor of a cheap and cheerful store bought version, but it gets quickly amped up with the same intense flavors that are built into the original. The greasy oxtail is discarded in favor of a lean and quick cooking sliced steak meat, and all the garnishes (which are really where the fun comes in) are left the same. Because, you know, being pressed for time does not mean that we don’t still love flavor. If you want Pho that can go from idea to bowl in less than an hour, this one is for you.
- 2 L (8 cups) beef stock *
- 1 yellow onion
- 2 cloves garlic
- 3″ fresh ginger root
- 2 Thai birds eye chili, optional
- 10 cloves
- 2 star anise
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1/4 tsp fennel seed
- 1.5 tbsp brown sugar
- 1.5 tbsp fish sauce
- 454 g (1 lb) fresh rice noodles **
- 300 – 454 g (3/4 – 1 lb) beef rib eye
- 1-2 lime
- 4 sprigs cilantro
- 2 cups bean sprouts
- 2 green onions
- 1/4 thinly sliced yellow onion, optional
- 4 Thai birds eye chili, optional
- 4 sprigs basil, optional
- 4 sprigs mint, optional
* If you have a homemade stock, all the better. If not, choose a lower sodium stock that you enjoy the flavor of, preferably one with fewer additives, preservatives or coloring agents.
** Fresh rice noodles are cheap and easy, but dried work just as well if that is what you have available.
Preheat your oven to 475ºF.
Quarter the onion and slice the ginger into 1/4″ thick discs. Leave the garlic cloves whole. Lay these on an ungreased baking sheet and tuck into the hot oven for 7-8 minutes.
Rotate the tray and add in the Thai birds eye chili peppers (if using them). Rotate the tray and continue to cook for another 4-5 minutes, or until the garlic and onions are charred and the ginger has some caramelization around the edges as well.
Lay a double thickness of cheesecloth into an 8 x 8 inch square. Pile the charred aromatics in the center of the cloth along with the cinnamon, star anise, cloves and fennel seed.
Tie the cheesecloth up into a bundle and put this into your soup pot. Pour the beef stock over top and set this over medium heat. Put a lid on the pot and let this simmer for 30 minutes. If the stock starts to boil over, temporarily remove the lid and turn down the heat until things are under control again.
Stir in the fish sauce and brown sugar. If you feel the yen, a quick squeeze of lime would not be amiss.
Now then, this is supposed to be a beef and noodle soup, so lets discuss the beef and the noodles.
For the beef, it needs to be flavorful and it needs to be thinly sliced so that it cooks quickly in the broth. With those as the two primary criteria, I go the laziest possibly route and buy hotpot meat from a local Asian grocery store. Basically, that is just beef which has been sliced almost paper thin and then rolled into even cylinders. If the cut is listed, I’ll go for the cut with more flavor, such as rib eye instead of sirloin. If it isn’t labeled, select the option that has a bit more marbling because that fat will warm quickly in the broth and add flavor to the soup without having a hideous mouth-feel.
If you don’t have access to such convenience, buy a hearty steak and slice it yourself. Flash freeze the meat by sticking it in your freezer for about 30 minutes until it is firm but not frozen all the way through. That will make it much easier to slice. Use a long, thin knife and slice against the grain into the thinnest pieces that you can manage.
As for the noodles, again I feel blessed to live in close proximity to so many great Asian grocers. If you can find fresh rice stick vermicelli noodles, buy them. They require no preparation and can literally be used as is.
On the other hand, if you don’t have access to fresh rice noodles, feel free to use dried. The flat rice stick noodles that would be used for Pad Thai are preferable, but any will do in a pinch. To rehydrate the dried noodles, bring a kettle of water almost to a boil. Pour the hot water over the dried noodles and let them soak for a minute or two. Drain the noodles and they’re ready to be used! If you aren’t ready to use the noodles immediately but you don’t want them to stick, instead of hot water you can pour lukewarm water over the noodles and let them soak for 30 – 45 minutes until softened.
And my favorite part, the garnish!
Slice the lime into wedges and mince the green onion. The bean sprouts stay whole, but everything else can be chopped, minced, torn or left whole as you see fit.
To assemble this utterly lazy version of pho, divide the noodles equally among four bowls. Divide the meat and lay it over top. Again, you don’t need to cook the meat because it will denature almost immediately with the heat of the soup base.
Ladle the piping hot broth into the bowl and garnish to your heart’s content.
For the garnish, I often omit the thinly sliced yellow onion because I find a generous sprinkle of scallion is adequate, and I can take or leave the fresh mint if I have other fresh herbs available. My absolute must-haves, however, are a generous squeeze of fresh lime juice, a handful of bean sprouts, a few thin slices of chili pepper, and a generous helping of fresh cilantro and basil to lighten and brighten the richly fragrant soup.
Pho is absolutely restorative on a cold winter’s night, and when a flavorful amped up broth can be yours in no time flat, this has Tuesday night supper written all over it. With the help of a convenient store bought stock and the bare minimum of effort, a faux-pho can be just as satisfying with a whole lot less heartache.