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My best bowl of PHO yet...(long)

  • c

I'm assuming that most hounds (including myself) would rather go to their favorite pho joint for a pho fix than bothering to make it at home. I mean, what are the benefits of making it at home? It's not necessarily cheaper; it probably won't taste better; it takes time to shop for those specialty ingredients and leafy herbs. We don't chat about pho here like we do pork shoulder, mac n cheese, or ice cream.

Well, after last night's bowl of pho (pictured below), I'm starting to rethink things. Ok, so my pho still doesn't taste as good as mom's (and that's ok since mom's should be on a pedestal) or as good as some pho places I've been to, but it was very satisfying to make and eat. For the first time, my broth actually had what we say in Vietnamese as "character". It was complex and haunting, so much so that husband drank up every last drop, which he doesn't always do. I did the same.

What was very cool about the process of making the beef broth was that I was able to apply my recent experience in making Western-style broths. I think I'm understanding the concept of keeping the heat at the barest simmer, skimming at the beginnning, not covering w/ a lid, etc. Making broth isn't difficult per se, but there is great finesse in making a glorious, singing broth, and I'm just starting my journey and appreciation.

Something that I've realized is that I can work from my mom's recipe (linked below), but I need to make this dish my own for it to have "character." When I used the recipe as a springboard and overlaid it w/ my own instincts, reactions, and sensibilities, it came to life in a way that didn't happen last time. I easily take this improvised approach w/ cookbook recipes, but betraying mom's recipe is more psychologically difficult.

Anyway, I know I'm rambling, but the pho I made last night was enlightening. It was very worthwhile and I am excited to do it again and again. Obviously, making it at home allows for customization, and I used both cooked chuck roast slices (pieces in the middle) as well as the raw slices seen in "pho tai" (reddish pieces). My butcher's chuck roast was wonderfully fresh and marbled, so it worked well for pho tai, but you could certainly use a good cut of steak. Freezing the meat slab for 20-30 min. before slicing will make it easier to slice thinly.

Being the carb lover that I am, I also like to have more noodle to broth ratio than restaurants offer. I also used "banh pho tuoi" or fresh pho noodles from some market in San Jose (my mom gave these to me, so I need to ask her about the exact store). They were *wonderful* and simply needed a quick dunk in boiling water. I don’t think I can go back to dried noodles.

I dread documenting a "recipe" here since it is hard to quantify the process. I will write down in general terms what I did for those interested. Let me know if you have questions. This made about 4-5 generous bowls of pho.

For the broth: Blanch about 1 lb. beef oxtails and 1 lb. beef neck bones in boiling water. If you can’t find beef neck bones, then use more oxtails or soup bones. Remove when water returns to boil. After slightly cooled, massage in S&P to season.

Prepare aromatics by charring 2" piece of skin-on ginger and then removing peel and bruising. Gather: quartered onion; 2 garlic cloves, smashed; 3 star anise; 3 cloves; bay leaf; cinnamon stick. I wrapped small items in cheesecloth last time, but I didn't bother this time.

In stockpot, add tsp. canola oil and saute onion and garlic til fragrant and lightly browned. Add oxtails, bones, and rest of aromatics. Cover w/ about 5 qts. water. Bring to boil and skim any foam that surfaces. Reduce heat to barest simmer, leave uncovered, and simmer for 1.5 hrs. Check on it once in a while to make sure it's bubbling enough or not too hard. Skim off any foam, particles, or fat as desired.

After you get the broth going, prepare any meat that you will be serving w/ the broth by seasoning w/ S&P and letting marinate. My mom always cooked chuck roast slabs in the broth, but I prefer the flavor of raw beef that gets cooked once the broth is poured on. My mom's way allows the meat to also flavor the broth, but it does make for a less flavorful and succulent meat. I used a combination method.

After 1.5 hrs. of simmering, place 1 lb. chuck roast into broth. Bring to boil, skim, and reduce heat to barest simmer. Let this go for another hour and then season. To season, I used: half packet of wonton soup base (Dynasty brand); fish sauce (start w/ 2 tsp.); S&P; pinch sugar. My mom always uses a little soup base, and I think the MSG and chicken/pork flavorings enhance and round out the broth. Taste and adjust seasonings. Let simmer for another 30 min. and turn off heat. Strain broth, reserving oxtails to eat. Taste again and adjust seasonings. If it is too concentrated, then add a tad more water. If you want more beefy flavor, reduce a tad. You can serve at this point, but I like to chill overnight and then remove excess fat on top. I remove some fat but not all since there’s good flavor in the fat.

To serve: Prepare condiments. I’ve never seen this in restaurants, but my family always eats pickled onions w/ pho. They are mounded in the middle of my bowl below, but look like noodles. I basically slice yellow or red onion finely and then submerge in rice vinegar (or sometimes red wine vinegar) for at least 30 min. I also serve w/ lime wedges, mint, cilantro, green onions, and Sriracha. You can use other herbs like rau ram, basil, shiso, etc. and bean sprouts (I don’t care for bean sprouts.)

Mound some cooked pho noodles in a bowl. Place thinly-sliced cooked and/or raw beef on top. Sprinkle w/ chopped green onions. Bring broth to boil and ladle into bowl. Add other garnishes at table and slurp away!!

Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

Image: http://i2.photobucket.com/albums/y45/...

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  1. My problem with making any noodle soup at home is that I can never get it as hot as they do in a restaurant. Home stoves in apartments just don't have the BTU's. Your pho looks great though.

    2 Replies
    1. re: srr

      212F... can't get much hotter than that in open water. And most of cooking a great broth is done at lower simmering temps. If you're making a huge pot and need the temp to come up quickly, I can see the BTU's being an issue, but how many people are you cooking for at home?

      What particular steps or problems are you talking about, in terms of not having enough BTU's?

      1. re: srr

        The key to having a hot bowl of noodle soup to make sure the bowl and the noodle are warm. In this case I'd nuke the bowl and the noodle and then put on the onions and sliced beef before pouring the boiling broth over.

      2. p
        peppermint pate

        I hear what you're saying about the pho broth - it's one of those deceptively simple (or is it deceptively complicated?) elements. There is a world of difference between an average pho broth and one that has a complex, aromatic, rich layering of flavours. I haven't had the pleasure of tasting your mom's pho but I have enjoyed pho and pho-like soups in Laos and Cambodia, as well as a few local Vietnamese spots, and when it's cooked properly, it is inspiring and soothing to the core. I look forward to trying your recipe.

        I also can't help but comment on how much your food pics have improved since your earlier pho post - much more drool-worthy these days...

        1 Reply
        1. re: peppermint pate

          Thanks for noticing that my photos have improved...I kind of shuddered when I saw the old photos that look so cold and stark from the blinding flash. It's nice to see that my pho isn't the only thing that's improved over the past year...

        2. h
          Hungry Celeste

          Pure poetry! I like pickled onions in my pho, too.

          1. OMG! That looks incredible!

            I'm still wrestling with the dry noodles. Fresh sounds like the ticket.

            Thank you so much!

            1. What a great lesson. Thanks! Here are my questions:
              1) The raw sliced meat for adding to the cooked soup - what cut do you use?
              2) You say to "marinate" it. This means just with s & p only - not a real marinade?
              3) The "pho" noodles look like medium width rice noodles. Is that what they are? Or are they wheat noodles? I wonder if I can find them anywhere outside of the Tenderloin here in SF - are there any Vietnamese food shops on Clement street, to your knowledege?
              4)The Dynasty brand wonton soup base - I've never seen that. Is is a very small packet, like what comes with Top Ramen noodles? Or is it something sold independently as a condiment to be used when making one's own wonton soup?
              5) I've never seen rau ram. It's not available in supermarkets, is it? The only place I've seen shiso leaves is in the supermarkets in Japantown here in SF.
              Would rau ram be available there as well, or is it a Chinese or Vietnamese item? My non-Japanese Asian food shopping is almost exclusively Clement street.
              A side question is about using shiso and rau ram in other applications - where would you use them?
              5) Does it matter whether you use Italian basil or do you prefer the Asian variety?
              6) What kind of soy sauce would you prefer with pho?

              Thanks so much for all the help. I'll definitely be trying your recipe.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Niki Rothman

                You're welcome; I'm glad you're interested in learning more and trying it out. Here's my best stab at your questions:

                1. I used a really good chuck roast this time for the sliced meat. I normally wouldn't use that cut, but this one was really good and tasted like ribeye in some parts, believe it or not. In the past, I've used pre-sliced shabu shabu quality beef from an Asian market. You could use sirloin or just any cut that you like the taste and texture of...anything that is well marbled and fresh. Photo of the raw beef is seen below; the grayish-brown pieces underneath are the ones that cooked in the broth. My husband sliced that batch a little thicker than I like, so I like to freeze the hunk of raw meat so I can cut very thin.

                2) Right, marinate the hunks of meat in just S&P. This simple pre-seasoning will enhance the flavor whether you go the cooked or raw route.

                3) The width of these fresh ones were a bit thinner than I usually buy in the dry. I would say they were btwn. fine and medium. I normally use thicker for beef pho whereas these thinner ones are nice for chicken pho. The texture of these fresh ones was so silky and toothsome that I didn't really care. I have no idea where to get them in SF, but hopefully it won't be too difficult. Mine was from the "Sincere Orient Food Co." and they even have a website, which I've linked below.

                4) I think they sell the Dynasty wonton soup base at places like Safeway, so it's not hard to find. If you follow the link to my old post and view my old photos, you'll see the package pictured there.

                5) Rau ram is available at most Viet markets that I've been to. Places like Lion and Marina in San Jose have it, but I'm not sure about 99 Ranch. I don't think Japanese stores would carry. It's kinda astringent and minty to me. I like it but never grew up w/ it so it's not a MUST in my pho. Another interesting herb is sawtooth herb. Don't worry if you can't find these things...I like the basics like spearmint, cilantro, Thai (not Italian) basil, green onion.

                6) No soy sauce is used in pho. Did you mean fish sauce? My mom has always used the standard Tiparos brand which you can get at Safeway, so I do too. But since reading CH, I've been curious about other brands and will start to experiment.

                I hope you enjoy the result but that you also like the process of making it and will infuse your own "character" into the broth. Please report back!

                Link: http://www.sincereorient.com/

                Image: http://i2.photobucket.com/albums/y45/...

              2. Thanks so much for the great post. And for your mom's pho bo recipe. I also have a pho bo recipe that I got from a Vietnamese cook - I'm going to rush home and see how this compares. I know I use both ox tails and chuck, but they're braised together and then simmered in water (with the star anise, etc) to make the broth. A third cut of beef is used for slicing thinly to add to the pho, along with the chuck, which is shredded before adding.

                I'll be heading up to Argyle Street (Chicago's Vietnamese neighborhood) to look for fresh pho noodles!

                1 Reply
                1. re: Akatonbo

                  Do you know what beef cut is used for slicing?

                  See my response to Niki below for the brand of the fresh pho noodles and a link to their website.

                2. Oh wow, that looks wonderful. Thanks so much for the detailed description. I've been obsessed with pho since I discovered a great pho source in Chinatown in Chicago. I'll have to think about whether I am willing to spend the time to make the broth at home.

                  Any reason not to make a large amount of broth and freeze it?

                  Can you say a bit more about charring and bruising the ginger, I've never done this. Is it to get a particular flavor, or mostly a way of getting the skin off?

                  Anyone know where to get fresh pho noodles in Chicago?

                  I'll look forward to the answers to some of the other questions already asked.

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: Anne H

                    A number of the grocers in the Argyle neighbourhood carry the fresh noodles.

                    Look for vacuum-sealed bags in the refrigerated section.

                    Try one of the following:

                    Viet Hoa Plaza
                    1051 W. Argyle

                    Hoa Nam Grocery
                    1101 W. Argyle

                    Broadway Supermarket
                    4879 N. Broadway

                    Tai Nam Market
                    4925 N. Broadway

                    Carblover: Thanks for the report. That is a beautiful picture.


                    1. re: Anne H

                      Sure, I think you could make a big batch and freeze, but that never happened in my family of 6; a big pot was consumed in a day or two. I have this psychological aversion to freezing something that's been lovingly made...I always feel like it should be eaten immediately and never have to see the freezer, but that's me.

                      The main reason to char the ginger is to deepen the flavor by adding a smokiness. I have a gas stove, so I just leave the peel on and let it fully blacken while I rotate w/ tongs. Similar to charring bell peppers. I then peel the skin and crush or "bruise" w/ the side of a large knife or cleaver to release the juices before adding to broth.

                      1. re: Carb Lover

                        Thanks. I'm not familiar with charred ginger, but since ginger is one of my favorite things, I can hardly wait to try this new (to me) method. Do you used charred ginger in other dishes too?

                        1. re: Anne H

                          No, I don't. I didn't start charring ginger til my mom told me that she does for her pho (which she recently added to her pho repertoire too). I've seen a pho recipe that even includes roasting the ginger in oven for about 30 min. first. I suppose one could char the onion and toast the spices too...I'm going to experiment.

                        2. re: Carb Lover

                          My mom chars the onion but does not include ginger in her pho.

                      2. Wow, thanks for the detailed experience you shared making pho bo at home. I've actually never tackled homemade pho bo, but I used to make pho ga (chicken pho) quite often.

                        Making pho at home allows me to make it the way I like it, ie the way I grew up eating it. Pho is such a subjective dish that my pickiness over what makes a perfect bowl of pho is so different than yours or the person who cooks for a pho house or a newcomer to pho. So to me, the best bowl of pho can be had only if you make it yourself. That said, there's a big IF...if you have the time AND if you know what you like for the "muoi pho", or roughly translated, pho flavor/fragrance (what I think you call "character").

                        I don't have time to go through the process of making & documenting how I make pho ga, but you've inspired me so I might post a "show and tell" on my mom's pho ga some time soon.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Alice Patis

                          Oh, please document and post on your pho ga! My mom never made pho ga for some reason, so I don't have that in my repertoire just yet.

                          When I said "character", I was thinking of that Vietnamese word that sounds like "vee." I embarrassingly have no idea how to spell it (vi?). For me, the word means character, charm, style.

                          BTW, I hope you continue to post on the cooking adventures w/ your mom (if there are more). I was really enjoying those posts...

                        2. thank you so much for your detailed post and the recipes. the photo is truly inspirational!

                          i make pho ga (chicken) at home pretty frequently, but have never attempted the pho bo because i don't have a reliable source of beef, beef bones, or oxtail nearby. you may have just spurred me to make a pilgrimage, though.

                          why make it at home indeed! for me it's because in southern england where i live, the nearest Vietnamese restaurant is quite a hike. yet i have a fabulous Thai grocery nearby, and i can find good noodles and herbs--including two types of basil!

                          the recipe i use is from Diana My Tran's Vietnamese cookbook. I can't remember the exact name of it. but the aromatics are similar--you char the ginger and onions before adding to broth, and add some star anise and cinnamon.

                          i really like your idea about pickled onions, too. i keep a homemade supply of them in the fridge--will definitely try adding them next time.

                          1. Thanks for everyone's comments and interest in making pho at home. I like the mutual inspiration effect!

                            I was thinking more about my recipe and cross-checked it w/ a couple Viet cookbooks I have. Some additional notes:

                            1. I didn't weigh my oxtail and neck bones, and I think I may have underestimated total weight. To get a rich, beefy broth, something closer to 3 lbs. total of oxtail, bones, etc. wouldn't hurt. Beef tendon can also be included among this, but my family doesn't.

                            2. I didn't like seeing black pepper flecks floating in my pho, so next time will add a few whole peppercorns to broth instead.

                            3. The star anise and clove is relatively mild (but present) in the broth. I find these flavors too strong at most restaurants. If you like these flavors, you could add 1-2 more pieces each.

                            4. The fresh noodles are from Sincere Orient Food Co. and website (w/ US distributors) is linked below. Hope you can find some!

                            Hope some of you attempt this at home. It's really not hard, and the ingredients are generally accessible these days. I'm open to suggestions or tips since I'm still tinkering w/ my recipe.

                            Link: http://www.sincereorient.com/

                            1. Are you simmering the broth for a total of 2.5 hours? When I make a brooth for soups (not pho) I usually cook the bones/meat for 5 to 7 hours.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: suzy

                                Total simmering time is 3 hrs. (1.5 hrs. first; 1 hr. after meat added; 30 min. after seasoning). I've thought about simmering longer too, but most pho broth recipes seem to run around 3 hrs. I may play around w/ this variable too...

                              2. Anyone ever use coriander seed in their Pho broth? I had a homemade version and my friend's mother included it in her list of ingredients. She also used a fish sauce made from mackerel, as opposed to anchovies. Her broth was amazingly deep and complex. She also noted that she doesn't use cloves.

                                1. Just came across this amazing post as I was searching for pho recipes. Wow. I am going ingredients shopping this evening.

                                  My question to 'hounds: Do any of you roast bones in the oven prior to boiling? I've come across a few recipes that have you roast the aromatics and bones, together, in place of par boiling. Which method do you prefer and how different are the flavors that each method yields?

                                  7 Replies
                                  1. re: cimui

                                    Damn you carb lover. Now I will have to try it again! (see my pho post from last night)

                                    1. re: Missy


                                      your post from last night was actually what inspired me to look up pho recipes. i whinge about not being able to find good pho where i live all the time, yet for some bizarre reason, i'd never thought of making it myself! so thanks, i guess .... for giving up and then ungiving up. ;)

                                      1. re: cimui

                                        I made a chicken pho from one of the Vietnamese books - the "short cut" one using home made chicken stock that I already had - it was lovely.

                                        1. re: MMRuth

                                          sounds fantastic! if you like the cookbook, generally, would you post the name, O Queen of Cookbooks?

                                          1. re: cimui

                                            Actually, Cooks Illustrated ha a similar recipe, whcih I include below.
                                            Published March 1, 1999.

                                            The secret to making superquick, Asian-style noodle soups is to enliven canned chicken broth with classic Vietnamese flavorings.

                                            The Problem
                                            Asian-style soups rely on a highly seasoned, homemade broth--which is too time-consuming when what's wanted is a quick, simple meal.

                                            The Goal
                                            Vietnamese noodle soups are based on a homemade broth, enhanced with exotic flavorings, and then filled with rice noodles, paper-thin and barely cooked slices of beef, thin rounds of raw onion, angled scallion slices, crisp bean sprouts, and lots of whole fresh mint and coriander leaves. We wanted to create a flavorful yet simple base for quick Asian-style soups using canned chicken broth and ingredients easily accessible to the home cook.

                                            The Solution
                                            To our surprise, the quickest cooking method worked best. We combined strong flavorings with hot, canned chicken broth, simmered for 20 minutes, and then added a combination of raw and cooked ingredients. The result: fast, aromatic, and tasty Vietnamese-style soup.
                                            Serves 4. Published March 1, 1999.

                                            For this soup, be sure to have all the vegetables and herbs ready at hand.

                                            8 ounces thick rice noodles
                                            5 cups low-sodium chicken broth
                                            4 medium cloves garlic , smashed and peeled
                                            2 inch piece fresh ginger , peeled, cut into 1/8-inch rounds, and smashed
                                            2 cinnamon sticks (3-inch)
                                            2 star anise
                                            2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
                                            1 tablespoon soy sauce
                                            1 tablespoon granulated sugar
                                            12 ounces sirloin steak , sliced crosswise into 1/4-inch strips
                                            Ground black pepper
                                            1 tablespoon vegetable oil
                                            2 cups bean sprouts (about 5 ounces)
                                            1 jalapeño chile , sliced thin
                                            2 scallions , white and green parts, sliced thin on an angle
                                            1/3 cup loose-packed fresh basil leaves , leaves torn in half if large
                                            1/2 cup loose-packed fresh mint leaves , leaves torn in half if large
                                            1/2 cup loose-packed fresh cilantro leaves
                                            2 tablespoons chopped unsalted roasted peanuts
                                            lime wedges


                                            1. Bring 4 quarts water to boil in large pot. Off heat, add rice sticks, and let sit until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and distribute among four bowls.


                                            2. Bring all ingredients to boil in medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low; simmer partially covered to blend flavors, about 20 minutes. Remove solids with slotted spoon and discard. Cover and keep hot over low heat until ready to serve.

                                            Assembling the Soup

                                            3. Season steak with salt and pepper. Heat oil in medium skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add half of steak slices in single layer and sear until well-browned, 1 to 2 minutes on each side; set aside. Repeat with remaining slices.

                                            4. Divide the noodles and sprouts among the bowls, (see illustrations below).

                                            5. Add the steak, then ladle in the broth.

                                            6. Sprinkle on the remaining ingredients and serve immediately, passing lime wedges separately.

                                            1. re: cimui

                                              I have both books that were in the Vietnamese Cookbook of the Month, but this particular recipe was from Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table. You basically add certain ingredients/spices to chicken stock and poach the chicken in it, then shred the chicken and prepare various garnishes.

                                              1. re: MMRuth

                                                schmashing, two you. thanks a lot for these leads!