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Feb 22, 2006 12:14 PM

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!!



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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!