I CAN MAKE PHO! The question now is.......
I am a pho-natic. I literally could eat pho every day of my life. Especially when I'm feeling tired, a little run-down, sick, hung-over, blue... oh what the hell, basically it's good all the time. If it's good pho I mean.
The big problem is, the nearest pho to my house is Leesburg, VA at Xuan Saigon a 25-minute drive. Even as addicted as I am I can't justify driving more than an hour just to get a bowl of soup. At least not more than once or twice a month.
So anyway, I TRIED to make pho about 8 years ago, right after I discovered it. Those were the dark days before food blogs-few recipes were around. Well, it was a disaster. I used oxtails and roasted them and hurried the broth and it was a dark, muddy, greasy icky mess. And I tried to sub Italian basil for Thai. Because obviously if it's 25 miles to a pho place it's at least that far to a market with Thai basil.
So last weekend I had little to do and a strong pho hankering and I tackled it again. I used the recipe on the Steamy Kitchen-Modern Asian blog, which was lifted from the wonderful "Into the Vietnamese Kitchen." Just looking at the ingredients and the method is deceiving. It looks simple. Like anyone with half a brain and a year in the kitchen could turn it out. But pho, like true love, is more than the sum of its parts.
Hubby went to the gym on Saturday morning with instructions to bring home 5 pounds of shin and knuckle bones, a pound of chuck steak, and a pack of oxtails. I started the broth around noon on Saturday, but by Saturday evening, when I wanted to infuse it with the spices, I realized that DUH I had no whole cardamom, whole coriander, or star anise. So I had to drive up to the grocery store- about 8 miles away. And of course my normal market didn't have whole cardamom or star anise, even in the measly Hispanic section. So I went to another-same story. I was ready to cross town to a Mexican market when I remember SUPER HELL-MART, the store I love to hate. NOTE TO SELF: Don't ever shop there at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night. It looked like an Oklahoma wheat field after a locust plague of Biblical proportions.
I went to the spice section, no luck. I went to the Hispanic foods section (a big area) no luck. On the way out I decided to pick up some bread and lo and behold, there was a Mexican snack rack set up in the bakery area (???) and on one side, the familiar yellow pouch with star anise in it. SCORE!!! The problem of Thai basil still loomed. I would deal with that on the morrow.
By the time I returned it was too late to keep cooking. Thankfully the night was cold so I covered the pot and set it out in God's giant refrigerator-otherwise known as the back porch. When I picked up again on Sunday morning, at 7:30, the fat was nicely congealed and easy to remove. But the broth was strangely light and VERY weak.
At this point I realized I needed more meat. So I trucked up to Winchester again and bought a piece of bottom round (intending to save some for raw slices to submerge in the soup). This time I seared the meat before adding it and deglazed the pan with some broth, putting back all the nice brown yummies along with about 3/4 pound of the round. Along with the fish sauce and sugar, this seemed to be doing the trick.
By this time it was about 10 a.m. And I still didn't have the basil. And after putting all this work into a pot of broth there was no way in HELL I was going to have pho WITHOUT Thai basil. So back into the car. Except this time I had no choice but to drive to Global Food in Manassas, the giant His-pan-Asian grocery store that is a 45-minute trip (one way) from little Boyce, Va. By this time it's 12:30 and hubby is like "Hey remember we made a racquetball appointment for 4 p.m."
Hmmmm. 45 min to get to Manassas, 20 min to shop, 1 hour min to drive back... infuse the broth...and hit the court. CAN IT BE DONE????? Turns out, the answer is yes. Fortified with a classic Car Talk on NPR, I sped down I-66, ran through the produce department (literally), grabbed one of the last 2 Thai basil bunches (and some AMAZING ataulfo mangoes, baby bok choy, sugar cane, Chinese mustard greens, Thai ginger and a few other goodies not normally seen in the Winchester Food Lion). Ironically on the way out of the strip mall, I noticed a "GRAND OPENING PHO 75!!!!!!!!!!!!!" sign on a store front. Did I laugh or cry? You be the judge.
So I got back at 3:20. Removed the meat from the broth, tossed in the spices, turned it to LOW LOW, and ran off to racquetball, where I got my A** thoroughly kicked. Not once but twice. On the way back home I mention to hubby "Oh I forgot to tell you, I invited Mom and Dad and they're coming over at 6:30."
Amazingly when I walked in the kitchen, IT SMELLED LIKE PHO! While I was at the a**-kicking session, the mystery had unfolded without me. The broth was good-not great. Not transporting. Not groan-inducing. But a good solid "better than 'eh'"
Everything came together quickly after that. The pickled onions (I also put cukes in and have been nailing this for a couple years) were awesome, the basil was heavenly, and the cilantro was pungent. The lime, Sriracha, and hoisin played a quartet with the spicy broth. The noodles were soft and slippery. The bean sprouts were cool and crunchy.
My parents raved. Never having been pho-cked, of course, they assumed their first time was the best. But it was a little tiny bit of a disappointment to me - like really, really wanting a baby that looks exactly like your incredibly handsome husband and then having one that looks more like his homely but lovable grandfather.
OK, so I can make pho. And it's good pho. It's not little wrinkled Vietnamese grandma pho. Or even Xuan Saigon Leesburg pho. But it's waaaay better than Winchester VA pho - which is to say, NO pho.
What was it lacking? Was it salt? Did it need more fish sauce? Was it-though I shudder to say it-its pure MSG-less-ness??? The broth, though still a little dark and a little cloudy, tasted fine on the front of the palate, but at the back, when the fumes came up and the fat slid down... there was just something missing. No umami.
So how did the Boyce pho compare with Leesburg pho?
Boyce pho: 30 hours cooking and fretting, including 3.5 hours of driving.
Xuan Saigon pho: 25 min of driving, 1 hour of sitting of my butt being served, 25 minutes of driving back
Bones and oxtail: less than $8
Chuck steak: $5
Round roast: $13
Basil, bean sprouts, cardamom, coriander, star anise: $25
Gas for 100 miles of grocery trips: $10
Bowl of pho at Xuan Saigon: $5.95
Smell of pho - in Boyce or Leesburg - Priceless.
You're making it way too hard and complicated.
Of course, if you have a Vietnamese-equipped kitchen, it is much easier. I'm Vietnamese, but I hardly ever cook Vietnamese food because my kitchen is equipped for Italian cooking.
How much fish sauce did you use? I'm thinking something on the scale of 1/3 cup.
And, while everyone has their own version, I've never seen cardamom or coriander seed in pho. It seems very weird to me.
OK, I just looked at the recipe. 1/4 cup fish sauce... not bad. It is just a spring board, though. And I realized that it's black cardamom, not green cardamom.
You're very brave! I have "Into the Vietnamese Kitchen" (which is a terrific book, btw), and have been tempted to make the pho recipe, but it certainly does look time consuming, especially considering I live in NYC where a good bowl of pho isn't too hard to find. Nonetheless, I still want to give the recipe a try sometime so I can chalk up pho in my repertoire. Your post encourages me to try it soon.
Go Missy, Go PHO!
I would and have driven hours to satisfy a food itch, but sometimes you just don't wanna... I have zero restaurant Pho options nearby, all are about 30-45 miles south. Not sure when, but I'll tackle this soon. My manicurist is always giving me cooking tips, she is vegan (I'm not) and born in Vietnam and once she found out I was interested in her style of food, she got all excited to share recipes. And upset that I haven't tried any yet...
Your story was very entertaining! I too am a Pho-aholic and could eat it almost everyday. I live in Leesburg, and have been very disappointed by the local Xuan Saigon... not as good as many others out there. One of the best that I have tried with a great rich broth is made in Falls Church/Merrifield at a restaurant called Pho Cyclo. A tasty tidbit of information they shared about their recipe is that they ROAST/CHAR the bones and onions before adding the water to make the pho broth. The roasting brings out the intense flavors and gives the broth a rich darkness to it that you cannot get no matter how much meat you add. Good Luck!
Oh yes. My mother, whenever giving me directions, always says "you can always skip this step if you don't have time." This includes the onion charring ... and yet she has never skipped the onion/bone charring during the making of those thousands of gallons of stock. Let me tell you: you want to make good chicken stock? Onion charring is totally optional (heck, the whole onion is optional). You want to make good stock for pho? Forget it. Char your onions and your bones (and a stick of lemongrass or two if you've got any in your garden) and settle yourself to not have major travel plans for the next few days. Oh and you better have a scary amount of bones available (though I do like the oxtail-chicken combo).
And there's fish sauce in pho?! This, I never knew!
A wonderful story and show your effort to have Pho. I feel your needs, but not make feel bad is that pho is only minutes away from our home. I feel as the temperature drops in California drops we have more soup to warm us up. I love a bowl of soup on a cold winter night. But living in a food heaven I do not have to use all the recipes stored in my mind. But thanks for sharing you story is warms my heart.
But you work too hard.
My only tip is use more meat and bones to start with you can always thin out the soup but it is much harder to make it stronger.
I love "pho-natic," that's hilarious. I am one, too. I really loved reading this. Good for you on trying to make pho. Regular home pho makers always chide me saying how easy it is to make pho, but I completely disagree. It takes a good understanding of timings and ingredients and definately seems like one of those dishes you have to make a few times messed up to finely get a pot of broth correct.
Don't be afraid of MSG. It has a bad rep but really lifts flavor.
I have never eaten the stuff and don't have much experience with Vietnamese food. Would love to try many dishes some day at a buffet. I just got a kick out of reading this article, parts of it are hilarious! If you are willing to go to Leesburg, VA for Pho try driving down a little further down route 7 to the Sterling area. Grandmart usually has Thai basil. The other spices mentioned can be found in the Indian and sometimes the Iranian store. I'd try the Indian store and Grandmart first. They are in the same strip mall but 2 opposite ends. There's also another strip mall with another different Indian store a block down (its situated a couple of doors down from Popeyes). All of the stores are more or less within 2 very (not very but extremely) large blocks of each other. I would not walk it (I love walking, its not an exercise issue) but because RT 7 is a multi-lane highway, people speed and drive like crazy people and forget there are traffic lights and pedestrian signals (as few as there are) you are safer crossing the road in your car.
I grew regular genovese basil in my garden and freeze the excess. It freezes well. Try this with Thai basil and see if it works. I use my frozen basil in pesto, spaghetti sauce, on pizza, etc. and there's hardly a taste difference as its being cooked anyway.
Ps. you are married to a good man. Mine can barely find organic milk in the store let alone your shopping list - not going to happen. :)