Monday, June 9, 2014


Pho is a Vietnamese noodle soup and one of my favorite foods. Oddly, though, I never make it. I always go out for pho. Perhaps simply because it's so darn cheap, and in my previous hometown of Seattle - Pho is everywhere. Really, really good pho. And it's always served with a complementary cream puff (though I was recently informed that not all pho places in Seattle do this).

First things first, let's get in the mood for pho with some quality Seattle hip-hop:

Pho is pretty much the perfect food. It's hydrating, filling, cheap, centering, grounding, revitalizing, energizing, cleansing, comforting, invigorating, delicious. I've eaten at several pho spots in my current place of residence (Berkeley, CA), and yet none live up to Seattle pho. Thus, I have embarked on a quest to make my own pho.

Pho is all about the broth, and good broth starts with good stock. Pho is traditionally made with beef stock, but you can certainly do whatever you want. I used lamb stock for this pho, because that's what I had in my freezer. I had a lamb bone leftover from Thanksgiving that I boiled in water with onions, carrots, celery, and parsley stems overnight. Then I strained out the solid things, boiled down the liquid into a dense demi-glace that I froze into cubes in an ice cube tray. Anytime I need some stock, I just take out a few frozen cubes and add water.

Stock is the foundation of a broth, and a key ingredient in Pho broth is charred onions. This give the broth its distinctive dark brown color and earthy flavor.

Quarter two onions and char them under the broiler.

When the first side is blackened, turn them over.

The onions are done when they are good and black on both sides.

Raw meat is often added to pho just before serving. If you want your meat fully cooked, then I recommend searing the meat in a large pot, remove the meat and set it aside for later, and then use the pot to build your broth. I seared lamb sausage in a deep pot until it was good and brown. 

Then I removed the sausages, set them aside, and added lamb stock, charred onions, a cinnamon stick, a few star-anise pods, and one whole clove. Let these boil for about 30 minutes before straining.

Use a spatula to thoroughly scrape out the pot into the strainer, then put the pot back on the stove to continue making the soup. You could just pour the strained broth back into the pan, but I decided to sauté some chopped green garlic stems first. Onions, leeks, shallots, garlic cloves would all be appropriate here.

I also sliced the lamb sausage and threw that in to brown with the green garlic. Pho is all about flavor, so do everything you can to add and accentuate the flavor of the ingredients (i.e. browning, sauteeing, charring, etc.)

When the garlic and sausage was good and brown, I added the broth back in and brought it to a boil to cook the noodles.

As the noodles cook, prepare the raw garnishes. Pho is generally garnished with bean sprouts, thai basil, jalapeño, and lime. Sometimes mint, cilantro, green onion, red onion, or lemon make an appearance. 

There's at least two ways to slice green onions, if you slice on the diagonal it makes them about 10x more fancy.

Lemon is honestly kind of blasphemous in pho, but we have a lemon tree and there's a lime shortage currently in the US. So lemon it is.

In summary, here's how I made pho:
  1. Make stock (beef (or lamb, chicken, etc.) bones boiled in water with onions, carrots, and celery for 4-10hours)
  2. Strain stock
  3. Make broth by boiling the stock with charred onions, cinnamon, star anise, and clove for about 30 minutes
  4. Strain broth
  5. Sauté onions or garlic, brown meat (optional)
  6. Boil broth
  7. Cook noodles in broth
  8. Serve immediately with bean sprouts, basil, lime, jalapeño, hoisin, and Sriracha (or whatever else you want).
To be a true pho purist, it's not just about the flavor, but the clarity of the broth as well. Vietnamese cuisine was influenced by French occupation and one could think of pho as a Vietnamese consommé. Consommé is a French soup that is served as a simple broth with minimal to no garnish. It's crystal clear and full of robust flavor. To achieve the clarity of the broth, it's boiled with ground meat bound in a "raft" by egg and leeks. The meat raft acts as a filter, collecting impurities, while also imparting extra meaty flavor to the broth. The raft is discarded when the both is done, which always seems a bit wasteful to me, but it does produce a brilliantly clear and richly delicious broth. Stay tuned for a new-and-improved pho recipe with consommé-method included!

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