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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Pho! Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup!

Undoubtedly, the most popular Vietnamese food is pho.  And why not?  Beefy and hearty, great on a cold winter night and somehow still amazing in the blistering summer afternoon... If there is one thing I can have for the rest of my life, the only thing that comes to mind is pho.  It might be my Vietnamese bias, but hey, it's true.  If you ask me what the Vietnamese's best gift to the world, it would be pho.  That's how much I love my bowl of pho.

Now, the problem with pho is that it takes quite a bit of time to make.  You'll need to char some aromatics and you'll need to let the broth slowly simmer for hours.  You're going to have to excuse the lack of pictures in this post as it probably exceeded 100 degrees in the kitchen and I was pretty damn lazy to take the pictures.  I did take them, but they turned out horribly.  And it was really hot.

Depending on where you go, you'll find different beef bones used for the broth. I personally prefer to use oxtail.  Oxtail gives off a more gelatinous and thicker broth.  I also like to pick at the bones after eating my pho.  Really, I do.  It gives me something to do while the other diners are still eating because I've devoured my bowl so quickly.  That way, I don't look like a fatty.  Or more of one.  Alternatives to flavor the broth include beef marrow, or my mom's secret (best bang for the buck with amazing meat to go with it) is using a seven blade cut.

As for the tai meat, or the rare steak meat, round eye is most commonly used.  It's a very lean cut and must be cut very thin or it will be very chewy and hard to eat.  I like to use tenderloin.  You'll find tenderloin at Vietnamese stores for just a bit more than round eye -- but I like it so much better.  You can also use flank steaks as well.  Just make sure you cut it thin.  To get it thin, the trick is to either get your butcher to slice it very thin for you (okay, this isn't really a "trick"), or freeze the meat for about 15-20 minutes to get it a bit more solid so you can more easily slice it thin at home.  Make sure you don't forget and come out with a block of ice.  That would realllllly suck.

I heard that the reason beef tenderloin is so much cheaper at Vietnamese stores (not sure if this story is true) is because the Vietnamese stores get the bad tenderloin cuts.  Either from older cows or milk cows or something.  Like I said, that could be total BS.  Whatever, it works.  ANYWAY... on to the recipe...

Ingredients for the soup:

7 quarts water
3 lbs ox tail (or whatever you choose to use... if you use seven blade, add in closer to 4 or even 5 lbs)
1/2 lb - 1 lb beef tenderloin, sliced very, very thin (round eye works as well)
1 package beef meat balls, found in the frozen section of your Asian markets
1 package pho noodles (prepared as instructed on package)
1 large onion, cut in half and grilled/charred over an open fire
2-3" knob of ginger, also cut in half lengthwise and grilled over an open fire
6-8 star anises (anise?  anises-es?  Plurality sucks)
1 stick Vietnamese cinnamon (regular grocery store cinnamon works in a pinch)
12 cloves
1/2 tbs coriander seeds
3-4 tbs fish sauce (you can adjust seasoning towards the end)

For garnish:

Bean Sprouts
Green onions sliced thin
Onions dipped in vinegar, also sliced very thin
Thai Basil
Hoisin Sauce
Siracha Sauce


(Optional) 1)  This step is optional and is intended to remove impurities and give you a cleaner looking broth.  It's definitely recommended if you use bone marrow bones as this will clean the grits from the bones. Throw your oxtail (or whatever cut you're using to flavor the broth) into the pot and fill up plenty of water.  Bring to a boil and let boil for 10 minutes.  Then remove from heat and discard water by pouring contents of the pot into a colander.

2)  In the same pot, pour in 7 quarts of water (do not fill more than 3/4 of the way, as you'll be adding a lot more ingredients) and put your oxtail back in.  Bring to a boil.

3) While water is heating up char your onions and ginger over an open flame.  If you do not have a gas stove, use the grill if possible.  If that's not possible either, then use a dry pan.  I char both sides but I don't know if that's essential.  One side should be fine.  Be careful not to burn the onions and ginger.  Oh yeah, it's nice if you don't burn your kitchen down either.  Throw these in the beef pot.

4)  In a dry pan, on medium low heat, also toast the cinnamon, star anise, cloves and coriander seeds.  Do not add oil.  And do not burn as it will give off a bitter flavor and ruin your broth.  Stir frequently so the spices do not burn.  Place these contents into a mesh ball or cheese cloth.  Throw these in the pot when ready.

5)  Add fish sauce to the pot.

6)  Let the pot gently simmer for 6-8 hours and low heat.  To remove excess fat you can let the pot cool and refrigerate overnight.  I can never wait, so I bring to a heavy boil and the trick is the fat will all congregate together in the middle.  Quickly remove the fat with a ladle or it will emulsify into the broth (which isn't totally a bad thing...)  Also, remove the spices, onion and ginger while you're at it.  If you used seven blade, this is a good time to slice the meat.  The meat will be very, very tender.

7)  When you're ready to eat, throw in the beef meatballs.  Bring the pot to a boil as you want this pot HOT!  Taste the pot and add more fish sauce if necessary.  Put noodles into the bowl and ladle soup over it.  Spoon in a few meat balls and put the sliced tenderloin over.  Garnish with the optional garnishes mentioned above... and enjoy!

There you have it.  Homemade pho.  Way better than you'll find in most restaurants, and if you didn't notice -- NO MSG!  You can customize this how you want it.  I gave you lots of options for meats you can use -- feel free to be creative on what you add to the pho broth as well.  You'll frequently find tripe, tendon and brisket when you go to Vietnamese restaurants.  These ingredients are also simmered with the broth for a long period of time to get very tender.  Be shy with the siracha or add tons of spice.  Add sliced jalapenos if you wish.  If you want a heavier broth, use less water (or use more bones).

It's totally up to you.