Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Oh so delicious, Phở Bò (Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup)

Phở. If you've never had it, all I can say is that you're missing out. It is incredibly approachable in that there is nothing "foreign" in the dish that is absolutely foreign. It's comfort food, no matter where you live.

Taking tips from the Chinese and the French, this dish is almost synonymous with Vietnam. I love it because not only does it have that very American pleasing punch of "Beef Flava" in the broth, it's also quite delicate and complicated. It's also almost infinitely customizable. You can have it very Spartan (only noodles and broth) or add to the complexity of the dish with the multitude of side offerings, from sprouts and thin sliced onions to peppers and hot sauce. 

I found a great recipe on, and have only made a few changes based on what I can normally get and how I've come to like the broth. Today, for example, I couldn't get any good soup bones from the store, so I had to go with ribs for my source of bones. I also don't have any "yellow rock sugar", so I always use regular granulated white sugar. I also like the broth to be a little more aggressively flavored. Other than that, I pretty much stick with her recipe, as it's very easy and straightforward.

While this recipe takes a bit of time to cook, it's not labor intensive at all. I think you only need to pick up a knife to prep the sides. If you've ever made a soup, this is the same amount of work.

I implore you to do yourself the favor and give this a try. You will be deeply satisfied.

Phở Bò (Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup)

1 large white onion, quartered
4" nub of ginger, halved lengthwise
5-6 lbs of good beef bones, preferably leg and knuckle (beef ribs if unavailable)
1 lb of beef meat - chuck, brisket, rump, cut into large slices (optional)
6 quarts of water
1 cinnamon stick
1 tbl coriander seeds
1 tbl fennel seeds
6 whole star anise
3 cardamom pods
10 whole cloves
A mesh bag or cheese cloth
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt (halve if using regular table salt)
1/4 cup fish sauce
1 inch chunk of yellow rock sugar (about 1 oz) - or 1oz (2 tablespoons) of regular sugar

1 package rice noodles (dried or fresh) (I usually use regular rick sticks for this)
Cooked beef from the broth
1/2 to 1 lb flank, london broil, sirloin or eye of round, sliced as thin as possible.
Big handful of each: mint, cilantro, basil
2 limes, cut into wedges
5 green onions sliced thin
2-3 chili peppers, sliced (optional)
2 cups of bean sprouts
Hoisin sauce
Sriracha hot sauce

I begin by firing up the broiler and getting out my largest pot. 

I didn't have a pot big enough for this dish to be comfortably made until yesterday when my wife let me get a 11 quart pot from Ikea (only 30 bucks!) and I highly recommend getting a pot that will fit all the ingredients. The bones take up a lot of space while cooking.

Cut up your onions and ginger, brush them with some oil and get them under the broiler. They will take a while to char up. 

I had some extra ginger, no harm there.
Meanwhile, get your pot and bones together. 

If you are using soup bones from the store (unfortunately, I am not today) take the extra time to parboil them first. Fill your pot with cool water. Bring the water to a boil, and then add the bones, keeping the heat on high. Boil vigorously for 10 minutes. Drain, rinse the bones and rinse out the pot. Refill pot with bones and 6 qts of cool water and bring that to a boil. 

This may seem like extra work, but when you see the crap that's let out of the bones when they boil, you'll do it every time. Also, don't worry, there is plenty of flavor and gelatin from the bones left for the broth. 

If you are only using ribs, like me, just add the meat to the pot and don't mess with the parboiling. There's not as much nastiness in bones meant for grilling, though you're going to have to do a lot of skimming along the way, but that's no big deal. 

I ended up getting a total of 5 pounds of beef. 2 pounds of regular beef ribs, 2 pounds of chuck flanken ribs and a pound of stew meat. I'm going to actually eat most of the beef from these but need the bones in the broth for flavor. 

Add the fish sauce, salt and sugar to the pot.

Get your spices together. 

Put them in either a mesh bag or a ghetto doubled-up square of cheesecloth as per below. It works. Leave the cinnamon stick loose in the broth.

Your aromatics should be done by now, so take them out and add to the beef. 

Cover your pot and bring the broth to a boil, it will take a while.

Once it boils, skim the surface for scum every-so-often. After the first round of scum, there shouldn't be as much in the future. 

Turn the heat down to a simmer and let this simmer for 3 hours, uncovered. Continue to check on the scum situation every so often, but don't obsess, since we're going to strain the broth at the end anyway.

3 hours later...

Go ahead and start your noodles. 

Drain and them them aside while you take care of the broth. 

Strain the broth

Now that we have extracted as much flavor and gelatin from the bones as we need, we are going to strain the broth. I lost over 2 quarts due to evaporation, but the flavor is intensified too.

I first get all the big stuff out. Be sure to get your cooked beef off the bone and out of the mash here. It's a little tedious, but it's worth it. 

If you don't have a fine mesh colander or other instrument, this can be kind of a pain, but the end goal is to get as much of the particulate matter out of the broth as possible. We want to end up with a clear broth at the end. I use a combination of strainers and multiple bowls because I'm anal like that. However you do it, just keep in mind that you want it virtually clear at the end.

After one strain
Yes, I use a paper towel. Nothing works better.
This takes a bit of time, but again, it's worth it. 
Nasty leftovers
Beautiful clean broth
Put the broth back on the heat and bring it back up to temperature. You'll want to taste the broth at this point and see if it needs either more salt, sugar or fish sauce. I usually add a bit of each and dial it in over a few wonderful sips. 

Now, get all the sides together, starting with the steak.

I used a cheap sirloin, but have used london broil with great results.

You want to trim the fat off of the steak and cut it against the grain as thin as possible. Freezing the beef for a while will make this a lot easier. 

Put the steak back in the fridge as you get everything else together.

I like to stick with the basics. Basil (sorry, can't find any Thai basil around, so am using regular), mint, cilantro, sprouts, limes and thinly sliced sweet onion. I sliced up the green onion in a separate bowl. 

Build your bowl!

Start by laying down some noodles. Add some of the shredded beef along with some sliced onions, green onions and chopped cilantro.

Layer on the raw steak. The broth will cook it. Don't worry.

Ladle in your broth and dress with the condiments. Remember, there is really no wrong way to dress your Phở. My bowl usually goes through many transitions as I eat. 

Hoisin and Sriracha also highly recommended. 


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