Beef Pho

Earl is still here, and I am still preferring to make out with him than type lots of words, so I’m copying and pasting a pho recipe here that I jotted down somewhere else. But how is pho similar to pie, you ask? Well, they’re both three-letter food words that start with p, and ‘i’ is right next to ‘h’ in the alphabet, and if you’re severely nearsighted like I am, ‘e’ looks a lot like ‘o’. Sure, one is a Vietnamese beef noodle soup and the other is a pastry with sweet or savory filling, but…On second thought, no ‘but’. If you can’t see how both foods qualify as excellent dinner foods, I can’t help you.

This is labor intensive, but it’s totally worth it. It’s from Andrea Nguyen’s “Into the Vietnamese Kitchen,” which although not pie-related is still a good read. I used chuck roast for the broth and sirloin for the bowls. My notes in italics.

2 yellow onions, about 1 pound (~454 g) total, unpeeled
Chubby 4-inch piece fresh ginger, unpeeled
5-6 pounds (2.27-2.72 kg) beef leg bones, in 2-3 inch (5.08-7.62 cm) pieces (I can usually find these in the frozen section of the meat department)
6 quarts (5.68 L) water
5 star anise (40 robust points total)
6 whole cloves
3-inch (7.62 cm) cinnamon stick
1⅓ pounds (~680 g) boneless beef chuck, rump, brisket, or cross-rib roast, well trimmed (about 1 pound (~454 g) after trimming) and cut into pieces about 2 inches (5.08 cm) wide, 4 inches (10.16 cm) long, and 1½ inches (3.81 cm) thick
1½ tbsp (25.59 g) salt
scant ¼ cup (59.15 mL) fish sauce
1-inch (2.54 cm) chunk yellow rock sugar (about 1 ounce (28.35 g))

1½ to 2 pounds (~680 -~907 g) small flat rice noodles, dried or fresh
cooked beef from the broth
½ pound (~227 g) eye of round, sirloin, london broil, or tri-tip steak
1 yellow onion, sliced paper-thin, soaked in cold water to cover for 30 minutes and drained
3-4 scallions, green part only, thinly sliced
⅓ cup (~15 g) chopped fresh cilantro, leafy tops only
black pepper

Optional garnishes:
3 cups bean sprouts (about ½ pound (~227 g))
10-12 sprigs mint
10-12 sprigs Thai basil
12-15 fresh culantro leaves (NOT a typo – they look kind of like dandelion leaves)
2-3 thai or serrano chiles (or jalapeños if you’re like the pho shops around here)
2-3 limes cut into wedges

1. Place the onions and ginger directly on the cooking grate of a medium-hot charcoal or gas grill, or a gas stove with a medium flame, or on a medium-hot burner of an electric stove. Let the skin burn (if you’re working indoors, turn on the exhaust fan and open a window [I don’t; I happen to like the smell of the burning onion skin], using tongs to rotate the onions and ginger occasionally and to grab and discard any flyaway onion skin [I don’t; I just sweep it up later. Also, you could just slice the onions thick and broil both the onions and ginger. The open flame business is purely for fun, in my opinion]. After 15 minutes, the onions and ginger will have softened slightly and become sweetly fragrant. There may even be some bubbling. You do not have to blacken the entire surface. When amply charred, remove from the heat and let cool.

2. Rinse the cooled onions under warm running water, rubbing off the charred skin. Trim off and discard the blackened root and stem ends. Use a vegetable peeler, paring knife, or the edge of a teaspoon to remove the ginger skin. Hold it under warm water to wash off any blackened bits. Halve the ginger lengthwise and bruise lightly with the broad side of a cleaver or chef’s knife [I don’t know about you, but I can’t bruise a ginger root with a chef’s knife. I mean, I know I’m small, but use the big fat cleaver]. Set the onions and ginger aside.

3. To achieve a clear broth, you must first parboil and rinse the beef bones. Put them in a stockpot (about 12-quart capacity) and add cold water just to cover. Bring to a boil over high heat and boil vigorously for 2 to 3 minutes to release the impurities. Dump the bones and water into the sink (make sure it is clean [mine never is, so I pour slowly into my biggest colander]), and then rinse the bones with water to wash off any clinging residue. Quickly scrub the stockpot clean and return the bones to the pot.

4. Pour in the 6 quarts of water, bring to a boil over high heat, and lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Use a ladle or large, shallow spoon to skim off any scum that rises to the top. [I have one of these mesh skimmers. It’s great for scooping scum]. Add the onions, ginger, star anise, cloves, cinnamon stick, beef, salt, fish sauce, and rock sugar and cook, uncovered, for 1½ hours, adjusting the heat if needed to maintain a simmer.

5. At this point, the boneless meat should be slightly chewy but not tough. Press it and it should feel like the flesh at the base of your thumb. When it is cooked to your liking, use tongs to transfer it to a bowl of cold water to cover. Let the meat soak for 10 minutes to prevent it from drying out and turning dark. Drain the meat, set aside on a plate to cool completely, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Meanwhile, maintain the broth at a steady simmer for 1 ½ hours longer.

6. Strain the bowls through a fine-mesh sieve (or a coarse-mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth) positioned over a pot. If desired, remove any bits of gelatinous tendon from the bones to add to the cooked beef in the refrigerator. Discard the remaining solids. [I totally fish out the big solids and trash them, and then use that handy scum scooper to fish out the rest. Then I pour the broth slowly through the fine-mesh sieve positioned over a pot. Lemme tell you, you pour broth slowly through a fine-mesh sieve positioned over a pot enough and you’ll end up with giant Popeye guns. It’s not easy!] Use a ladle to skim as much fat from the top of the broth as you like. (To make this task easier, you can cool the broth, refrigerate overnight, lift off the solidified fat, and then reheat before continuing. Taste and adjust the flavor with salt, fish sauce, and rock sugar. There should be about 4 quarts (3.79 L) of broth.

7. If using dried noodles, cover them with hot tap water and let soak for 15-20 minutes, or until they are pliable and opaque. [eff that, I just boil them]. Drain in a colander. If using fresh rice noodles, untangle them, place in a colander, and rinse briefly under cold running water.

8. Cut the cooked beef across the grain into slices about 1/16th-inch thick [Really?? 1/16th? Try ⅛th if I feel like it]. For the best results, make sure it is cold. Freeze the raw beef for 15 minutes, then slice it across the grain into pieces 1/16th-inch thick [ok, the raw beef gets a little more thin-slicing effort just because I like for it to cook fully]. Set all the beef slices aside. Ready the yellow onion, scallions, cilantro, and pepper for adding to the bowls. Arrange the garnishes on a plate and put on the table.

9. To ensure good timing, bring the broth to a simmer over medium heat as you are assembling the bowls. (For an extra treat, drop in any unused white scallion sections and let them poach in the broth. Add the poached scallion sections – called hanh chan – to a few lucky bowls when ladling out the broth. [For an even more extra special treat, have hot naked men, preferably British, delivered, wrapped up nicely like in those Lexus commercials during Christmas].

At the same time, fill a large pot with water and bring to a rolling boil. For each bowl, place a portion of the noodles on a vertical-handle strainer (or mesh sieve) and dunk the noodles in the boiling water. As soon as they have collapsed and lost their stiffness (10-20 seconds) [in any other context, losing stiffness in 10-20 seconds would be so, so sad], pull the strainer from the water, letting the water drain back into the pot. Empty the noodles into a bowl. If you like, once you have finished blanching the noodles, you can blanch the bean sprouts for 30 seconds. They should wilt slightly but retain some crunch. Drain and add to the garnishes.

10. Top each bowl of noodles with cooked and raw beef, arranging the slices flat. Place a mound of yellow onion in the center and shower some scallion and cilantro on top. Finish with a sprinkle of pepper.

11. Raise the heat and bring the boil to a rolling boil. Do a final tasting and make any last-minute flavor adjustments. Ladle about 2 cups broth into each bowl, distributing the hot liquid evenly to warm all the ingredients. Serve immediately with the plate of garnishes.

Shine, little pho stock, simmer simmer


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