Has anyone else had a crazy-busy January?? (Raises hand.) Where did the month go? Pink hearts and Valentine’s Day decorations adorn every store already and I’m over here like: “Wasn’t Christmas yesterday??” But despite the exciting schedule my family had this last month, I was able to spend some amazing quality time in the kitchen. Whether it was finding creative recipes for those post-holiday blues, concocting delicious cocktails (ugh politics…at least there are fun drinks with umbrellas to help), or tackling all-time favorite foods that require patience and finesse, my January has been a fun and culinarily-challenging month. And today’s recipe certainly plays to that theme.
From the moment I first tried pho in college, it became one of my favorite foods. There really isn’t anything more comforting than a large, steaming bowl of this Vietnamese aromatic noodle soup. And since California has seen more rainy days lately than I can remember, I knew I had to learn about and conquer this dish so that I could enjoy it without leaving my warm, dry home. And here’s something cool I learned during my pho education: its actually not that difficult to make! Patience, quality ingredients, and a good 24 hours is all that’s really needed to make this popular dish at home. Follow the tips and techniques below and you too will be a pho aficionado!
Yields 4 portions
- 3 lbs beef bones, preferably knuckles or marrow*
- 2 anise seed
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 4 whole cloves
- 1½ tsp whole fennel seeds
- 2 tsp. whole coriander seeds
- 4-inch piece of ginger, cut in half from top to bottom
- 1 white onion, cut in half
- 2½ tbsp. fish sauce
- 1 tbsp. sugar
- 3-4 quarts water
- salt and pepper to taste
- 2 lbs protein of choice, very thinly sliced (chicken, tri-tip, sirloin, etc. or just veggies)
- 1 package banh pho noodles (rice noodles)
- 1 small yellow onion, thinly julienned and soaked in cold water for 30 min
- fresh herbs: Thai basil, cilantro, mint
- bean sprouts
- jalapeno slices
- lime wedges
*Beef knuckle and marrow bones are full of collagen which produces a thicker broth and is arguably where the great nutrients and heath properties lie. Plan your shopping trip to the butcher days before your pho day too. Some butchers don’t keep bones around for too long, so if no one scoops them up, they end up getting tossed. The next bones up for sale may not be available for a couple of days.
The key to great pho is taking special care of each ingredient on its own. So to start, place the onion and ginger halves, face up, on the top rack of a broil pre-heated oven for 30 minutes, or until the tops are very charred. You can also use a grill to achieve the same results (preferred method, if possible). Set the ginger and onion aside. In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast the spices until fragrant. Set toasted spices aside.
Place bones in a 5qt stockpot and cover with cold water. Over high heat, bring to a boil. Boil vigorously for 2 to 3 minutes to allow impurities to be released. Drain bones and rinse with warm water, scrubbing any impurities stuck to the bones. Quickly scrub the pot to remove any residue and return bones to the pot. This step is key to clear, beautiful broth. Skip this step and you may have to do a lot more skimming during the cooking process and the end result will be cloudy.
Add your charred onion and ginger, the toasted spices, fish sauce, and sugar to the pot. Over low heat, cook the broth uncovered for at least 10 hours until as long as you’d like! The longer the broth cooks, the more collagen (and flavor!) is extracted from the bones, making your pho more luscious, delicious, and addictive. Keep an eye on the level of the liquid throughout the cooking process and add more water as needed. Also skim any fat pooling at the surface as you go. Don’t stress too much about this step, however. Once you get the broth cooking, just let it do its thing. Your part is done, for now; it’s the ingredients’ time to shine.
Ok, so your broth has been on the stove for many hours, the house smells INCREDIBLE, and you literally can’t handle the anticipation anymore. Now it’s time to finish the dish. Start by straining the bones, onion, ginger, and spices from the broth into a second large stock (or drain into a big enough container, then clean the stock pot and return clear broth to same pot).
To ensure the clearest broth possible you can strain the broth through cheesecloth. Once strained, return broth to a low boil. Cook your pho noodles according to the packaging (cool under cold water until ready to serve). You can quickly (20-30 seconds) blanch the bean sprouts in the noodle water as well.
For the protein portion: all beef and chicken is typically sliced super thin and placed raw in super hot broth. The combination of the two will produce perfectly cooked piece of meat without threat of being over or under done. To ensure this you can do several things:
- Ensure the serving bowl is warm before placing the soup inside. A cold bowl will drop the temperature of the broth too fast before the protein has time to cook.
- Make sure you’re serving the pho in deep bowls, not shallow salad bowls. A deep bowl will better retain heat.
- Bring your broth to a rolling bowl 2-3 minutes before serving to make sure it’s extra hot.
- Don’t add the cooled noodles until the meat is cooked. Adding the cold noodles will drop the broth temp before the protein cooks.
- If you’re worried about whether the meat will cook in the broth before you devour the whole bowl, you can always blanch the protein in a pot of boiling water for 1-3 minutes.
Here it is! You’ve waited all night and day, you can see the finish line just around the corner, your mouth has been permanently salivating since you came home from the grocery store…but wait just a few moments more. Don’t forget to prep those garnishes. Customization is one of the best parts of pho. Arrange the prepped garnishes on a plate for the middle of the table so each diner can choose their favorite combinations. I love spicy pho so I add a few more jalapeños. My wife loves the herbs so she drowns 3-4 more leaves in her pho than I do. Its the easiest part of making and the most fun.