Pho at home

I'd like to talk pho today. Have you ever had it? I had my first taste of the Vietnamese noodle soup with my sister, at a small Cambridge noodle shop. And I've eaten it dozens of times with Alex. He spent six months in Vietnam during college, and he says there it's street food—not something you would make at home, but something you always eat out—sort of like French fries in the U.S. And apparently, it's a breakfast dish.

Well, we've turned those rules on their heads. We've been making pho at home, lots of it, and we've been eating it for dinner and for lunch. Super daring! I know. 

In all seriousness though, pho is good. And while we used to get our fill of noodle soup from the Thai shops in Eastham and Orleans, both are kind of a trek and we are lazy and we like to make our broth with local meats and bones from farmers we trust. Plus, pho is the kind of food we like to eat when we're sick or in our pajamas or just in from a chilly walk on a Sunday afternoon, and we don't want to have to get in the car for that. So we started making broth at home—big, huge batches. We eat a quart or two and put the rest in the freezer. It's sort of like having emergency Ramen on hand when you're a kid, only much, much better.

Up until yesterday, we were making broth with a beef, pork, chicken, or turkey base. The recipe I use for infusing the broth comes from James Peterson's Splendid Soups, and you start with one of these basic broths and add cinnamon, cloves, ginger, a bit of sugar, white peppercorns, onion, and star anise. We also add a little bit of nuoc-mam and salt, give the broth a few hours to simmer, and then strain everything out. It's delicious.

The only thing is that Alex always says that real pho is made with oxtail. Peterson says that too, but since we never had any, we went with his other acceptable options. I was buying beef bones for more stock yesterday from Joe Beaulieu, and explaining to him what I was doing with them, when suddenly, he pulled a few packages of oxtail out. Huzzah! So starting today, we'll be making real, honest-to-goodness oxtail broth. I can't wait.


As Peterson states, you can use all kinds of broths for the base. So far, we've sampled beef, turkey, and pork. I liked beef the best, then pork, followed by turkey. That said, we seem to accumulate a LOT of pork in the freezer, and this is a great use for any less desirable cuts. Also, when it comes to toppings, get creative! 

for the broth:
10 cups chicken, beef, pork, turkey, or oxtail broth
4 star anise
1 cinnamon stick about 2 inches long
2 whole cloves
about 2 inches of fresh ginger root, cut into 8 slices (no need to peel)
2 tablespoons brown sugar, plus more to taste
1 medium-size onion, peeled and quartered
1 teaspoon white peppercorns
a fair amount of salt—taste as you season!
1-2 tablespoon nuoc-mam (fish sauce), to taste

for the noodles:
2 pounds rice noodles

garnishes (use any or all, depending on what you have and the season):
fresh cilantro leaves
fresh mint leaves
fresh basil leaves (note: E & T Farms sells these at the Sandwich winter market!)
finely chopped Thai chilies or a dash of hot chili sauce/dried chilies if you put some up
lime wedges
chopped scallions, green parts included
hoisin sauce
mung bean sprouts (you can make these at home although I confess I have not)
shredded meat or poultry used to prepare the broth

Put the broth in a large stock pot and bring it to a boil. Crush the anise, cinnamon, and cloves with the back of a sauce pan against a cutting board and add the spices to the broth. Throw in the ginger, brown sugar, onion, and white peppercorns, and turn the heat down to low. Let the broth simmer for 1-2 hours. 

If it doesn't taste flavorful enough, add some salt (we used a good deal) and some fish sauce, and if you feel like it needs more sweet, a little more brown sugar. If you still feel like the flavors aren't coming out and the broth has plenty of salt, let it simmer a little longer. Be careful while you're salting—give the broth five minutes or so on the stove in between each salting, and taste as you go. Salt will bring out the flavors, but you don't want to go overboard.

When you like the broth, pour it through a fine mesh sieve into a bowl. Pour the strained broth back into the pot and bring it to a boil. Add the noodles and cook, stirring occasionally, until just tender. Ladle the broth and noodles into bowls and garnish as you please. Yum!


Anonymous said...

Have you looked into the connection with Mad Cow Disease and oxtail? That's why oxtail is not so widely sold now.

andrea said...

Yep, there is a reason why our freezer is stocked with many, many pounds of beef bones, too! We are huge pho lovers and try to always have the ingredients on hand. When we were in Viet Nam, we had it for breakfast most days and never tired of it.

Our go-to resource for Vietnamese cooking is Andrea Nguyen: http://www.vietworldkitchen.com/blog/2008/10/pho-beef-noodle-soup.html. While in Viet Nam, I got a roughly translated recipe from a cook and it is very similar to Andrea's recipe above.

Great to hear the info on local oxtail!

Elspeth said...

Hi Anonymous,

That makes sense, and is another good reason to buy meat from local farmers who you trust. I talked with Joe and his animals are pastured with a bit of grain supplement in the winter, so I feel pretty comfortable with his oxtails. Cows that eat cows are pretty scary.

Andrea, yum! That recipe looks pretty similar...Alex and I had been talking about doing the thinly sliced raw meat and I think now we'll have to get to it.

All the best,

Hungry Native said...

We recently made made a Pho from the "Egg-roll lady of Martha's vineyard" cookbook. Very good, especially on a cold winter night.

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