Pho, a kind of noodle soup, has seemingly become the the poster dish for Vietnamese cuisine in America. Websites are full of posts about where one can find “the best” Pho in any particular town, with people passionately defending their favorites.
It’s hard to say why this one dish resonates so well with american taste buds. If we had to venture a guess, we’d posit that Pho isn’t really all that removed from good old-fashioned chicken noodle soup. Like chicken noodle soup, a steamy bowl of Pho is familiar and comforting, but with a touch of the exotic that keeps things interesting.
Recently, while flipping through “The Egg Roll Lady of Martha’s Vineyard”, we came across this recipe for Pho Bo, or Beef Noodle Soup. This cookbook (with a bit of gardening advice and memoir thrown in) was written by Thi Khen Tran, a women revered on Martha’s Vineyard for her egg rolls, which she sells at the West Tisbury Farmer’s Market. Unlike some asian cookbooks, the recipes in her book can all be made with ingredients that you can actually find in the markets on MV.
The first step is to make the broth. In a deep pot, sauté 1 thickly sliced onion in vegetable oil, adding 4 cloves of sliced garlic and 8-10 slices of skin-on ginger. Once they are well-browned, add 15 cups of water and a 48 oz. can of beef broth, (that’s why you use a DEEP pot) then add a tsp. of pepper and a handful of whole star anise, which is about eight, if you are using a KD-sized hand. After bringing to a boil, add 5 lbs. of center cut beef shank or chuck roast, cut up and trimmed of fat (we actually used a couple Chuck Under-Blade steaks) and let boil for a minute. Reduce heat and let the broth simmer for two hours.
Once the meat has softened, using a strainer, remove it and let cool. Also cool the broth, then pour it through a strainer lined with paper towel. At this point, both the meat and broth can be stored in separate containers for up to three days, in the fridge.
When ready to finish the soup, skim off the top layer of fat from the broth and begin to reheat. Add 1 medium onion, sliced thin, and bring to a boil, immediately reduce heat and simmer. While the soup cooks, slice the meat thinly and reserve for later.
Next, rinse and dry 2 packages of bean sprouts, a bunch of scallions and two bunches of cilantro. Set aside the bean sprouts, and roughly chop the scallions and cilantro. Boil water in a medium sized pot and add a package of “Banh Pho”, flat rice noodles, cook for six minutes and drain.
To build the soup, place a handful of bean sprouts into each bowl, then layer in the rest of the ingredients in this order; noodles, scallions, cilantro, finishing with 5 to 6 slices of beef. Finally, pour in the broth and serve with fish sauce, sriracha and hoisin sauce on the side, so diners can tailor each bowl to their own individual tastes.
The slices of beef were very tender, with a consistency similar to your favorite pot roast. Both the broth and the beef had a very prominent anise flavor, with a sweetness that was echoed by the hoisin sauce. Bringing some crunch to the soup, the bean sprouts had a very distinct earthy taste that was quite strong, next time we would put a bit less in each bowl. With a bright grassy freshness, the cilantro cut through the deep flavors of beef, onion and fish sauce in just the right way.
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