Please permit me to introduce you to Andrea Nguyen.
Andrea is the maven of an incredible website that is full of the culture and recipes of Viet Nam, www.vietworldkitchen.com. It is there that I found two recipes that are to become staples of my kitchen, Chicken Pho and beef Pho, the rich and tasty dinner soups that are central to the culture of Viet Nam, and have found their way into the lore of American cuisine by way of the many immigrants from South Viet Nam who have found their way to America. Local to us here in Lancaster is the incredible Rice & Noodles restaurant in Manheim Township, an addition to our culinary life that is among the most welcome I have seen in my years in Central Pennsylvania. Vy and her family moved here after the disastrous hurricane Katrina decimated their home and business in New Orleans, and they are a most pleasurable addition to our wonderfully diverse life here in Lancaster County. Vy’s Pho soups are a joy to behold, and while I love dropping in to grab a potful and bringing it home, I wanted to find a way to make it myself.
Enter Andrea Nguyen.
She has produced a fabulous collection of her own family recipes into an incredible cookbook, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, which I have purchased as a NookBook and downloaded onto my Nook and my kitchen computer, my beautiful HP Touchsmart PC, which has become the most invaluable kitchen accessory I own (and which my better half–who was skeptical when I insisted that it had to be in our remodeled kitchen–now considers it vital to the welfare of our family).
But I digress…
Andrea Nguyen has enlightened me to the ways of Vietnamese Pho, and I am now a changed man. The stock used to make this legendary meal is the stuff of magical qualities, and I think that I will forever keep frozen containers of it, ready to use whenever the mood comes upon me–just add noodles and protein!
Here I will introduce you to the magic of two varieties of Pho, Ga (chicken) and Bo (beef), which hopefully transform your life as they have mine.
For the broth:
2 medium yellow onions (about 1 pound total)
4-inch piece ginger (about 4 ounces)
5-6 pounds beef soup bones, marrow and knuckle bones (get them at Central Market if you can’t find them at the grocery store)
5 star anise (40 star points total)
6 whole cloves
1 whole cinnamon stick
1 pound piece of beef chuck, rump, brisket or cross rib roast, cut into 2-by-4-inch pieces (weight after trimming)
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
4 tablespoons fish sauce
1 ounce (1-inch chunk) yellow rock sugar (duong phen; get this at the Asian market on Liberty Street or the one near McCaskey High School)
For the bowls:
1 1/2-2 pounds small (1/8-inch wide) dried or fresh banh pho noodles
1/2 pound raw eye of round, sirloin, London broil or tri-tip steak, thinly sliced across the grain (1/16 inch thick; freeze for 15 minutes to make it easier to slice)
1 medium yellow onion, sliced paper-thin, left to soak for 30 minutes in a bowl of cold water
3 or 4 scallions, green part only, cut into thin rings
1/3 cup chopped cilantro
Ground black pepper
Optional garnishes arranged on a plate and placed at the table:
Sprigs of spearmint and Asian/Thai basil
Leaves of thorny cilantro (ngo gai–also available at most good Asian markets)
Bean sprouts (about 1/2 pound)
Red hot chiles (such as Thai bird or dragon), thinly sliced
Prepare the Pho broth:
Char onion and ginger. Use an open flame on grill or gas stove. Place onions and ginger on cooking grate and let skin burn. (If using stove, turn on exhaust fan and open a window.) After about 15 minutes, they will soften and become sweetly fragrant. Use tongs to occasionally rotate them and to grab and discard any flyaway onion skin. You do not have to blacken entire surface, just enough to slightly cook onion and ginger.
Let cool. Under warm water, remove charred onion skin; trim and discard blackened parts of root or stem ends. If ginger skin is puckered and blistered, smash ginger with flat side of knife to loosen flesh from skin. Otherwise, use sharp paring knife to remove skin, running ginger under warm water to wash off blackened bits. Set aside.
Parboil bones. Place bones in stockpot (minimum 12-quart capacity) and cover with cold water. Over high heat, bring to boil. Boil vigorously 2 to 3 minutes to allow impurities to be released. Dump bones and water into sink and rinse bones with warm water. Quickly scrub stockpot to remove any residue. Return bones to pot.
Simmer broth. Add 6 quarts water to pot, bring to boil over high heat, then lower flame to gently simmer. Use ladle to skim any scum that rises to surface. Add remaining broth ingredients and cook, uncovered, for 1 1/2 hours. Boneless meat should be slightly chewy but not tough. When it is cooked to your liking, remove it and place in bowl of cold water for 10 minutes; this prevents the meat from drying up and turning dark as it cools. Drain the meat; cool, then refrigerate. Allow broth to continue cooking; in total, the broth should simmer 3 hours.
Strain the broth through fine strainer. If desired, remove any bits of gelatinous tendon from bones to add to your pho bowl. Store tendon with cooked beef. Discard solids.
Skim as much fat from top of the broth as you like. (Cool it and refrigerate it overnight to make this task easier; reheat before continuing.) Taste and adjust flavor with additional salt, fish sauce and yellow rock sugar. The broth should taste slightly too strong because the noodles and other ingredients are not salted. (If you’ve gone too far, add water to dilute.) Makes about 4 quarts.
Assemble pho bowls:
The key is to be organized and have everything ready to go. Thinly slice cooked meat. For best results, make sure it’s cold.
Heat the broth and ready the noodles. Reheat the broth over medium flame as you’re assembling bowls. If you’re using dried noodles, cover with hot tap water and soak 15-20 minutes, until softened and opaque white. Drain in colander. For fresh rice noodles, just untangle and briefly rinse in a colander with cold water.
Blanch noodles. Fill 3- or 4-quart saucepan with water and bring to boil. For each bowl, use long-handle strainer to blanch a portion of noodles. As soon as noodles have collapsed and lost their stiffness (10-20 seconds), pull strainer from water, letting water drain back into saucepan. Empty noodles into bowls. Noodles should occupy 1/4 to 1/3 of bowl. I prefer fewer noodles, because I want more broth! Then blanch bean sprouts for 30 seconds in same saucepan. They should slightly wilt but retain some crunch. Drain and add to the garnish plate.
Add other ingredients. Place slices of cooked meat, raw meat and tendon (if using) atop noodles. (If your cooked meat is not at room temperature, blanch slices for few seconds in hot water from above.) Garnish with onion, scallion and chopped cilantro. Finish with black pepper.
Ladle in broth and serve. Bring broth to rolling boil. Check seasoning. Ladle broth into each bowl, distributing hot liquid evenly so as to cook raw beef and warm other ingredients. Serve your Pho with with the garnish plate.
Note: Yellow rock sugar (a.k.a. lump sugar) is sold in one-pound boxes at Chinese and Southeast Asian markets. Break up large chunks with hammer.
Variations: If you want to replicate the splendorous options available at Pho shops, head to the butcher counter at a Vietnamese or Chinese market. There you’ll find white cords of gan(beef tendon) and thin pieces of nam (outside flank, not flank steak). While tendon requires no preparation prior to cooking, nam should be rolled and tied with string for easy handling. Simmer it and the beef tendon in the cooking broth for two hours, or until chewy-tender.
You can also make Pho with beef meatballs (bo vien), which you can purchase in Asian markets in the refrigerator case; they are already precooked. Slice each one in half and drop into broth to heat through. When you’re ready to serve, ladle them out with the broth to top each bowl.
2 yellow onions, about 1 pound total, unpeeled
Chubby 4-inch section fresh ginger, unpeeled
1 chicken, 4 pounds, excess fat and tail removed
3 pounds chicken backs, necks, or other bony chicken parts
5 quarts water
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1-inch chunk yellow rock sugar (about 1 ounce)
2 tablespoons coriander seeds, toasted in a dry skillet for about 1 minute until fragrant
4 whole cloves
1 small or 1/2 large bunch cilantro (bound stems about 1 inch in diameter)
1 1/2–2 pounds small flat rice noodles, dried or fresh
Cooked chicken, at room temperature
1 yellow onion, sliced paper-thin, soaked in cold water for 30 minutes and drained
3 or 4 scallions, green part only, thinly sliced
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro, leafy tops only
3 cups bean sprouts (about 1/2 pound)
10 to 12 sprigs mint, 10 to 12 sprigs Thai basil
12 to 15 fresh cilantro leaves
2 or 3 Thai chiles, thinly sliced
2 or 3 limes, cut into wedges
Make the pho broth
1. Place the onions and ginger directly on the cooking grate of a medium-hot charcoal or gas grill (as pictured, to the right) 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), using tongs to rotate onion and ginger occasionally and to grab and discard any flyaway onion skin.
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. Set the onions and ginger aside.
3. Rinse the chicken under cool water. Detach each wing by bending it back and cutting it off at the shoulder joint. Add the wings and neck, and set the wingless chicken aside.
4. Remove and discard any loose pieces of fat from the chicken parts. With a large chef’s knife or heavy cleaver designed for chopping bones, chop the bones to break them partway or all the way through, making the cuts at 1- to 2-inch intervals, depending on the size of the part. This exposes the marrow, which enriches the broth.
5. To achieve a clear broth, you must first parboil and rinse the chicken parts. 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 chicken parts and water into the sink (make sure it is clean), and then rinse the parts with water to wash off any clinging residue. Quickly scrub the stockpot clean and return the chicken parts to the pot. Put the chicken into the pot, breast side up.
6. Add water to cover the chicken. Bring to a boil over high heat and then lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Skim off any scum that rises to the top. Add the onions, ginger, salt, fish sauce, rock sugar, coriander seeds, cloves, and cilantro and cook, uncovered, for 25 minutes, adjusting the heat if needed to maintain a gentle simmer.
At this point, the chicken is cooked; its flesh should feel firm yet still yield a bit to the touch. With a pair of tongs, transfer the chicken to a large bowl. Flush with cold water and drain well, then it set aside for 15 to 20 minutes until it is cool enough to handle. Meanwhile, keep the broth at a steady simmer.
7. When chicken can be handled, use a knife to remove each breast half and the whole legs (thigh and drumstick). Don’t cut these pieces further, or they’ll lose their succulence. Set aside on a plate to cool completely, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate; bring to room temperature before assembling the bowls.
8. Return the leftover carcass to the stockpot and adjust the heat to simmer the broth gently for another 1 1/2 hours. Avoid a hard boil, or the broth will turn cloudy.
9. Strain the broth through a fine-mesh sieve (or a coarse-mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth) positioned over a pot. Discard the solids. 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 additional salt, fish sauce, and rock sugar. There should be about 4 quarts of broth. At this point, you can freeze the broth.
Assemble the pho bowls
10. If using dried noodles, cover them with hot tap water and let soak for 15 to 20 minutes, or until they are pliable and opaque. Drain in a colander. If using fresh rice noodles, untangle them, place in a colander, and rinse briefly under cold running water.
11. Cut the cooked chicken into slices about 1/4 inch thick, cutting the meat off the bone as necessary. If you don’t want to eat the skin, discard it first. Set the chicken 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.
12. 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 white scallion sections (called hành chần) to a few lucky bowls when ladling out the broth.) 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 to 20 seconds), 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.
13. Top each bowl of noodles with chicken, arranging the slices flat. Place a mound of yellow onion in the center and then sprinkle scallion and cilantro on top. Finish with a sprinkle of pepper.
14. Raise the heat and bring the broth 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 garnishes.