Pho (Vietnamese Beef Noodle Stew)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

I don't remember how we got involved in this. All that's left now is the memory of one of the best meals I've ever had. And a yearning. Yearning for another bowl, regardless of how many hours it takes to make it. This recipe was Tony's doing, who with his Scottish roots, having a penchant for Sriracha and being a scientist at heart, made this Vietnamese dish his own.


What makes pho unique is the broth, which is made over the duration of several hours and involves cooking several different cuts of bone meat (usually beef, but it can also be made with chicken), along with vegetables and spices. It is then served with rice noodles, toppings consisting of fresh herbs, bean sprouts, and onion, along with beef slices and a healthful dose of chili sauce.


In this recipe there are no shortcuts. It takes six hours to make (with a lot of inactive time), but it is worth every minute and all the effort. It is cooked in two stages. The first two hours involve boiling beef on the bone as well as marrow bones with a pinch of salt. The long cooking time is required to extract an adequate amount of collagen from the bones and connective tissues, which thickens the broth.

However, please don't make pho your foe (it's pronounced "fuh") and don't be intimidated by the process. Aside from the time it takes, the cooking itself isn't complicated.


Beef shank center cut or neck bone, as well as beef knuckle, are good choices for the first phase of cooking. At that stage, flavor and fat are extracted from the marrow and meat, however the fat should be skimmed before continuing. In the second stage of cooking, the other ingredients are added along with a spice sack. The spices in the recipe, while quite potent (anise, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, among others), do not overpower the broth but instead come together in what seems to be a perfect combination of flavors that both comfort you and stir your senses.


Meat, an important ingredient here, can be expensive (one of the reasons we choose to eat vegetarian meals more and more frequently). While researching and reading about pho we've also found that some restaurants compromise by using monosodium glutamate or MSG to cut down the amount of meat needed for the recipe without losing much flavor. But you can use some of the cheaper cuts you can find instead. In fact for this recipe, the cheaper, the fatter, the bonier, the chewier the cut, the tastier your broth will be. You can use a combination of marrow bones, as well as knuckles and/or cartilage (i.e. neck bones, ox tail, shoulder) to make the broth, plus a small amount of good sirloin as a topping at the end.


Oxtail is included in the final four hours of cooking, and this adds just the right amount of fat (as well as additional collagen) to the broth. The oxtail may also be served with the broth if desired, as it will fall of the bone at that point. Another important ingredient in this recipe is fish sauce, which adds the umami flavor.

However, pho is as much about the toppings as it is about the broth. Pho can be served with paper-thin raw beef slices, which are "cooked" in the hot broth. Some of the common toppings include scallion, cilantro, Thai basil, bean sprouts, onion, chili pepper slices, and lime.


The feeling that you get when you eat this is indescribable. A blissful, eyes-glazed-over feeling of complete satisfaction. You feel slightly drunk from fullness, unable to move, yet yearning for more, especially during the colder months here. We will be coming back to this recipe more than a few times this winter.

Serves 6-8

For Part 1, you will need:
one large (12-15 quart) stock pot
7 ½ quarts water
½ tsp salt
about 1 ½ to 2 lbs beef on the bone (neck bone or shank center cut)
1 to 3 beef marrow bones (¼ to ½ lbs)

Part 1, Starting the Broth:
Combine the water and salt in a very large stock pot and bring to a boil. Cut the beef into large chunks. Add the beef (including all of the bones) and the marrow bones to the pot. Cook uncovered at a low to moderate boil for two hours. While boiling, prepare for Parts 2 and 3. Reduce heat to low, stir, and then skim oil and fat from the surface into a heat-proof measuring cup. Further separate the oil and fat from the water in the measuring cup, once it settles, and then return the water to the pot. Discard the oil and fat.

For Part 2, you will need:
cheesecloth or spice bag
5 whole star anise
5 whole cloves
½ cinnamon stick
1 tsp whole black pepper corns
½ tsp whole coriander seeds
1 shoot of lemon grass, top leaves removed
1 knob ginger root
2 garlic cloves
¼ habanero pepper (optional)

Part 2, Preparing the Spice Sack:
Cut the knob of ginger and the garlic cloves in half. Cut the lemon grass shoot into two-inch lengths, and crack each piece in the middle (helps to release flavor during cooking). Combine all of the ingredients in the cheesecloth and tie together securely, or use a spice bag.

For Part 3, you will need:
1 small daikon radish (1 cup)
1 large carrot (1 cup)
2 yellow onions
about 1 to 1 ½ lbs oxtail
1 tbsp white sugar
1 tbsp fish sauce
½ tsp salt
the spice sack, from above

Part 3, Completing the Broth:
Peel the radish and the carrot. Cut the radish into circles ⅛ inch thick. Cut the carrot into wheels ⅓ inch thick. Peel and quarter the onions. Char the onion quarters over an open flame before adding them to the pot (optional). Add the radish slices, the carrot wheels, and all the other ingredients to the stock pot and gently stir. Ensure that the spice sack becomes saturated and is mostly submerged. Cover and cook on low heat at a simmer for four hours, carefully stirring every hour. As the broth simmers, it will begin to take on a darker color. It is important to let it cook for the full four hours. If a more concentrated broth is desired, simmer uncovered for the final 30-40 minutes. Add additional salt and fish sauce to taste. (Start by adding 1 tsp salt and 1 tbsp fish sauce, and adjust further from there.) With a large slotted spoon, remove all the solids from the pot. Discard the radish, onion, and any bare bones. Save the meat and carrot, which can be served with the broth if desired.

Serve the broth over cooked rice noodles in a large bowl, with various toppings.

Suggested toppings:
Raw sirloin slices (thinly sliced)
Bean sprouts
Raw onion slices
Thai basil leaves
Lime wedges


Vietnamese Summer Rolls

Saturday, January 12, 2013

When it comes to cooking, I learn mostly by observing, doing, and experimenting through trial and error. And sometimes simply from seeing things and attempting to re-create them.

I have been fascinated by the Vietnamese shrimp rice paper rolls ever since trying my first one a long time ago. I also realized they would be a interesting subject to photograph, with shrimp cheerfully peering through the cloudy, almost translucent rice paper of a well-stuffed roll.


When I saw rice paper wrappers at Whole Foods, I decided to make these rolls, guided in part by memory, in part by the ingredients I had on hand.


The ingredients vary. I've had ones simply with shrimp, lettuce, and rice noodles, as well as ones with more complex flavors from cilantro and Thai basil. These can also be made with pork or beef, or simply with vegetables for a vegetarian option. When I made these, we were also making pho, the Vietnamese beef noodle stew, and had some toppings left over (bean sprouts, scallion, cilantro and basil), and as a result I've used some of the ingredients in the rolls. The rolls are also frequently made with rice noodles, which I've opted not to use to make them lighter.


To prepare the rolls, slice each shrimp length-wise. You will fit three shrimp halves inside of each roll. The remaining ingredients should be sliced into long, thin strips. The wrapper (I used brown rice paper wrappers, hence the darker color in the photos) is then soaked in a bowl of warm water for a few seconds to soften it. Take it out and place it on your work surface. Be sure that it isn't dripping wet when you begin to work with it, and work quickly to assemble the rolls so that the paper doesn't dry out. Then to assemble each roll, place three shrimp halves, pink side down onto a wrapper, arrange the other ingredients on top, and wrap it into a tight bundle.


The summer rolls can be served with a peanut sauce or nuoc cham (nước chấm) which is a dipping sauce made with fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and chili paste, with precise ingredients varying by region. I've made my own spin on the dipping sauce, with lime juice, brown sugar, soy sauce, as well as a healthy dose of Sriracha to make it an even balance of sour, sweet, salty, and spicy flavors.


Vietnamese Summer Rolls
Makes 8 Rolls

You will need:
12 medium raw shrimp
8 round rice paper sheets (about 8 1/2 inches wide)
1 daikon radish, peeled and sliced into matchsticks
1/2 English cucumber, peeled and sliced into matchsticks
1/3 cup bean sprouts
3 scallions, sliced into matchsticks
1 cup shredded iceberg lettuce
1/3 cup basil leaves, thinly sliced lengthwise
1/3 cup cilantro leaves

a bowl of warm water large enough to lay a sheet of the rice paper flat

1. Bring a medium pot of water to a boil, add the shrimp and cook until the shrimp is pink and fully cooked through. Rinse under cold water to cool. Peel and devein the shrimp, then slice each shrimp in half, lengthwise.
2. To assemble the rolls, dip one sheet of rice paper in warm water until pliable. Place on a wood board. Place three shrimp halves in the middle of the wrapper in a line, pink side down, and top with roughly 1/8 of each of the remaining ingredients, then wrap each roll snugly by folding in the top and bottom ends, then by rolling the sides into a tight bundle. Place seam-side down on a lightly oiled plate (to avoid sticking). Repeat with the remaining rolls. Serve with the dipping sauce or cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Dipping Sauce
Makes about 1/3 cup

You will need:
1/4 cup lime juice (about 1 1/2 limes)
2 tbsp brown sugar
2 tsp fish sauce
1 tsp Sriracha, or to taste
1 1/2 tbsp soy sauce
1 clove garlic, crushed

Whisk lime juice and brown sugar in a small bowl or measuring cup until the sugar is dissolved, then add the remaining ingredients and stir well to combine. Serve or refrigerate until needed.


Meatless Shepherd's Pie

Saturday, January 5, 2013


As the weather turns colder and we enter deeper into the winter (although it is comforting to know that minutes of sunlight are no longer disappearing and are slowly beginning to trickle back) comfort food is definitely on the menu around these parts. Sometimes it takes the form of savory pies.


I made this meatless version of shepherd's pie with leeks and a mix of different mushrooms instead of the lamb or beef, combined together with a splash of red wine, Worcestershire sauce, and some vegetarian stock. I used portabella, shiitake, button and oyster mushrooms, which provided a nice texture and a complex flavor. For the top, I added some rutabagas to the potatoes for added flavor.


Traditionally made with minced or ground lamb, this English dish is called cottage pie when made with ground beef. Sometimes the vegetarian version of it is referred to as "Shepherdless Pie," but I am operating under the assumption that the original recipe did not call for any shepherds, just their flock. And so I still like to call this a shepherd's pie, perhaps one reserved for those occasions where the shepherd brought back a sack full of different mushrooms that he or she gathered on the way home.


This dish is very filling, flavorful, and "meaty" despite being meatless as a result of the mushrooms and the flavor of the seasonings, sure to please shepherds and non-shepherds alike.

Note: I added a bit of flour to the mushrooms to help thicken the mixture, however it can be omitted if you are looking for a gluten-free option; instead, simmer the mushrooms for a few more minutes to reduce the liquid.

Serving suggestion: serve with wassail.

Meatless Shepherd's Pie
Serves 6-8

You will need:
4 small gold potatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 small rutabagas, peeled and coarsely chopped
3 tbsp olive oil
2 medium leeks, rinsed and chopped
2 shallots, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
3/4 lb assorted mushrooms (e.g. portabella, shiitake, oyster, button), sliced
1/4 cup dry red wine
1/2 cup vegetable stock
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 dried bay leaf
1 tbsp flour
1 tbsp parsley, chopped
1 tbsp chives, chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/3 cup soy milk

1. Preheat oven to 375ºF. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add a pinch of salt. Add the potatoes and rutabagas and boil until the vegetables are soft, 25-30 minutes.
2. In the meantime, heat olive oil in a large sauté pan. Add the leeks, shallot, and garlic, and sauté until leeks begin to soften, about 5-7 minutes. Add the mushrooms and sauté until the liquid that mushrooms give off begins to evaporate, 5-8 minutes. Add the red wine, cook for about 1 minute, then add the vegetable stock and bring to a simmer. Add bay leaf and Worcestershire sauce. Mix flour with about 1/8 cup water (to avoid clumping) and add to the mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer on low heat for 10-15 minutes, until most of the liquid has evaporated. Turn off the heat and stir in parsley and chives.
3. When the potatoes and rutabagas are done, drain and mash with a masher. Stir in the soy milk until absorbed and season to taste with salt and pepper.
4. To assemble and bake the pie, spoon the mushrooms onto the bottom of a round ceramic pie dish (10 inches in diameter), and top with the mashed potatoes and rutabagas. With a fork, make small peaks in the mashed root vegetables so that the top will brown nicely. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the juices are bubbling and the top is lightly browned. Serve.

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