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, as an ethnic Scotsman with a penchant for Sriracha and 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 off 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, slightly drugged, 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.
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.
Raw sirloin slices (thinly sliced)
Raw onion slices
Thai basil leaves