Monday, September 28, 2009

Pho of Known Origin

At the beginning of this calendar year, I made a commitment to try to eat only Meat of Known Origin. I've done pretty well with this, although I have occasionally strayed, especially when traveling.

One of the things I've missed the most this year, and that I've broken my vows for once or twice, has been the Vietnamese noodle soup called phở. It most typically consists of a delicious, strongly-flavored beef broth; rice noodles; various and sundry pieces of cow, including tripe, tendon, brisket, rare fillet, sometimes meatballs, and so on; and garnishes such as lime, thinly-sliced onion, Thai basil, bean sprouts, and jalapeño slices. (I usually skip the bean sprouts, because they cool off the soup too quickly.) Making phở is somewhat involved. And your phở can only be as good as the beef stock you start with. If your "stock" comes from a can or a cardboard box, it's not going to be worth the trouble.

I had come across this phở recipe on Epicurious a while ago, and had made a note to myself to try it. Finding myself with a good supply of beef stock of my own making, and a pound of good steak, both of known origin, I decided that the time had come.

Below is the recipe, as modified to start from beef stock rather than bones, to make 3 servings instead of 6, to suit the ingredients I had on hand, and so on.

It turned out delicious. The broth had a great flavor, nice and beefy because of the concentrated stock I used, perhaps a little heavier on the anise and clove than what I've had at restaurants but by no means over-spiced. The bok choy and mushrooms were great additions, even if they weren't traditional. A thoroughly satisfying meal!

(Having said all of that, if anyone out there in blog-land knows of Vietnamese restaurants using sustainably-sourced meat, please comment!)

Recipe: Phở of Known Origin

  • 3 quarts beef stock of known origin
  • 1 3-inch piece ginger, cut in half lengthwise and lightly bruised with the flat side of a knife, lightly charred (see Note, below)
  • 1 yellow onion, peeled and charred (see Note, below)
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1.5 tablespoons sugar
  • 5 whole star anise, lightly toasted in a dry pan
  • 3 whole cloves, lightly toasted in a dry pan
  • 1.5 teaspoons sea salt
  • 2 dried hot peppers 
  • 1/2 pound steak, cut into moderately thin strips
  • hen-of-the-woods mushrooms (optional), cut to approximately match the meat

  • 1/2 pound dried 1/16-inch-wide rice sticks, very slightly undercooked, drained
  • 1/2 pound steak, slightly frozen, then sliced paper-thin across the grain, squirted with a little lime juice
  • 15 leaves of baby bok choy

  • 1/2 yellow onion, sliced paper-thin
  • 1 scallion, cut into thin rings
  • 1/4 cup chopped cilantro
  • 1/2 pound bean sprouts
  • a few sprigs Asian basil
  • some shiso leaves, chiffonade cut (optional)
  • jalapeños, sliced
  • 1/2 lime, cut into thin wedges
  • Freshly ground black pepper
1. Heat the stock. Add the charred ginger and onions, fish sauce and sugar. Add the star anise, cloves, and hot peppers. Let infuse until the broth is fragrant, at least 30 minutes. Taste the broth. If it is not spicy enough, crush the hot peppers against the side of the saucepan so that they release more spice. Add salt. When the flavor is good, strain and return to heat and cover. (The broth will taste salty but will be balanced once the noodles and accompaniments are added.)

2. Make sure the noodles and garnishes are ready before proceeding.

3. Add the first 1/2 pound of steak and the mushrooms to the stock. Cook for a few minutes. Strain out the meat and mushrooms with a slotted spoon when the meat is almost done.

4. To serve, place the cooked noodles in preheated bowls. (If the noodles are not hot, dip them briefly in boiling water to prevent them from cooling down the soup.) Place the bok choy, some cooked beef, and some raw beef on the noodles. Ladle hot soup into each bowl. Garnish with yellow onions, scallions and cilantro. Serve immediately, inviting guests to garnish the bowls with bean sprouts, herbs, chilies, lime juice and black pepper. (Alternatively, serve raw beef on the side with lime wedges, and allow guests to squirt it with lime, dunk it in the soup, and cook it as desired, or eat it raw!) Provide guests with soup spoons, chop sticks, chili sauce, and plum sauce.

Note: How to Char Ginger and Onions

To char ginger, hold the piece with tongs directly over an open flame. While turning, char until the edges are slightly blackened and the ginger is fragrant, about 3 to 4 minutes. Char the onions in the same way. Peel and discard the blackened skins of the ginger and onions.

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