I had every intentions of grilling outdoors this Memorial weekend. Visions of sweet corn on the cob slathered generously with butter and spices, and a slab or two of finger-licking baby back ribs smothered in a thick honey-soy glaze were swirling in my head. Unfortunately, it rained like cats and dogs since Friday with more on the way. That plan was quickly dampened; no pun intended. It was early morning of Memorial Day and I don’t have a clue what to feed my peeps for dinner later. What to do? What to do? I took a step outside to the backyard patio for some inspirations while the rain briefly subsided. At a quick glance, my herbs are doing quite well with lush foliage, especially my thai basils, cilantro, and culantro (cilantro’s cousin). I ran my fingers through some thai basils and could smell the aromatic leaves. I’m already envisioning a steamy bowl of Pho Bo, Vietnamese beef noodle soup topped with freshly torn basils and culantro leaves in front of my face come 7 P.M. This is not just any beef noodle soup, but is one of the signature dishes of Vietnamese cuisine. Pho (noodle) bo (beef) is near and dear to my heart. It’s my favorite childhood food and is also what I dubbed as my labor of love to this very day. My mom use to make pho every other Saturday mornings. By the time my siblings and I were up, we could smell its aroma from our beds and our stomach instinctively growled. This was one of the many fond memories I loved growing up.
However, it was not until I was working as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant to pay my way through college that I was completely obsessed with not only eating pho but how to cook it the right way for myself. I befriended a kind-hearted Vietnamese-Chinese woman, named Hoa (flower). She worked in the restaurant’s kitchen but was a master chef in her own tiny kitchen. She could whip up an amazing last minute feast for 10-15 people like nobody’s business. Hoa taught me a great deal about Vietnamese cooking, origin of a dish and how to create its authentic flavors. Fortunately, she was gracious enough to show me how to make this super delicious, authentic, albeit very time-consuming one-bowl wonder.
Years later, I am still perfecting my own pho broth based on Hoa’s recipe. As with every old school cooks, she never measured. All was taught verbally and she was heavy on the “little of this, little of that” concept. For someone who’s always lived with Mom and Dad and never had the desire to step into the kitchen other than to eat, trying to learn such a complex recipe from Hoa’s cooking method was sheer madness and overwhelming. I longed for precise measurements and concrete steps but had to wing it her way. She often said good home cooks cook by feel, smell, and taste, not measure. I’ve rolled with her motto ever since for making her pho and among other things. As a result, some days my pho has a flavorful, rich broth with cuts of beefs so tender that it melts in your mouth. The buttery beef fat comes through with every slurp of rice noodles on my spoon. I’ve literally spent hours babysitting the broth over my cooktop, skimming fat, tasting, seasoning and reseasoning with a little of this, a little of that. In times like that, I would say my pho is near perfection, if not, it’s as good as it gets for me. On other days, I can tell my heart and my time were not fully committed to the process, so the result is 5-6 out of 10 rating at best.
Today is one of those days where I can’t afford to invest the 8-10 hours that often takes me to produce my ideally delicious pho. I got four hours max but I want a fairly decent pho for the girls. As such, I’m trying out a new pho recipe but I’m incorporating some of the steps from my own pho recipe to ensure a quality finished product. When time permits, I will gladly post Hoa’s pho recipe to this blog. It’s a promise!
I’m using a jar of Quoc Viet Pho Bo soup base which contains two aromatic spice bags and a cup full of soup base mix. This jar has been tucked in the back of my pantry for months. I bought it awhile back because it contained no MSG and it may one day come in handy. The instructions on the label claims to yield 20 bowls of pho from 2 gallons of water in roughly 2 hours, give or take. All one has to do was: parboil some beef bones and beef cuts of choice, drain it, replace with fresh water, boil bones and meats for one hour with ginger and onion, add spice bags, and soup base. Simmer on medium heat for another hour or so and serve when meat is tender. Hmm, I’m skeptical! However, I reckoned when my desperation for a bowl of pho kicks in and with little time to spare, I will get off my made-from-scratch high horse once an awhile. Well, guess what? Today is the day! I almost never use pre-made seasoning packages but thought “How bad can this be?”. Therefore, with much hesitation, I ran with it, hoping for the best. Nothing worst than having a truckload of quality ingredients ending up in the dumpster due to subpar, untested recipe.
It took 3 1/2 – 4 hours from prep time to my first bite with the latter 2 hours being passive cooking while broth simmers on low. Steps I incorporated from my original recipe included: charring onion bulbs, ginger knob, and star anises. After parboiling beef bones and other beef meats, I added the 2 gallons of water, allowed to simmer on med for 1 1/2 hours, then add spice bags, soup base, charred anises, ginger, and onions. Heat reduced to low/medium and simmered for another 1 1/2 to 2 hours. I added 5-6 turns of ground black pepper from a pepper mill. Meanwhile, I prepared my condiments, herbs, and had uncooked fresh noodles divided into serving bowls, ready to boil at the final hour.
My conclusion after the first bite is this. The pho flavor with beefy goodness is there. It’s a tasty bowl of noodles with a fairly rich, fatty broth that’s relatively simple to make if this is your first go at it or you need it pronto (not within an hour pronto, I’m afraid). I did not add any additional seasoning other than those mentioned above and the soup base. Therefore, if you make pho as I just did, you will be rewarded with a consistently good, hearty bowl of pho every time because the “little of this, little of that” method was tossed to the wind. It’s all in the bag (or jar, in this case).
Enjoying a homemade bowl of pho in 4 hours or less is unheard of in my house but it was definitely doable. I will say it will never be as good as Hoa’s time-consuming, labor of love recipe. For those pho aficionados, you may even agree it will never be like your grandma’s or mom’s. Nonetheless, given the reduced time and no brainer seasoning, I would recommend adding this product to your pantry for those ad hoc pho cravings.
Here’s how I made it. Enjoy!
Yields 10-12 large size bowls
Ingredients for Pho Bo Broth:
5 lbs. beef knuckle bones
3 lbs. beef shank
2 lbs. beef tendons
2 lbs beef oxtail (optional)
1 lb. beef tenderloin, eye of round, or sirloin, sliced paper thin across the grain (can purchase precut beef slices at local Asian grocery market, or make special request with your butcher, or place beef in freezer for 15-20 min before slicing to help achieve thin slices)
15-18 star anises (whole)
2 medium sweet yellow onions, peeled, cut in halves
1 ginger, roughly 4″, peeled, cut into 4 equal, long pieces
1 jar Quoc Viet seasoning mix for Pho Bo (found at local Asian grocery store and Amazon)
Instructions for Preparing Broth:
1. Roast ginger, onions, and star anises: Preheat oven to 375 degree. Put ginger pieces, onions cut side down, and star anises in a small roasting pan. Place into oven for 15 minutes, with the exception of star anises. They only take 5-7 minutes to roast and will burn quickly if left too long. Once roasted, remove from oven and discard any blackened areas on surface. Place roasted ginger, star anise in a large stainless steel mesh ball tea/herb infuser spacious enough to fit ginger, star anises, and onions. Close lid tightly. Set aside for later use. (If onions is too big for herb infuser, just drop them right into stock pot later when prompted. To avoid onion layers shredding into broth, stick 2 toothpicks into each onion halves before placing them into stock pot.)
Cook’s Note: Ginger, onions, and star anises can also be charred over an open fire on the grill or on gas stove: 15 minutes for ginger and onions, 5 minutes for star anise. Rotate ginger and onions every 5 minutes for even charring.
2. In a large stock pot (at least 14 or 16 quartz), place beef bones, beef shank, and tendons into pot. Fill with enough tap water to cover meat. Bring to boil over high heat. Let boil for 10-15 minutes to release all impurities. Carefully dump bones, shanks, tendons and boiled water into sink. Rinse all beef products under warm running water and briefly wash the stock pot to remove remaining impurities.
3. Return bones, shanks, and tendons to stock pot. Place pot on cooktop. Pour 2 gallons of tap water into pot. Drop in tea/herb infuser with ginger, star anise, and onions. On high heat, allow water to come to boil. Then, reduce heat to medium. Skim off any impurities and excess fat from surface. Simmer for 1 1/2 hours.
4. Open jar of Quoc Viet Pho Bo seasoning mix. Remove 2 spice bags from jar and directly add bags to stock pot. Scoop remaining seasoning mix from jar into stock pot. Slowly stir seasoning mix into broth. To avoid cloudy broth, don’t over stir. (It’s frowned upon to serve cloudy, muddy pho broth to your guests.).
5. Let simmer for another 1 1/2 to 2 hours on low/medium heat.
6. After beef tendons, shanks, and oxtails have been simmering in stock pot for a total of 2 to 2 1/2 hours, check for tenderness. Ideally it should be slightly al dente, not tough, or mushy either. If ideal tenderness is reached, remove and submerge meats into a bowl of cold water for about 10-12 minutes and drained. This prevents meat from darkening and stays moist. Then, slice tendons and shanks thinly. Leave oxtail pieces whole. Place into a covered container and set aside.
Ingredients for Noodle Bowls:
1-2 packages of Pho noodles, each 16 oz (preferably fresh rice noodles; if using dried noodles, allow noodles to be submerged in hot tap water for 20 minutes to soften before boiling them)
1 lb. beef tenderloin, eye of round, or sirloin, sliced paper thin across the grain (can purchase precut beef slices at local Asian grocery market, or make special request with your butcher, or place beef in freezer for 15-20 min before slicing to help achieve thin slices).
1 bunch of green onion (10 stalks), chopped
1/2 cup cilantro, finely chopped
freshly grounded black pepper
Instructions for Boiling Noodle and Bowl Assembly Come Serving Time:
Important Tip: Be organized at assembly time. When you’re ready to serve, broth should be bubbling and waiting in the wings, while you blanch your noodles for each bowl.
1. Place a handful of uncooked noodles into each serving bowl.
2. In a 4 quart sauce pan, add water 3/4 filled up the pot and bring to boil.
3. When water boils, place a deep mesh strainer into the pot. Drop the handful of noodle from one of the serving bowl into the strainer. Count to 10 seconds, not longer to prevent mushy noodle. If using dried package noodles, then count to 25-30 seconds, and lift strainer up directly above sauce pan and strain noodle until all visible water droplets returns to sauce pan. Return the cooked noodle to its original serving bowl. Repeat this step for remaining bowls you intend to serve.
4. Place a few pieces of the beef tendons, shanks, oxtails (if using), and raw, paper thin beef slices on top of each noodle bowl.
5. Sprinkle chopped green onions and cilantro over each bowl.
6. Using a ladle, generously ladle bubbling broth over the noodle bowl until all pieces of meat are completely covered, especially over the raw beef slices to ensure beef are cooked through.
7. Serve immediately and enjoy.
Condiments at My Table (totally optional):
1 lb. fresh beansprouts, washed and drained
10-15 sprigs culantro
10-15 sprigs fresh basil
lime wedges (1-2 per person)
Hoisin sauce (in squeeze bottle)
Fish sauce (in squeeze bottle)
Sambal red chili sauce (in squeeze bottle)
Srichacha chili paste (in squeeze bottle)
Fresh green/red chili peppers cut into thin rings
At my table, I always have a plate of the above fresh herbs and sauces in squeeze bottles ready to go. Each person can help himself/herself to the condiments of choice and how much s/he would like on top of his/her noodle bowl. I especially like a handful of beansprouts, roughly torn basil and culantro leaves, a squeeze of lime, a tiny dollop of hoisin sauce, and plenty of fresh chili slices. Sit up, slurp, and enjoy!