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Soup Series -- Vietnamese Pho Recipe

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Spring is definitely in the air: crocuses have bloomed and the daffodils are showing their sunny, yellow faces. And while the sun is shining and the days are longer, there's still enough of a bite in the air to warrant a nice hot bowl of soup. Now I will say that, perched on a wooden stool in front of a street vendor's stall in Saigon, I've had a steaming bowl of this Pho when the ambient temperature was scorching. It was delicious then, the perspiration on my face working with the scant breeze to cool me off, but I find it even more delicious when I need to be warmed from within.

A couple of days ago we had enough humidity in Boulder to make the 30's-ish temperatures feel a lot lower. My shivering felt ridiculous -- it was, after all, above freezing. Still, the fact remained that I was chilled to the bone, and it only took me a couple of seconds to realize what would cure what ailed me: Pho! (A Vietnamese friend once explained that to pronounce this correctly you need to pretend you're going to say 'the word', but don't say the 'k').

The first step in making an authentic Pho is the broth. It is made with beef bones and wonderful aromatics such as ginger, cinnamon sticks, coriander seeds, cloves, peppercorns and the most important ingredient of all -- star anise. The trick is to bring the water to a boil with the bones in it, skim off the scum (sorry, there's just no other way to say this) and add in these wonderful spices for a few hours. After straining, and adding in a little fish sauce, you've got a rich and satisfying base for your soup.

To serve a bowl of this soup, I cook some rice noodles and place a portion, along with some thinly sliced beef tenderloin, into each bowl. Then I ladle a generous amount of the wonderfully aromatic broth on top and sprinkle each one with a few sliced scallions. A platter of basil leaves, cilantro, arugula, sliced jalapeno, lime wedges and bean sprouts is all you need to round out the dish: each diner can add as little or as much to taste.

Now I can hear you saying that it takes too long to make the broth, and you may be right. We tend to be a little more interested in instant gratification in our society. You may also be saying that you don't eat beef. Maybe you're even a vegetarian. Don't let any of that stop you. A quality container of store-bought broth can quickly take on depth when the aromatics are added to it. Do that first, and while the doctored-up store-bought broth is developing flavor you can prep your platter and boil the water for your noodles.

That's just what I did the other day, and it was really enjoyable, the ease with which it all came together being particularly gratifying. And the bonus? I warmed up! I was so warm I even took off my fleece half way through my meal. Gone were my ridiculous shivers. And, after all, that was the whole point.

Ingredients:

2 lbs Beef Shin Bones
¾ lb Gravy Beef (Boned Shin)
¼ lb Rump Steak, Thinly Sliced
1 each 2” Piece Ginger, Thinly Sliced
1 tsp Salt
2-1/2 Qts Water
6 each Black Peppercorns
2 each Whole Star Anise
1 each Cinnamon Stick
4 each Cloves
6 each Coriander Seeds
2 TBSP Fish Sauce
1 pkg Rice Noodles
3 each Scallions
1 each Medium Onion, Thinly Sliced

Toppings:

Chopped Red Chili, Bean Sprouts, Fresh Thai Basil Leaves, Chopped Scallion, Thin Lime Wedges, Fresh Cilantro Leaves.

Method:

1. Place the bones, gravy beef, ginger, salt and water in a large pan and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 3-1/2 hours, skimming off scum.
2. Add the peppercorns, cinnamon, cloves, coriander seeds, star anise and fish sauce and cook for another 40 minutes. Remove the gravy beef and set aside to cool. Drain the stock, discarding all the bones and spices.
3. Return the stock to the pan. Thinly slice gravy beef and set aside.
4. To serve, cook noodles in boiling water. Drain them, and divide them among the bowls.
5. Bring the stock to a rapid boil. Place some slices of cooked meat and some slices of raw meat into each bowl of noodles. Ladle the boiling stock over the noodles, sprinkle with scallions and onions and serve.
6. Each diner can add ingredients from the toppings platter to taste.

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