Seriously. I thought that we had a really good thing going here. I felt like we had a strong relationship built on trust. I mean, I’ve always been up front with you about everything.
I’ll prove it, here: I sucked my thumb until I was eight years old, at which point my dentist made me a night retainer with a grille coming down in the middle of it to prevent thumb insertion. The retainer was gold and sparkly and had a picture of a unicorn on it.
There you go. I HAVE NO SECRETS LEFT. I lie naked before you, stripped of all artifice.
But you? You’ve known me all this time, and YOU NEVER TOLD ME ABOUT PHO. And now I’m left wondering: what else have you not told me about? You write erotic Top Chef fanfic under a pseudonym? You never liked my mother? I’ve had spinach in my teeth all this time?
I put fish in a food processor for you, and this is how you repay me? I made you creamy aspic. I MADE YOU A PAULA DEEN CASSEROLE, for god’s sake.
I’m sorry I’m so yelly tonight. BUT BABY JESUS IN THE MANGER WITH THE WISE MEN, YOU COULD HAVE TOLD ME ABOUT THE GODDAMNED PHO. Thirty-four years I’ve wasted here.
Okay, I’ve taken several deep breaths and consumed an equal number of Moscow Mules, so I’m feeling calmer and ready to forgive and move on.
So I made pho today! Beef pho.
Here are several things you will not find in this post, because they are either completely untrue or inappropriate:
- A reminiscence about how I first fell in love with pho when I was a poor student sharing a 2-bedroom railroad apartment with five other girls and I had to scrape up loose change from the sofa to pay for a few moments alone with a soul-warming bowl of pho at that hole-in-the-wall joint around the corner to keep me sane through my last two years of college.
- A heartfelt collection of memories about how I remember visiting my grandma’s house as a child, and how the smell of pho broth simmering still transports me to Sunday afternoons sitting, the backs of my legs stuck to her plastic-covered sofa, reading Highlights while she and my mother spent the afternoon pickling carrots.
- Bad puns substituting the word “pho” for “fuck.”
- The story of the year I spent teaching ESL in Vietnam, where my culinary world was completely rocked by the stall on Ly Tu Trong in East Hanoi where I first slurped down a bowl of pho with two of my students. I’m not sure who learned more that year: them, or me. When I finally got back to the states, I spent two years and made countless pots of broth trying to duplicate what Mr. Dang created so effortlessly.
Instead, I read about pho in some cookbooks and online. I watched an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives about a Vietnamese-American diner. Then I formulated a scaled-down recipe (in case what I made sucked) and threw myself into the pho-making process.
I boiled my oxtails to draw out all the funk. I charred my onions and ginger and toasted my whole spices. I threw everything into a big honking stock pot with fresh water and left it to simmer for hours. I chopped all the garnishes and sliced some raw beef.
Because I would not lie to you, I’ll come clean about the following:
- While the broth was simmering, there was a good chunk of time where I thought it smelled seriously stank and was really unsure about this whole pho thing.
- I know that this is lacking some hallmarks of a truly authentic pho; namely, I just used oxtail and not any beef bones.
- Honestly, having never before had pho, I have no way of knowing if what I ended up with was a wonderful pho or a shitty travesty of a pho.
- I used fresh udon noodles instead of rice noodles.
All that being said: holy shit, this bowl of food was the best thing I’ve eaten in a really long time. I dare say that this was the BEST THING I HAVE EVER MADE, and I say that as someone who once smeared a perfectly charred medium-rare prime ribeye with gorgonzola butter.
While eating, I had to close my eyes and lean back in my chair to block out my other senses and concentrate fully on the layers of flavor unfolding. Rich, complex, salty, pungent, sweet, fresh, spicy. The tenderness of the barely-cooked beef playing with the chewy noodles and crunch of mung bean sprouts and fresh herbs and chiles.
It may well be that what I ended up making was godawful relative to other variations of pho in the world. And I don’t care. I’m in love.
Small-Batch Questionable Beef Pho Broth
adapted from Hot Sour Salty Sweet
makes 3 cups of finished broth
2.5 lbs. oxtail
1 large white onion
3-inch knob of fresh ginger
5-inch hunk of fresh daikon
4-inch whole cinnamon stick
4 star anise pods
2 tsp. whole black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
4 whole cloves
6 whole green cardamom pods
3 tbsp. fish sauce
2 tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
3 qts. + 3.5 qts. of cold water
Put the oxtail in a large stock pot with 3 quarts of cold water. Put the pot over high heat and bring it to a boil. Boil the oxtail for 5 minutes; this will draw out a bunch of gray scum that you can discard. Remove the oxtail, discard the water and clean out the pot. Put the oxtail back into the clean pot.
Peel the onion and hack it in half. Char it on all sides until it’s good and dark; you can either do this over the flame of a gas stove (what I did) or under the broiler in the oven. Do the same thing with the ginger. Put the onion and ginger in the pot with the oxtail.
Put the cinnamon, anise, peppercorns, cloves, bay and cardamom in a small pan over medium heat. Toast them for a few minutes – when you start to smell them, they’re done. Dump them into the pot.
Put the remaining ingredients – daikon, fish sauce, sugar, salt and 3 1/2 quarts of water – in the pot. Bring to a boil and reduce to a vigorous simmer. Simmer for 3 hours, skimming off any other foam or scum that rises to the top. Near the end of the cook time, taste and adjust the seasoning – you may need a touch more salt, sugar or fish sauce.
To get a nice, clear finished product, remove the oxtail, onion, ginger and daikon from the pot. Pour the broth through a colander lined with several layers of cheesecloth to get out the spices and random little bits of stuff.
If you’d like, you can skim off the fat or put the broth in the fridge overnight and remove the fat the next day. I didn’t end up with much fat, so I left it in for flavor and mouthfeel.
Cooked rice noodles
1/4 lb. thinly sliced raw beef per person (I used filet mignon; you can also use flank, eye round or sirloin)
Cooked oxtail meat
Thinly sliced fresh chile
Mung bean sprouts
Sriracha or Thai chile-garlic paste
In a good-size bowl, heap a pile of noodles and shingle on the slices of raw beef; add some cooked oxtail if you’d like.
Arrange the lime, chile, herbs and sprouts on a plate and set out the sriracha, chile paste and hoisin.
Pour the hot broth over the noodles and meat, and add whatever garnishes you’d like (I recommend everything).