Life in a Northern Town

Pho- Seriously Good Soup

Pho, a little word for a big, flavor bomb of a soup filled with noodles, beef, dried spices, fresh herbs and a healthy dose of hoisin and Sriracha sauce. I've never actually eaten Pho in a Vietnamese restaurant but I've heard epic tales from Ted, a self-professed Pho aficionado. He and his friend, Rick, used to travel the length and breadth of the Twin Cities, in search of the best bowl of Pho they could get their hands on. I'm not sure what all the criteria (or their credentials) were but I do know a restaurant with bullet holes in the wall was awarded extra points. So, when I set out to make a batch, I knew I had an in-house expert to guide me to my own personal best bowl of Pho.

The broth takes a little while to come together (don't skip the par-boil for the bones, it'll make for a much clearer broth) but after I micro-managed the broth and skimmed away most of the impurities (about 30 minutes of standing at the stove and skimming), it was a breeze. Since I stock up at the Asian grocery store when I'm back in Minneapolis, I had a bag of fresh noodles in the refrigerator but dried noodles will work just as well. After a couple attempts at Pho greatness, Ted gave me the thumbs up and said I 'nailed it'. Pretty high praise from a guy who devoted a couple of years on University Avenue and Cedar Riverside looking for the perfect bowl of soup.

Vietnamese Pho Noodle Soup

The Broth
2 onions, halved
4" nub of ginger, halved lengthwise
5-6 lbs of good beef bones, preferably leg and knuckle
6 quarts of water
1 cinnamon stick
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tbsp fennel seeds
4 whole star anise
1 cardamom pod
6 whole cloves
1 1/2 tbsp kosher salt
1/4 cup fish sauce
1 inch chunk of yellow rock sugar (10 ounces regular sugar)

The Good Stuff for the Bowls
2 lbs rice noodles (I used fresh)
1/2 lb flank steak, sliced as thin as possible
1/2 cup mint, chopped
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
1/2 cup basil, chopped
1/2 cup green onions, thinly sliced
2 limes, cut into wedges
2-3 chili peppers, sliced
2 cups bean sprouts Hoisin sauce ( I like Lee Kum Kee)
Sriracha hot sauce

Broth Preparation
Turn your broiler on high and move rack to the highest spot. Place ginger and onions on baking sheet. Brush just a bit of cooking oil on the cut side of each. Broil on high until ginger and onions begin to char. Turn over and continue to char. This should take a total of 10-15 minutes.

While the ginger and onion are in the oven, fill large pot (12-qt capacity) with cool water. Boil water, and then add the bones, keeping the heat on high. Boil vigorously for 10 minutes. Drain, rinse the bones and rinse out the pot. Refill pot with bones and 6 qts of cool water. Bring to boil over high heat and lower to simmer. Using a ladle or a fine mesh strainer, remove any scum that rises to the top. ***This is an important step, don't skip it.

Add the cinnamon stick, coriander, fennel, star anise, cardamom pod and cloves to a mesh bag and tie close (I bought a reusable tea bag at the Co-op) charred ginger and onion, sugar, fish sauce, salt and simmer uncovered for 3 - 4 hours. Strain broth and return the broth to the pot. Taste broth and adjust seasoning - this is a crucial step. If the broth's flavor doesn't quite shine yet, add 2 teaspoons more of fish sauce, large pinch of salt and a small nugget of rock sugar (or 1 teaspoon of regular sugar).  If the spices are too strong, add plain beef broth ( homemade or canned) to dilute the soup. Keep doing this until the broth tastes perfect.

Noodle and Meat Preparation
Slice your flank steak as thin as possible - try freezing for 15 minutes prior to slicing to make it easier. Arrange all other ingredients on a platter for the table. Your guests will "assemble" their own bowls. Follow the directions on your package of noodles— each brand is different. After the noodles are cooked, rinse thoroughly in cold water (this will keep them from sticking).

Adding the Good Stuff to the Bowls
Bring your broth back to a boil. Fill each bowl with rice noodles and raw meat slices. As soon as the broth comes back to a boil, ladle into each bowl. the hot broth will cook your raw beef slices. Serve immediately. Guests can garnish their own bowls as they wish.