Introduction: Faux Pho
Traditional Vietnamese Pho Bo (beef pho) is a labor of love, and takes time to make a clear, hearty and flavorful broth. Making a vegan version is no different. This dish can be very inexpensive to make and the process is simple, but be prepared to spend some time in the kitchen. Good utensils to have on hand for this recipe are:
-large stock pot
-a cooling rack (you may not need this depending on your stove)
-frying pans and sauce pans
Step 1: The Broth
The broth for the Pho broth is pretty simple and straightforward, like making any vegetable stock. There are a few minor alterations however that set this stock apart. The biggest factor to keep in mind is that you don't want to boil this broth- like the traditional beef and bone Pho, cooking at a full boil will cause the broth to be both bitter and cloudy. Bringing it to a boil at first is okay, but then you want to reduce the heat to around 185 degrees fahrenheit for the remainder of the cooking process. Since you will be making a vegan fish sauce as well, there is also no need to add salt to the broth.
Step 2: Stock Ingredients
The vegetable stock can be made with any vegetable waste you have on hand, and it's never a bad idea to save vegetable scraps in a container or bag in a freezer--when it's full, make soup! Unlike vegetable stock you may be used to making, you do not want to add any traditional aromatic herbs (thyme, rosemary, oregano).
The list of ingredients may seem odd but it yields a very clear broth and very hearty flavor profile. You can add vegetables that aren't on the list if you have them around, but you do need to include what's listed below at the minimum.
-Green onion ends (you will be using the green parts later on, but not the white, so toss the white in to the stock)
-3-4 good sized chopped carrots
-A whole russet potato, or a handful of small potatoes
-A celery bunch, leaves on or off. I had a celery heart, so I used that.
-Fresh mushrooms (cremini or button, normally a package will be plenty)
-A couple of whole shiitake mushrooms
-A tomato, quartered
-1 or 2 heads of garlic, halved
-stems from one bunch of cilantro
-a sweet onion, halved*
-a good size knob of ginger*
-1 teaspoon of whole cloves*
-1 or 2 cinnamon sticks*
-1 heaping teaspoon cardamom pods (usually around a dozen pods)*
-1 heaping teaspoon coriander seeds*
-1 heaping teaspoon black peppercorns*
-4-6 star anise heads*
Step 3: CHAR Your Onions and Ginger
This step is not negotiable if you want to make the absolute best, most authentic tasting pho. It adds a depth to the flavor that you can't replicate any other way, and it helps give your broth that nice, dark color. Charring the onions also removes a good bit of the bitterness, and charring the ginger greatly reduces its bite. Put the onions and ginger directly on the burner grates (ONLY if you have a gas range!) and turn the burner on as high as it will go. Our stove has rather large grates and the onions and ginger kept falling through so I took a cooling rack and set it on the grates to provide a more stable cooking surface. When I say char, I mean blacken all of the edges as best you can. Use tongs to turn the pieces over from time to time, and if you have a vent fan or window nearby, turn it on and open it up, this can create a little smoke.
If you don't have a gas range to char your onions there are still a few options. If the weather is nice, fire up the grill. The broth will taste even better than if charred on a stove. If you have a culinary torch (or even a propane torch for plumbing work- it works great) you can light it and really singe those onions, but expect to wait awhile. Using a hand torch can take a few minutes to really char the onions well. The last resort is using your oven broiler. If you do this, crank it up to high and let your oven preheat for a while. Add a second onion, as they will caramelize more before they burn.
Whatever method you have to work with, do not skip this step! it really is crucial for making great pho (vegan or not).
Tip: Use a spoon to peel your ginger. I find it does a much better job of getting in and around all the little knobs, and is a lot less cumbersome than a peeler.
Step 4: Making the Stock
While waiting for the onions and ginger to char, go ahead and chop up your vegetables. Chop the carrots pretty large, into rounds about an inch long. Do the same for the celery, and slice the leek into thin coins. Quarter the mushrooms, and add the rest of the vegetables, except for the spices. Add your charred onions and ginger, and 4 quarts of water.
Bring the contents of the pot to a boil, then immediately turn the heat down to low and simmer at around 185 degrees fahrenheit for an hour before roasting and adding your spices.
Step 5: Toast the Spices
Another crucial step in really bringing out the best flavor in your broth is to toast your spices until very fragrant. Do this in a dry pan over the highest heat setting. Keep the pan moving- once heated up, even pausing for a second or two can burn your spices, making the flavor acrid instead of nice and toasted. Toasting the spices activates the oils and compounds, really highlighting the flavors. I normally toast the cinnamon separately because it is bulkier in the pan than the smaller spices.
As soon as you first begin to smell the spices from where you are standing, toast them for about 30 seconds longer, remove from the heat and pour the spices directly into the cooking stock. Continue simmering the broth for another 2 hours.
Step 6: Vegan Fish Sauce
Pho gets its salinity from the addition of fish sauce, a very pungent, funky and extremely salty condiment common in Asian cuisine. Making a vegan-ized version is easy to do while the broth is simmering away and only requires a few simple ingredients:
-5 cups of water
-1 tablespoon of miso paste
-3/4 cup of soy sauce
-1 1/2 cups dried seaweed. I had wakame and seaweed knots so I used those. Any dried seaweed is good, as long as it isn't nori (the roasted sheets used for wrapping sushi)
-2 tbsp peppercorns
-8 dried shiitake
Combine the water, seaweed, mushrooms, and peppercorns, bring to a boil and cook on medium for at least 30 minutes.
Step 7: Strain and Reduce the Fish Sauce
Strain your seaweed into a glass container or into another pot. You should have around 2 cups of liquid after boiling for 30 minutes. Add the miso and soy sauce and whisk until the miso is totally dissolved. Transfer the sauce to a wide saucepan or frying pan, and boil until reduced by about half. It should be almost unbearably salty. Remove from heat, cool, and pour into a bottle or container.
Step 8: Strain and Adjust Broth
After a few hours the broth should be ready to go. Strain the broth in a colander lined with cheesecloth, a fine mesh strainer, or a chinois into a new pot or container and transfer back to the pot once it has been rinsed out.
Add a tablespoon of raw sugar to the strained broth, a tablespoon of salt, 1/4 cup of the "fish" sauce, and taste the broth. Continue adding the fish sauce and salt until the desired salinity-sweetness ratio is achieved.
If you can find it (check your local Italian market if you have one), dried porcini mushroom powder adds a beef-like flavor to the broth that will have people swearing the broth has real meat in it. It has been my secret ingredient for years, so don't tell anybody. If you cannot find it locally, there are plenty of online sources. You only need about a tablespoon, and it imparts an unbelievable flavor in every vegan dish you can think of from seitan to chili and tacos.
Step 9: Deck the Bowls
After the broth has finished and your fish sauce is complete, bring a pot of water to a boil and add a package of rice noodles. They cook very quickly, but after being cooked can be held in cold water for a while with little change to their texture. Alternatively you can also portion the noodles directly into bowls. Ladle broth over the noodles and add a small handful of bean sprouts just before serving and set out a plate(s) of toppings. Traditional toppings include cilantro leaves, Thai basil, mint, sliced onion, sliced green onion, lime wedges, tomato wedges, hot chili pepper slices, "fish" sauce, crushed roasted peanuts, and chili sauces.
If you're making pho individually for people, you can arrange small amounts of the toppings on a dish and serve it alongside bowls of broth and noodles. If you're serving for a group or having people over, set out a large platter or board of all the toppings, dishes of sauces, bottles of the condiments and let guests serve themselves noodles and broth as they please.
Step 10: Enjoy!
That's all there is to it. A bit of prep and knife work, some patience with slowly simmering a broth and you will have a mighty convincing Pho Bo that will feed 6-8 hungry people with broth left over!