Pho is a lush Vietnamese noodle soup, most traditionally beef-based, and flavored with aromatics.
And it's, well, awesome.
I can hear your suppositive sighs, already; pho, by definition, is a time consuming and laborious process. When I took to Google on the hunt for a shortcut recipe, I found a "Faux Pho" recommending canned beef broth and ramen noodles courtesy of Bon Appetit that goes from zero to dissatisfying in 30 minutes flat, at which point I snapped my laptop closed and went rogue, here. In my quest for more instant gratification, I've developed a pho technique that's easier to prepare, and cuts calories and quite a bit of fat, without sacrificing absolute deliciousness and authenticity. This, loves, is what I've come up with: not "faux pho", but a damn good pho (prepared with a few cheater techniques).
Step 1: What You'll Need:
Assemble your ingredients. For your broth you'll need:
5 quarts of Water
3 tsp Chicken Base*
6 tsp Beef Base**
1 Onion, charred
1 hefty 5-6" Ginger root, charred
1 Cinnamon Stick
1/2 tsp Anise Seed or 3-4 Anise Pods
1 tsp Black Peppercorns
2 Garlic Cloves, peeled and whole
1 heaping tbs minced Lemongrass (or 2 tbs dried)
4 tbs Fish Sauce
the juice of 1 lime
*This recipe is for a beef pho, but a Vietnamese cook told me her secret of dropping in a whole chicken along with her beef bones while she makes her pho broth, making for an even richer, more multi-layered end product. Since then, I've never gone without. The chicken base makes a good substitute in this application.
**Traditionally, pho is prepared with around 10 lbs of beef bones (knuckles, oxtail, marrow bones), but schlepping 10 lbs of bones back to your apartment, then simmering them for a day can really kill the pho-making mood. Instead, use any chicken and beef base you like--I generally have Organic Better than Bouillon on hand--or substitute very good stock if you've got it hanging out in the freezer, so long as it isn't made in a traditional French style, laden with mirepoix, bay leaves, parsley, thyme, and more western aromatics that muddle the broth.
On another, hardly-related note, if taking home a couple of pounds of bones with your typical groceries doesn't bother you none, and you can source them, try home roasting marrow bones for a tasty treat: ask your butcher to kindly slice them lengthwise (don't fret, trust me, they have far more impressive power tools than most of you back there) for easy access. Lay them out on a baking sheet, sprinkle with coarse salt, and roast them at 400-450F for 20 minutes. Spread on crusty baguette and sprinkle with a bit of minced parsley. That's a recipe inside a recipe!
Back on track. For your meatballs (bo vien) you'll need:
1 lb Lean Ground Turkey*
2 tbs Fish Sauce
2 tbs Soy Sauce
1 tbs Ginger
1 tsp Corn Starch or Potato Starch
*If you insist on beef, you can substitute ground turkey for ground beef. Alternatively, process semi-frozen beef shank until very smooth.
For your noodle and condiment assemblage you'll need:
2 packages Rice Noodles (around 2oz of noodles a bowl)
3 or so cups of Mung Bean Sprouts (around 1/2c a bowl)
1 Lime, sliced into wedges
Sweet Chili Sauce*
Thai Chilies, sliced into thin rounds
(optional) 1/2 lb Beef Sirloin, partly frozen, sliced paper thin against the grain**
*Sweet Chili sauce isn't a very traditional pho condiment, but I generally leave out hoisen (it covers up the delicious pho broth you've slaved over, save it for more sub-par bowls) and prefer the subtler sweet-hot of a smidge of sweet chili. Add whichever sauces you will.
**I skipped the beef in my preparation because 1. I am a little lazy, and 2. skipping the beef skips a bit of calories and fat. If you'd like it, Slice with a very, very sharp knife, very thin, and pour your hot broth over the raw beef, which will cook it in the bowl. If you're not so confident in your knife skills, ask your butcher to slice it for you. Pho is street food, eaten by everyone, but make it luxe with a good cut of kobe or wagyu beef, just for kicks--just be careful not to overcook it too much in the bowl, or you'll destroy it's ultimate buttery-tenderness.
Step 2: Get It Started.
1. Add your water to a large stockpot and put on the heat.
2. Add your chicken and beef base and dissolve.
3. Juice your lime, and add to your stockpot. Add in fish sauce and give a good stir.
4. Begin to char your onion and ginger*. There are a number of ways to do this, depending on the hardware you have on hand. If you have a gas burner, lay your onion and ginger, whole, on the burner, turning often with tongs, until fully blackened and a little bit softened. Alternatively, use your grill, a hot broiler, or a torch. Pull away any ashen, flyaway bits, split the onion into quarters, peel the ginger a bit and split into more manageable pieces, and add to your stockpot.
5. Add in your aromatics. This broth will be strained, so don't bother tying them in a sachet. They circulate better if added directly to the water, too.
6. Reduce the heat if your broth is boiling too violently. Boil at low-simmer for 2-6 hours, uncovered, depending on your level of patience and your commitment to deliciousness. It's good after two, it's brilliant after six. Taste for salt. If your broth tastes too salty or too spicy, add more water, or remove the whole cinnamon stick after its boiled a few hours. If it's too weak, reduce it.
*Don't skip this step. Don't skip this step, please. We've already nixed the boiling bones bit, and this is one step that can't be skipped. The char is what gives pho broth it's tell-tale golden hue, and it's depth of flavor. It only takes some minutes, and involves an open flame, which is fun, anyway; you know you want to...
Step 3: Meat-ballin'.
1. While you're patiently waiting for your broth to come together, assemble your meatballs. Blend your turkey*, fish sauce, soy sauce, and starch very well for several minutes to encourage a texture that's on it's way to springy, and won't fall apart in your soup. I like to fold it hard with a silicone spatula.
2. Portion into 1" balls, and lay out on a baking sheet. Place in the refrigerator or freezer until firmed and ready to use.
*For the most authentic bo vien, use 1 lb of beef shank, chopped into pieces and frozen, pulsed in a food processor until pasty. Add the rest of the ingredients to the processor, and pulse until very well incorporated. When these meatballs are steamed or boiled in your broth, they have the chewy, "crunchy" texture one usually associates with bo vien. I prefer mine slightly more tender, and I always have ground turkey on hand. If you want a more savory, beefy flavor to your meatballs, try shaking in a bit of worcheshire sauce, or mince mushrooms of your choice, and cook down until all of the water has been cooked out, and the mushrooms form a thick paste, or duxelles (what you spread on your loin when making Beef Wellington), for an added savory, umami punch that won't break up your meatballs. Considering you'll boil these off in your broth, they're plenty beefy, but feel free to experiment. You can also buy these in a bag.
Step 4: Nearly There...
1. In a large bowl, cover your rice noodles with hot water, and leave to soak as per package instructions, generally around 10 minutes.
2. Once your broth is perfected, strain the broth through a fine sieve. Return it to your stockpot, and heat over med, med-low heat until it's circulating again.
3. Retrieve your meatballs, and knock them into your broth. Stirring as necessary. After a few minutes, they'll float to the top. Simmer the meatballs 7-8 minutes, or until fully cooked through.
Step 5: How to Serve:
1. Lay a portion of rice noodles at the bottom of a bowl.
2. If you're serving your pho with sliced beef, lay that on top of the noodles. Ladle broth over the noodles, and add on a few meatballs, halved.
3. Gently mound around 1/2 c bean sprouts on top.
4. Serve the bowls with a spread of condiments you can add to taste: the cilantro, thai basil, chilis, sriracha, hoisen, chili sauce, fish sauce and lime wedges.
5. Enjoy the Phá» Bò Viên (and the fawning flattery). No need to admit you cheated, and you can eat this all week with no guilt. If you'd prefer, skip the rice noodles, and add in extra bean sprouts for a smaller carb count.