Monday, November 26, 2007

Perfect PHO

Pho is one of those things you never get over. It is just one of the perfect foods of the world. So, when you are trying your hardest not to eat industrially-raised beef,you find yourself in a conundrum. Most of the Vietnamese joints I know, with their $4 vats of steaming, spicy, perfect pho, are not buying humanely-raised grass-fed beef from some Amish farm upstate. It's sort of a problem I've been grappling with. What am I supposed to do, just not eat pho? Ever?

I've made my own pho, and my husband is always buying lemongrass and begging me to make any kind of Asian soup. So coming out of my recent fugue state -- sick with a cold, and awake-dreaming about the many possibilities -- I broke down and made Vietnamese beef noodle soup.

It's actually the perfect Mothership Meal. My non-soup-loving kids slurped down noodles, squeezed limes into their broth and ate thinly sliced steak. ("I'm not really sure if I like it, but I'm going to keep eating it," my son said of his aromatic lime-y broth, perhaps the first soup that is not miso that he has ever eaten. By the end of his second bowl of soup: "I do actually really like it.") My husband and I put too much spicy nuoc cham and both of us, at separate times, had to stagger away from the table with watering eyes and burning mouths. Oops, that wasn't intentional -- but the nuoc cham -- minced chilies in fish sauce and lime juice -- was fresh and unpredictable. It keeps for months in the fridge and mellows over time (without the lime juice, that is).

If you make the beef broth yourself -- sort of essential, since most commercial organic beef broths are just "beef-flavored" and actually not even really beef-flavored at all -- this is a two-step meal. Make the broth and the condiment one day. The night you plan to eat, you just have to heat it up, cook the steak, and boil the noodles.

PS We used potato starch noodles (also known as Korean glass noodles), because we were out of rice noodles, and they were phenomonal.

2 lbs beef shanks, preferably farm-raised, grass-fed, yada yada
1 2-inch knob ginger
1 onion
2 pieces star anise
1 cinnamon stick
Fish sauce, as needed.

Put the shanks in a pot with a lot of water. Don't let it boil -- just simmer as gently as possible. Skim, skim, and skim all that nasty foam away, until you have a clear, shimmering gorgeous broth. Meanwhile, roast the ginger and the onion in a 400-degree oven for 30 minutes, and add to the stock. After about 2 hours, add the star anise and the cinnamon stick. Simmer for another 2 hours. Towards the end, add a few dashes of fish sauce, to taste.
Cool, strain and refrigerate until you plan to use it. (You can slice the beef off the shanks and use for sandwiches, or save for the pho.)

1/2 cup fish sauce
4-6 small hot chilies, minced

Combine, and place in sealed jar in refrigerator. Will keep indefinitely, and mellow as it ages. Mix with equal parts lime juice when you're ready to serve.


If you want to make this really quick, you can use sliced roast beef from the deli.

6 cups homemade beef broth (you can supplement with a carton of beef stock if necessary)
1 package rice noodles
1 bunch basil
1 bunch mint
fennel, sliced thinly
1 lb hangar steak or London broil or some other marinade-worthy cut

Marinade: 1/4 cup fish sauce, dash of soy sauce, minced garlic and ginger, 1 teaspoon sugar
lime wedges

1. Begin heating water for noodles.

2. Put beef broth in large pot and bring to simmer. Add fennel. Season with fish sauce, as needed.

3. Cook noodles.

4. Grill, broil or fry the steak until medium-rare. Slice as thinly as possible.

5. Serve with lime wedges and bowls of assorted cool crip vegetables. Everyone gets a bowl with broth. Diners can add noodles, herbs, steak, and nuoc cham, as desired.

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