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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup

Fragrant and aromatic. Alluring and intoxicating. Pho bo, the iconic Vietnamese beef noodle soup, is a powerful force. A really good bowl of pho mystically captures the soul and sweeps it away. Anything less is like a bad date prolonged by cheap warm wine. With fresh garnishes, chiles, herbs, and condiments on hand to accent the soup, the mysterious essence of pho lies in the broth. It's all about the broth. Anchored by marrow-rich meaty bones cooked low and slow for several hours with charred onions, ginger, sensual tongue-numbing cloves, exotic licorice-like star anise, fennel, cardamon, and the warm subtle heat of cinnamon, pho is a lovely complex assault on the senses. It only takes one very brief slurp to understand pho. One sip. One slurp. Drinkable.

Here's the deal. With such a rich heritage, there are many deep-rooted variations of Vietnamese beef noodle soup. I'm no pho expert. I'm just a Kentucky boy who loves to stick his face in a steaming bowl of pho. While fabulous restaurant versions are great for instant gratification, I wanted  to experience the essence of pho with an adventurous culinary jaunt.

Pho Broth.
There's a fine line between broth and stock. In a way, they're interchangeable. The bone to meat ratio is key. Whereas stocks use mostly bones, broths use a combination of meat and bones. Pho broth, with a few fun tweaks and interesting change-ups, is actually very similar to classic French beef stock. With the exception of some minor prep, it might even be simpler. Who knew? It's definitely more fun.

Typically, basic beef stock is made from roasting beef bones and mirepoix (separately)  until they are caramelized. The combination is then tumbled into a stock pot with herbs and spices, covered with water, brought to a boil, and left to simmer for a few hours with periodical scum skimming to achieve clarity. Blah. Blah. Blah.  Pho broth takes an alternative route.

I fell in love.


Blanching. The crud police.
To achieve purity and alleviate the need for excessive skimming, I tumbled 3 pounds of Quarle's Farm meaty beef shins into a large stock pot along with 2 pounds of Elmwood Stock Farm oxtails. After covering them with cool water, I cranked the heat to high and boiled the bones/meat for 10 minutes to release the crud. I drained the bones into a colander, rinsed the pot, and rinsed the bones before returning them to the pot.

Aromatics. Onions and ginger.
I sliced 2 Shelby County candy onions in half (skin on) and split a 5" hand of ginger before grilling the pieces over flaming hot coals until they were charred. Yep. Blistered caramelization. The quirky looking outer char insured succulent and aromatic sweet flesh.

I bundled 5 gorgeous star anise pods, 1 tablespoon fennel, 5 cloves, 1 large stick cinnamon, and 1 tablespoon whole coriander into frilly cheesecloth, tied it up in a knot, and set it aside.

After tossing the charred onions and ginger into the stock pot with the blanched meaty bones, I added the spice bundle along with a 2" chunk of white rock candy. After throwing an additional cinnamon stick into the pot for good measure, I filled  the pot with 3 quarts of cool water, brought it a boil, reduced it to a simmer, added 1/4 cup Three Crabs fish sauce, and let it rip for a ridiculous 9 hours. Some broths can go for as long as 24 hours. Nope.  9 hours allowed enough time for the aromatics, spices, collagen, marrow,
and beef to amply  flavor the broth.

Just before calling it a day, I drained the broth through a colander double-lined with cheesecloth, quickly chilled it down over an ice bath, discarded the bones, reserved the oxtail meat, and slid the broth into the refrigerator to chill overnight.

When thoroughly chilled, stock/broth should have a thin layer of fat covering jiggly deeply flavored beef gelatin. Beef jelly. After carefully cracking the layer of fat, I scraped it from the top (with a few bits reserved), plopped the coagulated broth into a sauce pan, and brought it to a smoldering simmer.

As the beef jelly slowly melted into the pan, I blanched fresh Banh Pho rice noodles in boiling water for 10 seconds, rinsed them under cold water, and briefly set them aside.

I feathered the rice noodles into large bowls, tucked warmed shards of oxtail meat into the noodles, draped thin slices of raw beef tenderloin over the top, scattered slivered candy onions to the side,  and carefully covered the noodles with the aromatic broth. I served the garnishes on the side to keep them fresh and vibrant for every sensual bite.

Transcendent steaming broth. Tender beef. Slippery noodles. Fiery Sriacha. Spicy sweet Hoisen. Perky mint. Thai Basil. Flowering chives. Crisp jalapenos. Crunchy sprouts.

Pho bo.
Toss the chopsticks
and slurp the magic.

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