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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

If Martha made Vietnamese-- Caucasian girl takes a stab at a basic phở

I haven't done a lot of Viet cooking lately.  Things just seem to be crazy busy around here lately.  But I have had time to keep this dish a regular in our house.  It is hands down the most frequently requested Viet dish in our house.  14 recipes into "If Martha Made Vietnamese," and I realized that I hadn't included phở yet.  
That's like Betty Crocker not having a recipe for chocolate cake.  
Or McDonald's not having hamburgers.  
Or Arizona not having an immigration issue. 

Phở, (rhymes with hu? That's as close as non-Vietnamese speakers are going to get to pronouncing it correctly so your just gonna have to go with me on this one!) is indisputably the most stereotypical Viet food.  It is served with rice noodles and most commonly with beef in a clear beef broth.  There are many versions including tripe, meatballs and chicken.  Try this one if you're partial to chicken.  It's also heavenly!

Lastly it's served with lots of garnishes for each to customize their own bowl.

Let me be certain to include a disclaimer.  This is my pasty-white girl's attempt to create phở.  And in case you haven't noticed, despite my Irish-Pollack-Native American heritage, I'm really just a caucasin American.  And although I do enjoy trying to cook Viet cuisine, I could never give a phở recipe it's due justice.  Never ever.  To be honest, I've been fearful to publicly declare how to make it.  It's so public.  So out there if  when I get the details of the recipe wrong. There are probably as many phở versions as there are Viet women in kitchens making dinner for their families.  Some variations are sweeter, or stronger, or spicier.  Nevertheless, the purpose of "If Martha made Vietnamese" is to pass down Viet recipes to the Crazy 8 progeny.  And a collection of Viet recipes simply wouldn't be complete without phở.  

So 'dar she blows!  Phở in all it's glory.  
I'm going to start with some beef bones.  You're probably going to have to go to the Asian market anyway, so you can easily pick these up while you are there, and they are stinkin' cheap!  They say this is where the best flavor for the broth comes from.  
I add one large yellow onion sliced into rings to broth.  Then I also add some key spices to the simmering broth, whole pepper corns, lemon grass, whole anise, cinnamon stick, and slices of ginger.  These are very important.  Yes, I know the American palate is likely to try to skip some of these spices.  Just give it a try and you may find you're surprised by the combinations of flavors.  The I'm going to boil up the bones for a good long while, say long enough to do a couple loads or laundry and go pick up the kiddos from the bus stop.  For those of your who prefer precise numbers, a few hours.  If you get any scum on the top, skim it off.  Depends on the type of bones that you get.  But don't worry, this may be the one case where scum isn't bad.  If there is too much fat on the top for your preference, skim it off too. 
OK, we're going to HAVE to talk about this stuff.  It's like instant phở broth that resembles bullion cubes.  Ok, so I'll admit it, when I don't have the time or supplies, I use these little gems.  (Hi, my name is Nancy, and I'm an occasional phở flavor cube user.  Blog audience replies in unison, Hi, Nancy.)  The flavor of course isn't as good as if I started from scratch with the beef bones.  And I ALWAYS add the anise, lemon grass, cinnamon sticks, ginger, and simmer for a few hours, regardless if I start with beef bones or these phở flavor cubes.   If you're a little scared of the bones, give the phở cubes a try.  But know it's kinda like cheating a little... or a lot.
When at the very intimidating noodle isle of the Asian market, or should I say isles, look for a package that say bánh phở.  Bánh means noodles, and phở means phở.  When cooking rice noodles, follow package directions.  They cook very quickly and do not need a rolling boil like Italian noodles.  You really only have to soak them in hot water.  I ususally bring a pot of water to a boil, turn it off, and use this to soak the noodles till limp.  

Then I'm going to prepare all the fixin's.  All these need to be ready before the soup is assembled.  

Our favorite fixin's include freshly squeezed lime wedges, bean sprouts, mint, thai basil, jalepenios sliced into small rings, and green onions.
These are our two favorite condiments to spice up our phở.  The one on the left is Siracha.  It's a great chili sauce to have on hand in your kitchen, and we use it for Chinese, Thai, and Mexican foods too.  A few drops are good.  The one on the right is a garlic chili sauce.  I reaaaaaalllllly love the flavor of this spicy sauce, and it is now commonly referred to in our house as "ketchup."  Both of these are regularly found on the table at Vietnamese restaurants.  Also, to spice things up, try just soaking a jalapeño ring or two in your broth.  You don't really have to even eat it if you don't want.  But it really adds some great flavor as well as a little heat too.  Remove the seeds to get less spice and more flavor and visa versa.  

But one more word about spicy-ness.  Boo and the babes like their phở with no spicy, so he simply avoids adding the spicy stuff.  Sunny and Papa like it pretty hot.  They add lots of chili sauce and soak a couple jalapeño rings in their soup.  And Patch and I like it somewhere in the middle so we just add a few drops of chili sauce or Siracha.  You can customize this dish to your tastes.  

Lastly, is the beef.  I've tried many different kinds, sirloin tip, beef eye round, but ultimately, since I have to be at the Asian market any way, I pick up one of these.  The beef has to be sliced extremely thinly, and even with partially freezing the beef, I've never been able to get it sliced thinly enough.  So for $4, my beef is all ready prepared, done, and ready.   1 lb is plenty for our family!
After bowls have been filled about 1/3 with cooked noodles, and fixin's have been prepared and are on the table, about 3-4 raw beef slices are placed in the bowl on top of the noodles.  Yes, I said raw beef slices.  Then the broth is ladled on top.  {See, the very thinly sliced beef is cooked by the hot broth.  I told you it had to be sliced thinly.}  And by the way, avoid the the cinnamon sticks, anise, ginger, and lemon grass when you ladle the broth in.  They're just for flavoring, not to be consumed.  
Each person gets to add toppings according to preference.  And I think that's one of the reason, my kiddos like this dish so much.  They get to "assemble" their soup at the table.  We eat with a combo of chop sticks in one hand and an Asian soup spoon in the other.  

Phở -Viet Beef Noodle Soup
(about 8 servings)

for broth--
  • 6 quarts water
  • 4 lbs of beef bones (or substitute pho flavor cubes)
  • 1 large onion or 2 small onions, sliced into thin rings
  • 6 peeled slices fresh ginger root
  • 1 stalk lemon grass, cut lower white portion into 2" segments
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
4 whole star anise (about 40 points)

for bowls---
2 pkgs of banh pho noodles (8 oz each)
  • 1 pound sirloin tip, cut into very thin slices

fixin's for the table---
  • 1/2 pound bean sprouts
  • 4 sprigs of fresh Thai basil 
  • 4 sprigs of fresh mint leaves
  • 4 scallions/green onions, thinly slice white lower portion into rings.  
  • 3 fresh jalapeno peppers, sliced into rings
  • 3 limes, cut into wedges
  • hoisin sauce
  • siracha sauce
  • garlic chili sauce


  1. mmm i love pho, but have never tried to make it! and i have to ask: what is the piece of fiestaware in the first photo? i don't recognize it... is it a big bowl?

  2. Pam-the bowls are Fiesta's pasta bowls. The are divine! They are big though, too big for the dishwasher and very big for cupboards. However we use them quite frequently! They are very pretty.

  3. NO WAY!!!!! This was, hands down, my favorite on our trip to bring home our daughter. After many weeks of trying to figure out the broth, I finally spotted the cheater broth cubes and have been content with the "close as white girl possible" version. But now! Now I have to make an emergency run to the Asian market (almost through my 25lb of rice for the month anyway) for the real deal! And the garlic chili sauce is for sure my fave! I also love sweet chili sauce. Forget Martha! Been home 7 months and have literally made 16 trips to the Asian farmers market, took a few cooking lessons from a Thai friend and through my love of adoptive blogs, stumbled upon the recipe for the dish I wasn't sure I could live without. Muoah! Thank You!!!!

    1. Amy---Makes me smile just to know that there is another white girl out there who is lovin' it as much as we do and passing it down to their VN kiddos! Hope it is as good as you remember!


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