Country #1: Vietnam

Sunday, January 9, 2011

One thing about me is that I am very prone to food cravings, and will not be satisfied until I have eaten whatever it is I crave in large quantities.  I have some cravings that I have very frequently (sushi, bagels, pickles) and others that come in shifts (burritos, homemade pasta).  When I have one of the "shift" cravings, I basically want that food for every meal, every day, for weeks.

Recently, pho became a "shift" craving.  All I wanted to eat was pho.  Luckily for me, it's a pretty cheap food to get from a restaurant, and I am "pho"-tunate enough to live near no fewer than three Vietnamese restaurants, but after several nights of takeout, I decided I wanted to learn how to make my own.  I looked up a few recipes and was rather daunted.  They required so much time to simmer!  I'm rarely home "pho" more than a couple hours at a time, and don't want to be constantly worrying if my apartment is burning down in a sea of pho, so when I found a recipe for slow-cooker pho, I immediately bought a Crock pot off of Craigslist for $20.

Yesterday I christened that Crock pot with my very first attempt at pho.  The origin of the word "pho" is debated; some people think that it came from the French feu for "fire" (as in pot-au-feu, which uses some similar cooking techniques as Vietnamese pho).  Others think that it came from the Chinese fen, which loosely translates to "rice noodle."  Some believe that it came from the Cantonice rice vermicelli hofan, which is abbreviated fan or ho.  Whatever the linguistic derivation, pho carries gastronomic similarities to French, Chinese, and Cantonese cooking, using roasted onions and ginger as well as cinnamon and star anise in the broth.

All I know is that pho is incredibly delicious.  It cheers me up when I'm down, makes me feel better when I'm sick, and, well, if I'm happy and healthy... I just get happier!  So, without further ado, here is the first installment of 52 Weeks, 52 Meals: Vietnamese pho.

(n.b.: I promised my roommate that in this post I would make heinous use of pho-related puns, so "pho" that, I apologize.)

How to Make Crock Pot Pho

First, toast the pho spices.  I had to search through three ethnic grocery stores (Korean, Mexican, and then Indian) before I found these.  Here you see cinnamon sticks, whole star anise, cardamom pods, fennel, whole cloves, and whole coriander.

Next, boil the beef bones.  Keep in mind: I foolishly thought that, since I got high quality beef bones from Coolidge Corner's own Meat House, I didn't have to preboil them.  I was wrong; I ended up having to strain the broth through not only a fine mesh sieve but also a fine mesh sieve lined with a paper towel.

While you're boiling the bones, grill the onion and ginger until pretty and soft.  (My criterion for grilling onion is that when it's super pretty, it's probably done.)  Tip: Whenever I buy ginger, I peel it immediately and store it in a jar of vodka in the refrigerator.  This keeps it fresh for months, and whenever you need ginger, you just cut off the section you want and leave the rest in the jar.  The added benefit of this is that when you finally finish the ginger, you have a nice jar of ginger-infused vodka that you can use in martinis.  Wahoo!

Once everything is toasted, boiled, and grilled, throw it in the Crock pot and fill it almost to the top with water.  (Remember to use clean water and throw away the nasty water you used to boil the beef bones.)  Season with fish sauce and sugar, and cook on low for eight hours.  I tasted it about halfway through and added a bunch of salt (I'd estimate about 4 teaspoons).

Serve it with lime wedges, Thai basil or cilantro, bean sprouts, and white onion slices.  Mmm-mm!

Full Recipe (adapted from Steamy Kitchen's Crock pot pho)
[Keep in mind: my Crock pot is 4 quarts, so depending on the size of your Crock pot, you might have to adjust the quantities.  This amount comfortably served three people, with a single lunch portion as leftovers.]

For stock:
3 pounds beef bones
1/2 onion
4 inch section of ginger, sliced
Pho spices: 2 cinnamon sticks, 2 teaspoons whole coriander, 1 teaspooon fennel, 3 whole star anise, 3 whole cloves, 1 cardamom pod water to fill to the top
2 tablespoons fish sauce, or to taste
1 teaspoon sugar
4 teaspoons salt

For the bowl:
Fresh rice noodles
1/2 lb flank steak, sliced super thinly

For the table:
1 lime, cut into 8 wedges
A big bunch of cilantro or Thai basil (I used cilantro)
Half of a white onion, sliced thinly
Handful of bean sprouts (or more if your guests are sprout lovers)
Sriracha sauce
Hoisin sauce

1. Bring a large stockpot of water to a boil.  Add the beef bones and boil for about 10 minutes, or until the surface of the water has a lot of beefy scum on it.
2. While the beef bones are boiling, toast the pho spices in a frying pan on medium for 2-3 minutes.  Throw them in the Crockpot.
3. Once you've removed the spices, heat a slosh of oil in the frying pan.  Grill the half onion and ginger until soft and golden-brown (see photo).  Throw those into the Crockpot.
4. Rinse bones and add them to the Crockpot.  Fill the Crockpot with (clean) water to about 1 inch below the top, and add in the fish sauce and sugar.  Cook the stock on low for 8 hours.
5. Halfway through cooking, add in the salt, less or more to taste.
6. When almost ready to eat, boil a pot of water and dunk in the fresh rice noodles.  Keep in mind that these only need to cook for about 45 seconds, so don't leave the stove!
7. Put the rice noodles and raw slice flank steak in the bowls.  When you pour in the boiling broth, the steak will cook.  Allow people to add lime, cilantro, sprouts, etc. to their own bowls at the table.
8. Share and enjoy!


meghan said...

I LOVE YOUR BLOG!!!! What a great idea! and I just tried Pho for the first time, in Tucson of all places and LOVE it! aaaaand my roommate has a crockpot. I'm so making it this weekend. Can't wait to see the next 51 :)

gabriela said...

This is fabulous! You're a great writer and researcher, as well as a terrific cook and musician. (By the way, Amelia Bedelia be damned. You probably inherited the "pinch of this and handful of that" from your great grandmother, Anna, for whom you were partly named.

meghan said...

I made this today/tonight and it's EXCELLENT! I'm vegetarian so I didn't use the bone and just used half low-sodium veggie stock and half water and it still tasted wonderful. Thanks and you all reading this should make it, you won't regret it!

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