Pho Bo Broth...

Pho Bo, or beef soup Vietnamese style for the uninitiated, is more than a soup, in fact it's more than a meal, it is Nirvana in a bowl.

Well made pho transcends simply joy and harmony taking the soup slurper to higher plane of consciousness, it also opens up your inner-self to accept all that is good in the world and close out all that is bad - during the time spent soup slurping and the all-too-short postprandial glow that follows that is.

Once the senses clear and the ephemeral inner peace that took over your body drifts away to allow the big bad world to return to your being, you will begin to dream about your next pho encounter and that notion will sustain you until, once again, you meet that large, steaming hot bowl of savoury goodness. Pho is that good.

My father and mother-in-law had a family as neighbours and friends here in Prince George. The family consisted of a mother and two daughters all of whom were survivors of the Vietnamese refugee crisis and the "boat people" exodus that witnessed so much cruelty and death it should still shame the world.

The father had been murdered by the Communists in Vietnam and once in a refugee boat on the high-seas a pirate raiding party threw one of the girls overboard into the shark infested waters of the South China Sea and it was her mother that dove to save her from certain death. I can't imagine the horror she faced as well as that of her mother and sister.

The mother was an incredible lady - indefatigable, loving, caring and worked at three jobs to support and raise her girls. Mom and Dad loved the girls like their own and the mom was a dear, trusted and treasured friend; we all loved them deeply.

As time wore on my father-in-law Charlie took ill and was hospitalized and we all know that hospital food is not made to heal, instead it is made to hurry the patients the hell out, so it was Mama Vu to the rescue.

She made pho by the barrel-full and raced it to our bedridden Charlie at lunch and dinner times and he eagerly yummed it up.  She sat with him, nursed and aided him, loved him and was eagle-eyed vigilant in observing the care offered to him by the hospital staff; she thought the janitorial was not up to standard and took on that chore to make it right for Charlie as just one example.  She did this while working her other jobs and raising her girls. Indefatigable.

Sadly pho alone could not cure the ravages of cancer and we lost Charlie to it after his short battle. His passing was a huge loss to the family, the church, the community, and all the hundreds of friends that so loved him. Mama Vu was an angel among angels as she cared for him to the end and there is no exaggeration when I say that pho made his last days a little more comfortable and the love in each spoonful she offered him had no equal.

Her pho was the best I ever tasted and it was made with love and joy from the heart and that was at a time when there was no Vietnamese restaurant in the region, so it was a rare and delicious treat for all of us when we were invited to her home for pho and many other national delicacies she would create for us as we sat in that lovely home.

I can't remember the first time I encountered pho but I can remember that when I did it was love, love, love, love at first slurp. It is a marriage of flavours, once unknown to the North American white bread palate, but now more commonplace and available. The beauty of the soup is that once it is presented to you you can dress it up to your liking - hot, sweet, lime or no lime or more or less satay chilli sauce or some Rooster Sauce (sriracha sauce) stirred into it or simply leaving it as presented, your choice, and no one will judge you!

I have been making pho for many years, in fact, when I learned how to make it it was because of necessity - there were very few pho restaurants around and the few that were were located in Vancouver and I was not. So I had to ask questions, sample, test, and make a few batches to learn, and learn I did.  My recipe has morphed over the years to what I offer you here today and Mama Vu's influence had a big hand in it.

Not all pho is created equal however, like most other foods there is well made and not so well made, and like all other foods you will know the difference immediately when you taste it. All cooks will make it slightly different and the families that grow up on mom or dads version will suggest that the soup they know is the only way to make it. Oh contraire!

If you do an internet search for pho recipes you will find thousands and they all have commonality but there are varying ways to make the broth. So lets start there.

Using beef bones is the norm to prepare the broth, however I have had it when made with pork bones as well and I have read accounts where it was made with veal or even lamb, but I prefer the beef bones or pork bones versions.

Then it gets more detailed. What beef bones to use?  Marrow bones? Neck bones? Knuckle bones (joints). Meat on bones? Meat free bones? Many differing opinions. With marrow bones you get a very deep complex flavour that is my favourite, however some may find it off-putting.  Non-marrow soup bones will give the broth a different flavour profile and one that may be more readily accepted by neophytes, but trial and error is the only way to determine your preference.

I will often use beef marrow bones and pork soup bones together and the resulting broth has a very delightful profile but if no pork bones are available then it is beef bones solely and always marrow bones. Oxtail is incredibly good for broth too but they are very expensive and seldom in my soup pot. Beef shank is also good if you can find it.

It takes about 6-7 pounds of bones to make 8 quarts of broth, depending on time simmering, what bones were used (marrow, knuckle, etc), the age of the cow that was supported by those bones, if meat-on or meatless bones were used. Many variables come into play but the results can be improved by simply reducing the broth over heat once it has been clarified to arrive at the flavour you are looking for if it is insipid or limp at first taste.

Traditionally the bones used for making pho are not roasted before going into the pot; the darkening that the traditional broth has comes from adding charred onions and ginger as the bones simmer. I like a dark broth and if time allows I roast the bones in the oven at 350 degrees F for 1 hour then they go into the pot. Traditionalists will scorn that early roasting maneuver, however I like the deeper flavour and the darker colour the roasted bones give to the broth, but the traditional way is also done in my kitchen as well.

Meat or no meat in the stock pot is another variable that enters the process. I use bones alone with no meat on them.  Others use beef shank, and others will add a full brisket, flank steak or other beef cut to the stock pot in addition to the soup bones. Again, I don't believe there is a right way or wrong way to make it, as long as bones are used in a large enough ratio of bones to water you can use meat or no meat in your broth making. Make a few pots and decide for yourself what combination you prefer.

I place the onions and the ginger under a broiler or if the weather is conducive for grilling I will grill them outside to char them. The method you use is up to you but the vegetables do need to be charred for both the flavour and the colouring of the broth. Roasting the bones is optional.

Spices are also a way for the broth to vary in it's preparation. Many recipes will call for corriander seed, fennel seed, cinnamon stick, whole star anise, whole cloves and whole cardamom to name just a few, and again, there is no right or wrong here, it is simply preference for you. I use star anise, coriander seeds, cinnamon stick, and cloves, and if I have some fennel I will sometimes use that as well, but very little as my wife does not like a too strong fennel flavour.

The spices need to be fresh and by that I mean if they have been in your pantry for eons, they are not fresh, so go and get some fresh ones please before you start your soup making odyssey, your taste buds will thank you.

The spices need to be dry roasted before going into the pot for best flavour. Simply heat up a heavy skillet and toss the spices into the pan and shake until they start to give off their aromas, once they become fragrant pour the spices into a dry bowl to stop the roasting process then add to the stock pot. The smell is incredible too.

I use a spice sachet when I put the spices into the stock pot.  The reason for this is I need to taste as I go and once the simmering broth reaches the flavour intensity I desire it is easy to remove the spices when in a sachet rather than loose in the broth.

Once all the swimmers are in the pool it becomes necessary to maintain some vigilance over the pot as it comes up close to a boil.  When rendering flavour out of bones, if the temperature gets to a full raging boil and left to rage on, the broth will take on a milky/cloudy appearance as the bones leach calcium or other such substances contained in them.  The broth will taste just fine, but the "clear see to the bottom of the bowl broth" will not be the end result, which is fine for stock when it is going to be a cream soup but not for pho.  The same applies for chicken bones being rendered to chicken soup too.

When the stock comes to a light boil turn down the heat to simmer/low whereby there are just a few bubbles breaking on the surface, maintain the light simmer for the duration.

When using roasted bones in the stock the detritus that rises to the surface is less than using raw bones, but regardless of using raw or roasted bones there will be stuff that floats to the top for the first few minutes as the stock simmers - this needs to be skimmed off!  Important!  If you don't skim it off it will become suspended in the broth and it will add to the cloudy appearance in the soup bowl, again, it will taste fine, it just will look cloudy.  Just skim it off! Okay?

The bones can simmer for 3-5 hours or longer if that is what you choose, I normally simmer them for about 4 hours.  I have found over the years that the flavour that can be pulled from the bones as far as beef flavour is concerned does not increase with a longer cooking time in a home sized stock pot. What increases is the gelatin and the cloudy appearance of the stock content which is okay too but not for pho. Restaurants will make 20 gallons of it and cook it for many more hours but they will also clarify the broth with fancy-smanchy machines you probably don't have in your home.

Other people advise that you should place the bones in a stock pot and boil them for a few minutes then drain off and refill with water to lessen the floating detritus, I have tried that in place of roasting and I did not see where there was a big difference and I question if it lessens the flavour that is available from the bones, so I don't do that. You can try it and determine for yourself however.

Once the bones have given up all they have, the broth should be cooled to a temperature that allows for handling without scalding the handler.  Once cool enough to handle, remove the bones and strain off the broth through a fine mesh sieve. Cool in the fridge to get the fat off of it then strain through some cheesecloth to get any remaining stuff out.  If the broth has congealed as it chilled simply warm it up a little before straining it through the cheesecloth, but remove the fat first of course.

The noodles... They are very important too.  In the gluten-free world we live in now, the availability of rice noodles is widespread thankfully.  Years ago when I learned to make pho, finding rice noodles was a chore, but now just about every grocery store has them.  There are differences between brands and it may take a few tries before you settle on one you prefer, but the differences are subtle and most will give good results.

What you will need to determine is the thickness of the noodle you like, as the thicknesses range from very thin to wide. I prefer a narrow noodle but not the vermicelli thin ones, you may prefer the thick or the thin threads, your choice.

Regardless of the noodle thickness, you need to soak them to reconstitute before placing them into a bowl.  Simply place the noodles into a heat proof bowl and pour enough boiling water over them to cover completely. Keep an eye on them, and once they are barely al dente (pliable but with a slightly chewy center) drain off in a colander. Do not soak in the hot water until the noodles are soft throughout - they need to have some chew to them or they will be too soft once the hot broth is poured on them. No one like a limp, lifeless, soft noodle and size matters to some.

Once noodles are pliable let them sit for a minute or two and they will continue to soften as you then prepare the soup bowls.  So let's make some broth!

Beef Pho Broth

7 pounds of beef bones
10 quarts water, should render to 6-8 quarts of broth
2 large onions peeled and quartered
1 oz fresh ginger, sliced laterally

1 large cinnamon stick
1 Tbsp corriander seeds
10 whole star anise
10 whole cloves
1 tsp fennel seeds (optional)
1/4 cup fish sauce
1 Tbsp yellow rock sugar (it is worth the effort to find it in the Asian section of your market!)
(Optional) - Roast bones in a 350 degree oven for 1 hour, remove from oven and place in large stock pot.
Add water ensuring there is enough water to fully cover the bones. Turn heat to high.
Place onion and ginger onto baking sheet and broil until charred slightly, turn over repeatedly to char all sides, remove from the oven and place in stock pot.

Add fish sauce to stock pot.

Place all spices into a hot dry frying pan and stir until they become fragrant. Once roasted remove from heat to cool, do not let them burn.  Once cooled, place into a sachet bag or onto a doubled over square of cheesecloth then gather up the corners of the cheesecloth and tie with a string to seal in all the spices. Toss into stock pot.
Bring stock to a light boil then turn down heat and simmer uncovered. Skim any floating debris and fat as it simmers during the cooking process. Simmer for 3-5 hours.
At about 2 hours taste the stock to determine the level of spice that has been reached.  If it meets your preference remove the spice bag or sachet, if not let it simmer along to the end.  If for some reason the taste isn't deep or bold enough, prepare another spice bag and toss it in to the broth and sample every half hour until the broth is to your liking.  Depending on the freshness of the spices the recipe may be more or less than is required so you will need to rely on your taste buds here.

Once the bones are exhausted drain as described above and set aside.  When ready to have soup place stock back over heat and bring to a boil.  Now is when you add the sugar a little at a time. Taste as you go and add enough sugar with each tasting until it reaches the sweetness level you like, I like it on the sweet side. Also add more salt if you desire at this point as well.  Normally the salt in the fish sauce adds enough salt for my liking.

Tweak the stock to your liking, more fish sauce or salt or not.  Boil it down to increase the flavour or not. Make it your own.
Once ready to have soup begin the assembly process.  More on that in the next blog posting!

Oh by the way pho is pronounced "Fuh" similar to "fa" as in doh, ray, me, fa, so, la, tee, doh. With emphasis on the "F". It is not pronounced foe as in doe a deer.