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Breaking In The Pho Cookbook
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Crack open any cookbook and you are confronted with a dizzying collection of recipes. If you are actually going to make something for dinner (and it’s OK if you’re not!), choices need to be made. In BREAKING IN, we prepare a few interesting recipes to get a feel for the book. This is not a review, but rather a firsthand experience of cracking the spine of a new cookbook.

Twenty-five years ago, when I was a teenager living in Williamsburg, Virginia, I ate my first bowl of pho—at a small, chic, family-run restaurant called Chez Trinh. That Vietnamese beef noodle soup—it is no exaggeration to say—changed my life.

Pho seemed to me the perfect food. The broth was at once deeply meaty yet light and clear, perfumed with star anise and cinnamon and sweetened with charred onions. I loved how pho could be customized to my individual taste: I could pile the bowl with bean sprouts and Thai basil, douse it with spicy saté or Sriracha, or keep it plain. Perhaps most of all, I craved the noodles, slippery and slurpable.

I became smitten with Vietnamese food. A few years later, finishing college, I started making plans to move to Ho Chi Minh City, where I dreamed I would eat pho and all kinds of other theretofore-inaccessible delights every single day. And that’s pretty much what I did for the year after college. I ate bánh mì and fried spring rolls stuffed with crab; I assembled rice paper rolls with grilled pork and star fruit and herbs whose names I still don’t know; I ate buttery croissants and oily coffee, and grilled mussels doused with coconut cream and sprinkled with crushed peanuts. And yes, I ate a whole lot of pho, for breakfast, for lunch, and sometimes late, late, late at night.

My love affair with Vietnamese food did not end when I returned to the United States. I continued to eat pho whenever possible, particularly when I left home in New York (where it’s pitiable) to visit California (where it’s incredible). But over the past couple of decades, as I’ve raised a family and learned to feed them, I’ve almost never cooked Vietnamese food myself. In fact, since that first revelatory bowl at Chez Trinh, I’d made pho at home a total of three times in 25 years.

That is, until The Pho Cookbook landed in my kitchen. The sixth cookbook from California-based Andrea Nguyen—whose well-regarded previous cookbooks have covered tofu, dumplings, bánh mì, and Vietnamese cooking in general (and who is, full disclosure, a friend of mine)—sets out to be a complete manual for making Vietnam’s national dish. Which, given pho’s popularity, is a novelty: Though it gets pages of attention in other cookbooks, few writers in English have devoted an entire volume to the noodle soup. Even Nguyen herself was surprised when her publisher suggested a pho cookbook—until, she writes, she realized “the world of pho was unusually rich with culinary and cultural gems.”

Her approach is admirably clear: Identify pho-making styles that range from traditional (Hanoi vs. Saigon) to “quick” to “adventurous” (Wok-Kissed Beef Pho, Lamb Pho, and so on), and in about 150 pages show readers the ingredients, techniques, and specific recipes they need to make them (along with some snacks and drinks). Nguyen makes no grand claims for what pho should be—she’s a researcher and an analyst (an opinionated analyst). Her essay on the history of pho, for example, traces its origins not to pot au feu (as many assume), but to the early 20th-century intermingling of French, Chinese, and Vietnamese peoples and dishes in the city of Nam Dinh, south of Hanoi. Read it, memorize it, amaze your pals over noodles!

As I scanned the book, I began to feel nervous. Was I seriously going to attempt this? For so long I’d avoided making pho, telling myself I didn’t really know the right balance of meats to use for the stock, or that I only knew one store in Manhattan’s Chinatown that carried all the herbs I’d need as accoutrements, or that I could only find two brands of vacuum-wrapped fresh pho noodles, and who knew if either was any good?

I mean, I understood what was behind my reluctance. I loved pho, and I didn’t want to spend half a day and a decent amount of money completely fucking up something about which I had such powerful feelings. To fail at something you like is a disappointment; to fail when love is on the line is soul-crushing.

But what is love without risk? Which is why, in mid-February, I set about collecting ingredients in Chinatown. The first recipe I was attempting was not the classic noodles-in-soup pho but pho xao ga, or Saté Chicken, Celery, and Pho Noodles, a straightforward stir-fry of the titular ingredients. Well, fairly straightforward: Nguyen’s recipe called for homemade saté, an intense blend of dried shrimp, lemongrass, garlic, shallots, and fish sauce that is, in Nguyen’s words, “addictively good.” (Bottled versions are readily available, often with slightly different ingredients.) And it also asked for something that should have been basic, but in my mind suddenly wasn’t. Dark soy sauce. A mere half teaspoon was all I’d need for this recipe, but it felt like a gallon of anxiety.

Because WTF did Nguyen mean by “dark soy sauce”? That is, if you examine the soy sauce shelves of any decently stocked Asian supermarket, you’ll find not only light soy sauce and dark soy sauce but also dark, sweet soy sauce (I had a faint memory of using this thicker version in a Thai or Malaysian stir-fried noodle dish), not to mention soy paste (thick and a little sweet, it goes in my Taiwanese lu rou fan), seasoned soy sauce for seafood (which I don’t understand), and wheat-free tamari. Some of these are labeled “superior” as well, and there are Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and other national and regional varieties. (Taiwan, for example, doesn’t distinguish between light and dark soy.) Also, in the bottle, they all look perfectly identical.

Rushing around Grand Street, I was almost paralyzed by my knowledge of the options, which included, per the cookbook, substituting “a big pinch of fine sea salt” plus dark molasses, neither of which I had at home anyway.

So I texted Andrea Nguyen—and in my fluster tapped “soybsauce” instead of “soy sauce,” leading her to think I meant a totally different, thicker type of hoisin-like soy-based sauce. (Oh, God, kill me now.) Finally, after much back and forth, she figured out what I meant and sent me a photo of Pearl River Bridge brand superior dark soy sauce, whose Chinese label translates as “aged soy sauce king,” the idea being that aging darkens and sweetens. And since I couldn’t find that, I just bought the first bottle I saw that was labeled “dark soy sauce.” Victory!

Then I went home, blended up the saté, marinated the chicken thighs, and sloppily stir-fried everything together, neglecting to clean out the wok between stages (as directed) because my kitchen sink is small and my daughters were hungry. The thick, ribbony rice noodles got a little stuck to the pan, and therefore chopped up and uglified, but my family seemed to like it, even if the kids picked out all the celery and I needed to mix in extra saté to give it a stronger punch of garlic and lemongrass. It was so easy to make (chop, marinate, stir-fry, serve) that I don’t know why I haven’t yet put it in regular rotation—minus the finicky noodles, to serve over rice.

Easy stuff out of the way, it was time to stop stalling. It was pho time.

Except, actually, pho is easy, too. From my three previous attempts (and many years of eating it), I knew the basic process: Parboil a bunch of beef bones. Char onions and ginger over an open flame. Simmer them all along with Chinese rock sugar and a panoply of spices—star anise, cinnamon (or cassia bark), fennel, cloves, coriander, and Chinese black cardamom (a.k.a. red cardamom, or cao guo). Honestly, that’s about it. There’s your pho broth. All you have to do is cook some noodles, plop everything in a bowl, and serve with the proper garnish.

Except there are ways to obsess. What I’d always wanted on my few pho-making occasions was an expert guide. Which cuts of beef to use, and in what ratio, and why, and with how much water? Which of the spices to deploy, and in what proportions? These are the fundamental questions of pho-making, and if I’d been making the dish weekly for 25 years, I might’ve figured out the answers already.

And that’s where The Pho Cookbook shines. In a section called “Blending Bones,” Nguyen writes, in her refreshingly direct style, of what to use and why. Marrowbones, she suggests, are “superb” but often costly, and so one should use a 1:1:1 ratio of marrow, knuckle, and neck—“which, respectively, lend fat, body, and meatiness.” What about oxtail, so often recommended? Nguyen calls it “a pricey option that often dampens flavor and yields dull broth lacking dimension.” Select bones with some meat still on them. Have a butcher cut the bones into three-inch sections. Leave exotic cuts like “crunchy flank” to restaurants. For Hanoi-style pho, include a pig’s foot. “Adding pizzle to the bowl,” she notes, “does not increase potency.”

Good to know—all of it! From there, it was a mere four hours or so till dinner. I charred my onions and ginger over a gas flame, sending ash all over the stove in just the way my wife loves. I parboiled six pounds of marrow, knuckle, and neck, then rinsed off impurities and returned them to the pot along with the aromatics, dried spices, and a slab of brisket. And while it all simmered (“gently,” per the book), I prepared the ultimate garnish platter: bean sprouts, lime wedges, scallions sliced on a sharp bias, chopped bird’s-eye chiles, Thai basil, mint, soapy sawtooth leaf, citrusy rice paddy herb, and my own homemade Sriracha-style hot sauce.

The sun went down. My stomach groaned. The children whined. Had the broth gently simmered enough? It didn’t matter now. I strained the broth into a fresh pot and plucked meat from the bones. I set water to boil for noodles and thinly sliced a semifrozen chunk of cartoonishly marbled tri-tip (one of Nguyen’s recommended cuts). I arranged the bowls for assembly-line production. I cooked noodles and ladled, cooked and ladled.

Everything looked right. Everything smelled right. Everything tasted…

Does it matter? After all the shopping, the cooking, the assembling, the effort, does it really matter? “How did it taste?” is the wrong question here. What matters to me—and what I think should matter to you—is: Did this change anything? Did having all of Andrea Nguyen’s impeccably researched and tested cooking advice transform pho from a restaurant treat into an everyday meal? Will this book make a difference?

The answers to those questions depend less on the book than on the reader. If you crave pho, don’t have access to Vietnamese restaurants, and can get ahold of the necessary meats, spices, and herbs, this book will vastly improve your noodle-soup-eating existence.

For me, however, I don’t know that it turned me into a committed pho cook. The batch I made—and the batch of chicken pho I prepared a week later—was pretty decent. The mouthfeel was incredible, but the broth wasn’t as beefy as I’d hoped. More neck bones next time, I guess, or maybe I need to simmer longer, or maybe when Nguyen writes “simmer gently,” her sense of “gently” is rougher than mine. But next time may be a long time coming. The special ingredients (particularly the herbs, which I consider essential) are a pain to acquire, and my freezer is too small to hold quarts of broth in reserve. My home will not become a pho home. As much as I love pho, I cannot marry it.

But you know, I’m okay with that—thanks again to Nguyen, who begins the book by pointing out that the romantic language of pho is a part of Vietnamese culture. “Rice,” she writes, “is the dutiful wife you can rely on, we say. Pho is the flirty mistress that you slip away to visit.”

And so slip away I shall, as often as my wife will let me, for bowls of pho, from New York to San Jose to Nam Dinh, slurping lustily and without a care, leaving the prep and cleanup to someone else, and paying proudly for the privilege. Pho may now find its place in my home kitchen a little more often—let’s call it an annual project—but for the most part, I’ll be down with OPP: other people’s pho.

Quick Chicken Pho

Quick Chicken Pho

2 servings

Ingredients

  • ¾ inch section ginger
  • 2 medium green onions
  • 1 small bunch cilantro springs
  • 1½ teaspoons coriander seeds
  • 1 whole clove
  • 4 cups low-sodium chicken broth 
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 boneless, skinless chicken breast or thigh 
  • ½ teaspoon fine sea salt 
  • 5 ounces dried narrow flat rice noodles
  • 2½ teaspoons fish sauce
  • ½ teaspoon organic sugar
  • pepper

Great for pho beginners, this recipe is also terrific for cooks in a hurry. It involves less than 45 minutes, during which you’ll doctor up store-bought broth so it says, “I’m pho-ish.” The keys to this streamlined approach include toasting spices and dry sautéing the ginger and green onion, which help to extract flavor fast. Poaching the chicken in the broth adds savory depth. You’ll practice some fundamental pho techniques that you can apply elsewhere, too. Choose a broth that tastes like chicken, such as Swanson brand, which is less fussed up and easy to manipulate. You need two 14.5-ounce cans or one 32-ounce carton.

  1. Peel then slice the ginger into 4 or 5 coins. Smack with the flat side of a knife or meat mallet; set aside. Thinly slice the green parts of the green onion to yield 2 to 3 tablespoons; set aside for garnish. Cut the leftover sections into pinkie-finger lengths, bruise, then add to the ginger. 
  2. Coarsely chop the leafy tops of the cilantro to yield 2 tablespoons; set aside for garnish. Set the remaining cilantro sprigs aside. 
  3. In a 3- to 4-quart pot, toast the coriander seeds and clove over medium heat until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the ginger and green onion sections. Stir for about 30 seconds, until aromatic. Slide the pot off heat, wait 15 seconds or so to briefly cool, then pour in the broth. 
  4. Return the pot to the burner, then add the water, cilantro sprigs, chicken, and salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, then lower the heat to gently simmer for 30 minutes. 
  5. While the broth simmers, soak the rice noodles in hot water until pliable and opaque. Drain, rinse, and set aside.
  6. After 5 to 10 minutes of simmering, the chicken should be firm and cooked through (press on it and it should slightly yield). Transfer the chicken to a bowl, flush with cold water to arrest the cooking, then drain. Let cool, then cut or shred into bite-size pieces. Cover loosely to prevent drying. 
  7. When the broth is done, pour it through a fine-mesh strainer positioned over a 2-quart pot; line the strainer with muslin for superclear broth. Discard the solids. You should have about 4 cups. Season with fish sauce and sugar, if needed, to create a strong savory-sweet note. 
  8. Bring the strained broth to a boil over high heat. Put the noodles in a noodle strainer or mesh sieve and dunk in the hot broth to heat and soften, 5 to 60 seconds. Lift the noodles from the pot and divide between the 2 bowls. 
  9. Lower the heat to keep the broth hot while you arrange the chicken on top of the noodles and garnish with the chopped green onion, cilantro, and a sprinkling of pepper. Taste and adjust the broth’s saltiness one last time. Return the broth to a boil and ladle into the bowls. Enjoy with any extras, if you like. 

Ingredients

  • BROTH
  • 3 pounds beef marrow, knuckle, and neck bones
  • 1 pound boneless beef brisket, chuck, or cross-rib roast 
  • 2½ star anise
  • 1 medium cinnamon stick
  • 3 whole cloves
  • 2 inch section ginger, peeled, thickly sliced, and bruised 
  • 1 large yellow onion, halved and thickly sliced 
  • 9 cups water
  • 1 small fuji apple, peeled, cored, and cut into thumbnail-size chunks 
  • 2¼ teaspoons fine sea salt 
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 teaspoon organic sugar
  • BOWLS
  • 10 ounces dried narrow flat rice noodles
  • cooked beef from the broth, sliced about 1⁄8 inch thick 
  • thinly sliced steak for 4 servings, 8 beef meatballs, or some of each (optional)
  • ½ small yellow or red onion, thinly sliced against the grain and soaked in water for 10 minutes 
  • 2 thinly sliced green onions, green parts only
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro, leafy tops only
  • pepper

As much as I love to simmer a stockpot of beef pho for hours, it’s incredibly liberating to make a pretty good version for four people in 1½ hours. Intense cooking in a pressure cooker makes that possible. The approach is similar to that for the chicken version on page 46, but here, it’s all high pressure. The boneless meat gets a lot more tender than when cooked in a stockpot, which makes this beef a little harder to thinly slice (chill or freeze it, if you have time). Any leftover cooked beef can be used for Fresh Pho Noodle Rolls, Pho Fried Rice, or Rice Paper Salad Rolls.

    Make the broth

  1. Rinse the bones and boneless beef to remove excess blood or bits on the surface; set aside in a bowl. 
  2. Put the star anise, cinnamon, and cloves in a 6- to 8-quart pressure cooker. Over medium heat, toast for several minutes, shaking or stirring, until fragrant. Add the ginger and onion. Stir until aromatic, 45 to 60 seconds, to release a little flavor. A tiny bit of browning is okay. 
  3. Add 4 cups (1 l) of the water to arrest the cooking process. Add all of the bones, boneless beef, apple, salt, and remaining 5 cups (1.25 l) water. Lock the lid in place. Bring to high pressure (15 psi) over high heat on a gas or induction stove, or medium heat on an electric stove. Lower the heat to maintain pressure, indicated by a gentle, steady flow of steam coming out of the cooker’s valve. Cook for 20 minutes, or longer if your cooker’s high setting is less than 15 psi. 
  4. Slide to a cool burner and allow the pressure to decrease naturally, about 20 minutes. Remove the lid, tilting it away from you to avoid the hot steam. 
  5. Let settle for about 5 minutes, then use tongs to transfer the boneless meat to a bowl. Add water to cover and soak for 10 minutes to prevent dark, dry meat. Drain and set the meat aside, partially covered, to cool completely before using, refrigerating for up to 3 days, or freezing for up to 3 months. 
  6. If you want to save bones for pho broth and bones or to salvage edible bits, soak them in water for 10 minutes, then drain, prep, and store accordingly. Otherwise, discard the solids. 
  7. Skim some fat from the broth, then strain through a muslin-lined mesh strainer positioned over a medium pot (see page 28 for guidance). Discard the remaining solids. You should have about 8 cups.
  8. If using the broth right away, season it with the fish sauce, extra salt, and, if needed, sugar. Or, partially cover the unseasoned broth, let cool, then chill for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 3 months; reheat and season before using. 

Prep and assemble the bowls

  1. While the broth cooks, or about 30 minutes before serving, ready the ingredients for the bowls. Soak the noodles in hot water until pliable and opaque. Drain, rinse, and drain well. Divide among 4 soup bowls. 
  2. Slice the cooked beef, then prep the steak and/or meatballs, if using, as directed in their recipes. Set aside, covering the meat if not using in 15 minutes. Place the onion, green onion, and cilantro in separate bowls and line them up with the noodles, beef, and pepper for a pho assembly line. 
  3. Bring the broth to a simmer over medium heat as you are assembling the bowls. At the same time, fill a pot with water and bring to a rolling boil for the noodles. 
  4. For each bowl, place a portion of the noodles in a noodle strainer or mesh sieve and dunk in the boiling water. When the noodles are soft, 5 to 60 seconds, lift the strainer from the water, shaking it to force excess water back into the pot. Deposit into a bowl. Top with the beef, then add a flourish of onion, green onion, and cilantro. Sprinkle on some pepper. 
  5. Check the broth flavor once more, raise the heat, and bring it to a boil. Ladle about 2 cups broth into each bowl. Serve immediately with any extras at the table. 

Matt Gross

Matt Gross writes about food, travel, parenting, and culture for lots of places. The former NYT Frugal Traveler and former editor of BonAppetit.com, he is the author of the travel memoir “The Turk Who Loved Apples” and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two daughters.

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