I'm assuming that most hounds (including myself) would rather go to their favorite pho joint for a pho fix than bothering to make it at home. I mean, what are the benefits of making it at home? It's not necessarily cheaper; it probably won't taste better; it takes time to shop for those specialty ingredients and leafy herbs. We don't chat about pho here like we do pork shoulder, mac n cheese, or ice cream.
Well, after last night's bowl of pho (pictured below), I'm starting to rethink things. Ok, so my pho still doesn't taste as good as mom's (and that's ok since mom's should be on a pedestal) or as good as some pho places I've been to, but it was very satisfying to make and eat. For the first time, my broth actually had what we say in Vietnamese as "character". It was complex and haunting, so much so that husband drank up every last drop, which he doesn't always do. I did the same.
What was very cool about the process of making the beef broth was that I was able to apply my recent experience in making Western-style broths. I think I'm understanding the concept of keeping the heat at the barest simmer, skimming at the beginnning, not covering w/ a lid, etc. Making broth isn't difficult per se, but there is great finesse in making a glorious, singing broth, and I'm just starting my journey and appreciation.
Something that I've realized is that I can work from my mom's recipe (linked below), but I need to make this dish my own for it to have "character." When I used the recipe as a springboard and overlaid it w/ my own instincts, reactions, and sensibilities, it came to life in a way that didn't happen last time. I easily take this improvised approach w/ cookbook recipes, but betraying mom's recipe is more psychologically difficult.
Anyway, I know I'm rambling, but the pho I made last night was enlightening. It was very worthwhile and I am excited to do it again and again. Obviously, making it at home allows for customization, and I used both cooked chuck roast slices (pieces in the middle) as well as the raw slices seen in "pho tai" (reddish pieces). My butcher's chuck roast was wonderfully fresh and marbled, so it worked well for pho tai, but you could certainly use a good cut of steak. Freezing the meat slab for 20-30 min. before slicing will make it easier to slice thinly.
Being the carb lover that I am, I also like to have more noodle to broth ratio than restaurants offer. I also used "banh pho tuoi" or fresh pho noodles from some market in San Jose (my mom gave these to me, so I need to ask her about the exact store). They were *wonderful* and simply needed a quick dunk in boiling water. I dont think I can go back to dried noodles.
I dread documenting a "recipe" here since it is hard to quantify the process. I will write down in general terms what I did for those interested. Let me know if you have questions. This made about 4-5 generous bowls of pho.
For the broth: Blanch about 1 lb. beef oxtails and 1 lb. beef neck bones in boiling water. If you cant find beef neck bones, then use more oxtails or soup bones. Remove when water returns to boil. After slightly cooled, massage in S&P to season.
Prepare aromatics by charring 2" piece of skin-on ginger and then removing peel and bruising. Gather: quartered onion; 2 garlic cloves, smashed; 3 star anise; 3 cloves; bay leaf; cinnamon stick. I wrapped small items in cheesecloth last time, but I didn't bother this time.
In stockpot, add tsp. canola oil and saute onion and garlic til fragrant and lightly browned. Add oxtails, bones, and rest of aromatics. Cover w/ about 5 qts. water. Bring to boil and skim any foam that surfaces. Reduce heat to barest simmer, leave uncovered, and simmer for 1.5 hrs. Check on it once in a while to make sure it's bubbling enough or not too hard. Skim off any foam, particles, or fat as desired.
After you get the broth going, prepare any meat that you will be serving w/ the broth by seasoning w/ S&P and letting marinate. My mom always cooked chuck roast slabs in the broth, but I prefer the flavor of raw beef that gets cooked once the broth is poured on. My mom's way allows the meat to also flavor the broth, but it does make for a less flavorful and succulent meat. I used a combination method.
After 1.5 hrs. of simmering, place 1 lb. chuck roast into broth. Bring to boil, skim, and reduce heat to barest simmer. Let this go for another hour and then season. To season, I used: half packet of wonton soup base (Dynasty brand); fish sauce (start w/ 2 tsp.); S&P; pinch sugar. My mom always uses a little soup base, and I think the MSG and chicken/pork flavorings enhance and round out the broth. Taste and adjust seasonings. Let simmer for another 30 min. and turn off heat. Strain broth, reserving oxtails to eat. Taste again and adjust seasonings. If it is too concentrated, then add a tad more water. If you want more beefy flavor, reduce a tad. You can serve at this point, but I like to chill overnight and then remove excess fat on top. I remove some fat but not all since theres good flavor in the fat.
To serve: Prepare condiments. Ive never seen this in restaurants, but my family always eats pickled onions w/ pho. They are mounded in the middle of my bowl below, but look like noodles. I basically slice yellow or red onion finely and then submerge in rice vinegar (or sometimes red wine vinegar) for at least 30 min. I also serve w/ lime wedges, mint, cilantro, green onions, and Sriracha. You can use other herbs like rau ram, basil, shiso, etc. and bean sprouts (I dont care for bean sprouts.)
Mound some cooked pho noodles in a bowl. Place thinly-sliced cooked and/or raw beef on top. Sprinkle w/ chopped green onions. Bring broth to boil and ladle into bowl. Add other garnishes at table and slurp away!!