The last two weeks have been a rollercoaster of various bugs in my house. Stomach bugs, chest infections, colds, earaches. Pho has been on my list of things I want to make for quite some time now and I thought that devoting my downtime at home to a slow-cooked meal would be a positive outcome from a negative situation. Also, I have been reading a lot about how nutritious and mineral-rich bone broth is. What could be better when you’re poorly?!
Let me start by saying I love pho. I especially love pho when I’ve been unwell as I find its deep fragrances so healing, familiar and comforting. Just knowing the time that goes into cooking it instils a heartiness just like good old fashioned chicken soup. As anyone who loves pho can attest to, the bone broth is everything. Luckily I’m used to demonstrating patience with cooking as I spend a lot of time baking, and I settled on a minimum of 7 hours to make the bone broth.
A bit of online research offered some good explanations as to the differences between a stock and a broth. Several sources reasoned that seasoning is added to the broth to make it into a viable dish on its own, whereas stock relies fully on the flavourings derived from the bones and vegetable base. Also, apparently traditionally a broth would be made from mostly meat (or the leftover liquid from cooking meat), whereas stock would be made from mostly bone. Although one of my favourites in Vietnamese restaurants is bun bo hue (a spicier broth-based noodle dish), I wanted to start my pho-making adventures with a genuine broth base and settled on primarily using bones.
I am very lucky to live about a minute’s walk away from a wonderful, locally sourced butcher called Drings. I left my sick bed to go and get 1.5kg worth of beef bones to make the broth. I did request bones with a bit of meat and fat left on them to add to the meaty flavour.
I used Rick Stein’s pho bo recipe to get me started.
Getting started with the broth
Firstly, find the biggest and deepest pan you can. Mine was suitable for the bones, vegetables and about 5 litres of liquid and this yielded 4 generous bowls of pho. The initial stages focus on releasing fragrances and aromas from the spices and softening the broth base of onions and ginger. Then, similarly to making stock, the bones are added to a vegetable base of celery, carrot, onions, peppercorns and the spices and submerged in cold water. You have to watch the broth for the first half an hour or so to bring it up to simmering level and to skim off any scum. Once the broth stops producing scum, you’re good to turn the heat right down, cover the pan, and leave it for as long as you possibly can, with the occasional stir once an hour or so.
Resist tasting the broth as you go along if you can, I had a few tastes after 4 hours and I was worried because I found it bland. Be patient! Give it time, the flavours develop and they develop deeply. The late additions to the broth, including a pinch of palm sugar and fish sauce also add different dimensions to the broth that you won’t get tasting as you go along.
Serving the dish
Strain the broth through a very fine sieve or cheesecloth so that you’re left with a clear and pure broth. I strained the broth twice to make sure. Discard the leftovers apart from the slow cooked brisket and leave this to get even more tender for a few minutes. Cover, add the palm sugar and fish sauce, and leave over a very low heat to keep warm while you assemble the bowls.
3 minutes to soak the rice noodles in boiling water, arrange the brisket, sprinkle some spring onion, ladle the broth over the top, and serve. Let your guests help themselves to bean sprouts, herbs, chilli and lime.
For the beef broth:
40g ginger, roughly chopped and bruised
350g shallots, sliced
4 star anise
2 cinnamon sticks
½ tsp fennel seeds
20 ounces beef brisket
1.5k beef bones
2 sticks celery, sliced
2 carrots, sliced
2 onions, sliced
1 tsp black peppercorns
5 litres cold water
1 tbsp salt
- Pinch of palm sugar
For the rest of the dish:
300g rice noodles
Bunch of mint
Bunch of coriander
Red chillies, deseeded and finely sliced
2 limes, wedged
Bunch of spring onions, finely sliced diagonally
4 tbsp nam pla, fish sauce
100g bean sprouts
- Add the star anise, cinnamon sticks and fennel seeds to a hot and dry frying pan. Keep the pan moving until the spices become fragrant.
- Return the pan to the heat and add the bruised ginger and shallots and fry for 8-10 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally, until the ginger and shallots are golden-brown. Transfer to the plate with the toasted spices.
- Place the bones, celery, carrots, onions, cloves, black peppercorns, roasted spices, ginger and shallots into a large, deep pan and pour over the water. Bring to the boil, skimming off any scum as necessary.
- Lower the heat, then add the salt and allow the broth to simmer for as long as possible (I simmered it for 7 hours).
- Slice the beef brisket roughly and add it to the broth approximately two hours to an hour and a half before you wish to serve the pho.
- Cook the rice noodles as per the packet instructions and add to four pho or noodle bowls.
- Add the mint, coriander, red chillies and lime wedges into a separate dish to add to your pho as per your tastes.
- Add the white part of the spring onions and the fish sauce to the broth.
- Sprinkle the green part of the spring onions and the bean sprouts over the noodles and beef. Ladle over the hot stock and serve with fresh herbs and chilli, just as you like it.
Note: I found leftover broth really hard to keep. I would recommend eating it all fresh! I didn’t try freezing it, but I have frozen homemade stocks before.
Learning how to cook pho at home from scratch has illustrated clearly to me that this is not a difficult dish to make. It’s a time-consuming one, but the hardest thing is getting the broth right, and given that I was so pleased with this broth, I feel that it can only get better with practice. If you have a rainy day at home, give it a try! I get such satisfaction from slow food and pho is a real crowd-pleaser. I’m going to try my favourite bun bo hue next. Get practicing in time for winter!