That's pho-king delicious

Ari LeVaux - 02/09/2017
That's pho-king delicious

If you’ve been living under a rock at the bottom of the ocean for the last decade, you might-might-have missed the ascendency of pho, Vietnam’s internationally beloved comfort food. The steaming meal is both soup and salad, a fragrant beef broth in which delicate rice noodles and meat parts comingle with fresh herbs and sprouts, amidst a customized mixture of condiments. In the heat of summer, pho heats you up and makes you sweat, breaking the seasonal fever. In winter, pho will warm your bones and melt away your congestion. It’s equally nourishing and satisfying in spring and fall, morning and night.

I tend to do my cooking by improvisation, but that doesn’t work with pho, despite its apparent simplicity. The broth is elusive, even if you know what the ingredients are. Inevitably, one or more of the spices will come on too strong, resulting in an unbalanced cacophony rather than the understated, harmonious symphony that has conquered the slurping masses.

My numerous failures left me discouraged, with no other choice than to head to my local pho shop to get my fix. But this drought ended when Andrea Nguyen, the undisputed authority on Vietnamese food in America, was kind enough to email me the keys to the kingdom.

I found myself on a list of recipe testers for Nguyen’s masterful new cookbook, The Pho Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2017). My main assignment was to help replicate and troubleshoot the recipe for pressure cooker pho, a method that expedites the usual hours-long simmering of bones that goes into your typical bowl of pho.

Other than the wholly unexpected addition of a quartered apple – Nguyen’s substitute for Vietnamese rock sugar – there weren’t any surprises in the ingredient list. I’d used them all before in my previous failed attempts.

I used my trusty Instant Pot, an electric pressure cooker that bears a striking resemblance to R2D2-right down to the endearing beeps it makes at various points in the cooking process. If you’ve ever been spooked by the rattling and hissing of a stovetop pressure cooker that seemed on the verge of detonating in your kitchen, the Instant Pot is a silent alternative that won’t even release the flavors of its contents into the kitchen air.

I had entered the pho-bidden kingdom, and it was good. In addition to the delicious home cooking, it gave me the confidence to start coining my own pho-centered puns, a practice that many restaurateurs have encouraged

by giving their establishments goofy names like PHO-ever YUM, PhoKing delicious, and What the Pho. It’s a reflection of the giddy feeling of being onto something pho-bulous and wonder-pho.

Nguyen’s cookbook recently arrived in the mail. Cover to cover, it’s inspiring, beautiful and informative, filled with studio pho-tos of the finished recipes and street scenes of the pho-life in Vietnam. And there is a big focus on the history of pho, which is inseparable from the history of Vietnam. All of the elements combine for fascinating and mouth-watering reading material. Densely packed with information and ideas, the

book’s construction is sturdy, with no paper jacket in the hardback edition. This is a book that’s ready to roll up its sleeves and get the pho on the road.

In addition to recipes for various preparations of pho, from traditional to chicken, seafood and vegetarian versions, it includes a section of pho-flavored spinoffs, like the intimidating but doable pho dumplings that I also recipe-tested, along with side dishes meant to accompany a pho-fledged feast.

With Nguyen’s permission I will share the pressure cooker pho recipe that I helped test. Being a lover of pho and my Instant Pot, this recipe has worn a very soft spot in my heart and belly. For space reasons I had to condense her recipe from the printed version. It should be enough to get you started. But if you really want to get with the pho-gram, you’ll need your own copy.

Pressure Cooker Beef Pho (Adapted with permission from The Pho Cookbook by Andrea Nguyen)

Broth
3 lbs beef bones
1 lb beef brisket, unsliced
21⁄2 star anise pods (20 robust points, total)
1 3-inch piece of cinnamon
3 whole cloves
Chubby, 2-inch section of ginger, peeled, thickly

sliced, bruised
1 large yellow onion, halved and thickly sliced
1 small Fuji apple, peeled, cored and cut into thumbnail-size chunks
21⁄4 teaspoons fine sea salt
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon sugar


Bowls
10 ounces dried, narrow rice noodles
Cooked beef from the broth, sliced thin
4-5 ounces thinly sliced raw beef steak
1⁄2 small red or yellow onion, thinly sliced against the

grain and soaked in water for 10 minutes
2 thinly sliced green onions, green parts only
1⁄4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Black pepper, to taste

Optional: bean sprouts, chile slices, mint, Thai basil, lime wedges, hoisin sauce, sriracha sauce. (Nguyen gives recipes for homemade versions of hoisin sauce, chile sauce, sate sauce and garlic vinegar)

Procedure:
- Rinse bones.

- Toast the spices on medium heat in the pressure cooker for a few minutes, shaking or stirring, until fragrant. Add ginger and onion; stir until aromatic and slightly charred.

- Add 4 cups water to stop the cooking process. Add the bones, brisket, apple, salt and five more cups of water. Lock the lid and pressure cook for 20 minutes at 15 psi or higher.

- While broth is cooking, soak the noodles in hot water until pliable and opaque. Drain and rinse and drain again. Divide among four bowls.

- Remove broth from heat. Allow pressure to go down to the point where you can open the cooker. Season with fish sauce, salt and sugar, if desired. Remove the meat, soak in water for 10 minutes to prevent drying and set aside until serving time. Refrigerate the broth to make it easy to skim fat, if desired.

- At serving time, dunk each portion of noodles in boiling water, then replace in the bowls. Top with the brisket, steak, onion, green onion, cilantro and pepper. Heat the broth to a boil and ladle into the bowls. Dive in and add condiments to tweak flavor. Invite people over to enjoy your handiwork while you assault them with puns. Your audience will be captive until the pho runs dry.

Top Shelf

How deep is your love?
How deep is your love?
By Chris Aaland
02/11/2021

Philadelphia freedom, Brothers Gibb & pirates on the mic

Rock in peace
Rock in peace
By Chris Aaland
01/07/2021

Mourning 2020’s lost musical voices and childhood missed chances 
 

Quaran-tunes
Quaran-tunes
By Chris Aaland
12/17/2020

What to listen to while waiting out a pandemic
 

Stay calm and folk on
Stay calm and folk on
By Chris Aaland
09/03/2020

KSUT streams virtual Four Corners Folk Festival this Friday
 

Read All in Top Shelf

Day in the Life

Cold comfort
Cold comfort
12/17/2020

Seeking solstice solace in the dog days of winter

A Grand escape
A Grand escape
By Stephen Eginoire
11/19/2020

Pandemic fatigue? Forget the world with three weeks on the Colorado

The living museum
The living museum
By Stephen Eginoire
10/15/2020
A day at the beach
A day at the beach
By Stephen Eginoire
06/18/2020

What does one do when their favorite summer swimming hole is teeming with reptilian and amphibian aquatic life?

Read All in Day on the Life