Vietnamese Pho' : Soup meets Salad
I love spices. LOVE. Especially non-Midwestern, non-traditional American spices and non-Midwestern, non-traditional American amounts of said spices. As my Moroccan-Israeli host mom once said while we were cooking, "Al tifachdi metavlinim - don't be afraid of spices. Another spoonful already! You Americans are so afraid ...and your food suffers."
About a decade ago, long before my travels, partly owing to the Food Network I began to lose interest in any food that wasn't novel, "ethnic" or ultra-healthy. When assigned to make dinner at home for the family, I would bring loads of groceries from anywhere but our corner grocery chain. Tiny Korean or Thai shops, the Arab market downtown, Indian grocers, and Chinatown were my go-to's. I quite literally felt punished when I was told to "tone down" the recipe or make something that the whole family would like. My meat-and-potatoes parents, being lifelong Midwestern residents, viewed plant-based meals as extremism. And they couldn't handle tasting anything other than garlic as the predominant "spice" in a dish. They often say that I must have been swapped at birth, since they are in no way responsible for my anything-but-white-American palate... neither via nature or nurture.
Cilantro? There was a time when I wasn't allowed to even bring it in the house, because my mom declared its smell to be nauseating. And the idea of a warm "dessert"-category spice like cinnamon, paired with meat? "What planet are you from, Child?" my mom would lovingly joke, though it was obvious she was a bit perplexed by the patterns she saw in my cravings.
I also have an obsession with anything off-the-beaten-path of my family's version of "healthy". My mom used to make lentils and juice carrots for herself to deal with a health issue many years ago, we rarely bought frozen, processed food, and always had a side salad at dinner. Fair enough. I had to take it to the next level, though. I embraced bizarre food as a pastime. I craved kale BEFORE it was cool. The texture of ground flaxseeds was mouthwatering to me. Before those little packets of seasoned seaweed (which you can find at Trader Joe's) became mainstream and overpriced, I bought 6-packs for a dollar at the Korean store and inhaled them in one sitting. Before the "Whole30" was ever a twinkle in the Millennial Generation's eye, I did the South Beach Diet as a 14 year-old, swearing off bread and all other processed carbs and sugar for 3 months simply because I had an inherent conviction that SOMETHING was fishy about the way we Americans consume starch, though I couldn't put my finger on exactly what it was.
This dish perfectly combines my ethnic and health fetishes in one soothing dish - with the comforting convenience of a crockpot.
Phở (pronounced "fuh"; rhymes with "the") is a soothing broth-based dish simmered for hours with cinnamon, anise, clove, fennel, and pepper. Rice noodles and very thin slices of beef are added right as it's served, and the piping hot liquid cooks the beef in seconds. Then, the diner customizes his or her own soup by tearing off wonderfully flavorful fresh herbs and squeezing limes to generously garnish the phở.
In Vietnam, phở is consumed on the daily, regardless of the hot and humid climate for most of the country most of the year. I've heard that restaurants and hole-in-the-wall cafes are sold out of it by noon, as the Vietnamese usually eat it as a light meal before they start their day. While I don't quite understand the hot meat-soup-for-breakfast concept when you're anticipating 80 degrees and 90% humidity, I definitely understand needing the heaping handfuls of these fresh, cooling, nutrition-dense herbs in the summer.
Thus emerges a solution to one of my dilemmas - how to eat fresh, vibrant, living, antioxidant packed, green vegetables in the long, cold winter when all I want is soup.
I crave (and indulge in) these steaming bowls of meaty, green goodness every few weeks when it's cold outside.
I'm so addicted to adding these herbs to simple Thai and Vietnamese dishes that I grow several of them in my garden during the growing season so I can have a constant supply. Though there are no greens in my garden yet, after the cold, gray months my backyard has lain fallow, it just this week has begun to yield tiny red buds, little violets, and some other unknown weed with the daintiest purple flowers. It makes my heart sing to see life and color once again.
In the cold months, I make bi-weekly trips to one of the several Asian superstores or mom & pop shops in the area to get my fix of these.
On the far right is Thai Basil (Vietnamese: Húng Quế), with a bit more depth and more of a licorice taste than its Italian cousin. Also pictured are mung bean sprouts (Giá), and peppermint (Húng Cay). On the left is the familiar cilantro (Rau Mùi) which appears in nearly every other culture and cuisine except for my family of origin.
Here's my challenge of the week for you: venture to your nearest Asian market for a wonderful cultural experience. Regardless of the store's... aroma (and it will have one), the end result of your adventurous endeavor will result in the creation of a beautiful, nourishing, palate-pleasing masterpiece.
Buy some Thai Basil. There's a ton in that package! I'll be posting about lots of my favorite simple Asian recipes in the future, but for now, contact me and I'll give them to you ahead of time so you don't waste your $2 basil bundle.
Buy some noodles too. Oh the noodles! Carb or or gluten guilt holding you back from Asian cooking? Well I've got news...even if you're a Whole30'er, there are options for you! There is so much more than the flour & water Maruchan ramen of your college years. Think rice, brown rice, buckwheat, mung bean, and even sweet potato! More on that in a later post.
Traditionally, thin rice noodles are used, and that's what I generally stick with for phở. You can buy them dry in packages on the shelf (6 for like $1.50), or "fresh" in the refrigerated section. Either way, they will usually soften really quickly in hot water and then are ready for eating.
This dish is easy to make, and I recommend making double for the broth, and freezing half for later so all you have to do is heat the broth, slice some beef and wash some herbs. Easy and exotic is the way to go.
A flavorful broth is the secret to good phở. The dry spices marry with the flavors of these 3 awesome-sauces, 2 fresh herbs (ginger and garlic), 2 vegetables (onions and carrots), and a bit of sugar. If you're on Whole30... just cheat and do a little honey. It's fine.
The Asian Trifecta: Tamari (gluten-free, fermented soy sauce), sriracha, and fish sauce- no foodie's home should be without them. Well... I guess you can see I am almost without one - (after just 4 months!) that's how much I use fish sauce. It's in every Thai dish, and adds salt and depth of flavor in a way that soy sauce never could. Just a couple dashes is usually enough - it's POTENT and stinks at first, but once in the food it loses the smell and works miracles.
Toast your spices to draw out the flavor.
Combine all the above in the crockpot. Mine's just a puny 2-quart, so sadly, no double-batching it for me (what was I thinking during my wedding registering days?)
Brown the onions.
Add the beef broth (or, if you're a newbie to the flavor of phở, maybe try chicken broth since it's more mellow).
Turn it on...go do your thing.
Just before serving, cut a strip steak, skirt steak or sirloin steak with kitchen shears into 1/8 inch slices.
Note: I know next to nothing about cuts of beef and usually end up buying really cheap ones. But I've heard salting your meat liberally on both sides with kosher salt an hour at room temp before cooking tenderizes even the toughest cuts.
2nd Note: Better slicing method: partially frozen steak is easier to slice than thawed meat! Use a large knife to shear off the partially frozen meat at an angle into paper thin slices and get much better results than pictured here.
Wash the fresh herbs well, and arrange them on a plate.
Put a bunch of noodles in such a big soup bowl it could almost double as a serving dish. Pour boiling water over the noodles. Drain once soft.
Add strips of beef to the noodles. Ladle hot broth over the top.
Garnish your bowl.
Make it even better with some more traditional sauces.
Pat yourself on the back, and enjoy. You did it, phở real.