I owe Barbara Futrell my gratitude for the loan of the 12-quart stock pot I made the weekend’s soup in. Though ill, she kindly greeted me on her front door with the pot in hand. Without it, we would have had no soup.
Another person to thank is Matt Martini from graphics. Matt provided several ingredients for the soup, and I appreciate it. Lastly is Holly McClenahan who I met at Eldora’s books. She provided the star anise I used to season the soup. Having thanked everyone for helping me with the soup, I’ll get on with the column.
The meal I chose for our gang was pho bo, a Vietnamese beef and noodle soup. Pho is pronounced to rhyme with “duh,” and is a common Vietnamese meal. The soup may have originated around the beginning of the 20th Century in Hanoi with Vietnamese cooks adding local ingredients and spices to French-style beef soup.
Matt and I went to a Korean market just outside of Fort Campbell for most of the exotic ingredients. Carolyn Bland said that she thought I did most of my shopping out of town, but in every week but this one, I usually buy what I need locally. This week, I needed some unusual items that could only be found at an Oriental market. After our shopping expedition, we took the shopkeeper’s recommendation for a Korean restaurant, and had a very nice supper Friday night.
Finally, I had the needed ingredients and went to work on a dish that couldn’t be beat. My many Vietnamese friends in Texas and Florida often made this soup. I won’t lie, this is time and labor intensive. To start off, I parboiled five pounds of beef bones. Parboiling allows a cook to remove some of the impurities that create a scum in the pot. Cover the bones in water and bring to a boil for two-to-three minutes. Rinse the bones in warm water and scrub the pan quickly. Barbara added a metal basket for the bones, so they could be easily removed. It really helped the cooking, I think. Return the bones to the pot and add six quarts of water.
To season the stock, I roasted two whole onions and a three-inch piece of ginger over hot charcoal. It sweetens the onions and lets the ginger release its flavor. Cut the burned parts of both off, peel the ginger, and slice the onions into thin strips. I put both into the basket, so they could be removed later, for a thin broth. Add a three-inch cinnamon stick, four or five stars of anise, and six whole cloves to the pot. Again, these went into the basket, to stay out of the main part of the broth. Outside the basket, I added a pound of stew meat. A universal Vietnamese seasoning is fish sauce. I bought a liter at the market, and added four tablespoons. Next time around, I may try three. It tastes great, though does have a heavy flavor. Look for a Vietnamese brand of sauce if you ever try this recipe. Two teaspoons of sugar moderated the sharp flavor of the sauce. Add salt as needed. Let the broth simmer for three hours, then remove and discard the bones and large seasoning items. If desired or needed, strain the soup for a clear broth. With the basket, I didn’t think we needed to do that.
Preparing bowls for the soup is another step in the process. Line the bottom of each bowl with bean sprouts, three or four mint leaves and an equal amount of basil. The sprouts add crunch, but if you do not like crunchy sprouts, blanch them for two minutes in boiling water. A tablespoon of chopped green onion and an equal amount of yellow onion adds extra zing.
The soup’s main body comes from rice noodles. Take a pound of rice noodles and boil for five minutes until tender. In the mean time, I added some very thin slices of sirloin (about a pound) to the boiling broth, and a half-pound of Vietnamese meatballs, called bo vien, to the soup. Add the beef slices at the last minute before serving, or place in the bowls to remain somewhat rare. Add a comfortable serving of noodles, and then ladle the broth on top.
Condiments for the soup allow diners to customize their bowls to taste. I like to include bottles of hoisin sauce and Sriracha Chili Sauce to the table. Remaining bean sprouts, sliced jalapeno, lime wedges and the rest of the mint and basil should be placed on a plate for diners to customize their bowls.
As an appetizer, I served cha gio egg rolls. Hawkins girlfriend Sanci helped with rolling them up because my technique still needs some work. This time I got the wrappers from the Asian grocery, and they were paper-thin. Sanci suggested we deep-fry the rolls next time out. Again, I’ll talk about them when my technique improves a bit.
Hawkins, Sanci and I were joined by Matt and his girlfriend, Annie. We enjoyed each other’s company and the soup around the table last Saturday. I am not sure how many bowls everyone had, but very little was left between the five of us. Being able to “customize” a bowl of pho made for fun and variation, so I have to say that a good time was had by all. Good eating!