Phở nạm bò (Beef Noodle Soup)

February 3, 2009

Cooking is a language through which a society expresses itself.
~Jean Soler

With its varied traditions, diverse cultures, notable history and differing terrain, Vietnam is a cradle of supreme cuisine. One favorite at this table is Phở bò a luscious, soulful beef and rice noodle soup.

Phở originated in northern Vietnam in the early 20th Century, then spread to central and south Vietnam sometime after the defeat of the French in the climactic battle at Dien Bien Phu(1954)—marking the end of the French Indochina War and ultimately French colonization. The southward migration of phở throughout the country resulted in many regional variants of the dish, so that the phở in Hue differs from that in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi.

Phở, pronounced fuh (as in “what the phở?!) is traditionally served for breakfast in Vietnam, but can also be found as lunch or dinner fare. Understatedly nympholeptic.

Phở Nạm Bò

2 onions, peeled & quartered
6-8 slices fresh ginger, peeled & cut lengthwise into 1/2” slices
10 whole star anise
10 whole cardamom pods
2 cinnamon sticks

12 C chicken broth
4 C water
2 lb piece of beef brisket
1 lb beef neck and/or shank bones
6 oxtails

1-2 T fish sauce (nước mắm nhi)
2 T sugar
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1 lb dried rice noodles, 1/4″ wide (banh pho)

6 green onions, sliced
6 sprigs large Thai or small Italian basil
2 jalapeño and assorted Thai chilies, stemmed, thinly cut on diagonal
1 lb cut of London broil
3 C fresh mung bean sprouts

Hoisin sauce
Hot chili sauce (e.g., Sriracha)
Lime wedges
Cilantro, stemmed and roughly cut
Mint, stemmed and roughly cut

Preheat oven to 350 F

Arrange onion quarters, rounded side down, and ginger pieces on baking sheet. Roast until onions begin to soften, about 20-25 minutes. Cut off dark, charred edges if any. Toast star anise, cardamom pods, and cinnamon sticks in small skillet over medium heat, until aromatic and slightly darker, about 3 minutes.

Bring broth, water and brisket to a boil in a large, heavy pot over high heat. Skim off foam that rises to top with a spider sieve. Add onions, ginger and toasted spices to the pot. Reduce heat to medium low. Cover and gently simmer until brisket is tender, about 2 1/2 hours. Again, skim off and discard any fat from the soup’s surface.  (Or you could increase the broth some and cook over low for about 8 hours.)

Transfer brisket, neck/shank bones and oxtails to cutting board; slice brisket thinly across the grain. Strain soup into large bowl, discarding the strained solids. Return soup, brisket, neck/shank bones and oxtails to same pot and boil 10 minutes. Add fish sauce (nước mắm nhi) and sugar, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Reduce heat to low simmer.

For the last 5 minutes or so of preparation have the London broil in the freezer to firm it for slicing. Then remove and slice crosswise into very thin strips with an extremely sharp knife.

Cook rice noodles in medium pot of boiling salted water until just tender, about 5 minutes. Drain.

Divide noodles among separate soup bowls. Add brisket (and necks/shanks, oxtails should you wish) to bowls. Then add the onions, beans and chilies to your liking. Top with London broil, and ladle hot soup over the top which will “cook” the steak. Serve with remaining garnishes on the table (hoisin, sriracha, basil, cilantro, mint, lime wedges).

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