Friday, March 7, 2014

The Phở Story

When I was twelve years old I spent the whole summer sleeping over at my best friend's house. She was Chinese, and practically living with her day to day was like an incredible immersion into the East. We had a lot in common because we both came to America at about nine years old and we had similar experiences trying to fit in, missing our lives back home and trying to figure out how to navigate the treacherous world of a California middle school. Although our cultures were completely different, we saw so many similarities that we naturally gravitated towards each other - our parents were busy but tried to keep us within the bounds and rules of our separate cultures while pushing us into the American world around us.  It was a schizophrenic time, and we took comfort in each other's experiences. She was an artistic spirit who liked poetry, calligraphy and literature and we spent our summer painting, reading Walden and eating. 

That particular summer was the summer that I found out what a rice steamer was, how to eat with chopsticks and was treated to many trips into Vietnamese noodle houses, where my friend's mom's friends marveled at the blond adopted kid who braved on through a whole bowl of phở, slurping and fighting with chopsticks until she reached near perfection. "Where did you find that child??" Followed by goodhearted laughter, quick Chinese chatter, and a pat on the head.
Phở will always be one of the ultimate comfort foods for me. The sweet smell of broth and the texture of velvet rice noodles will create a warm pang in my heart and in my stomach. I have had many species of phở since then, but I've been almost scared to learn how to prepare it, mostly for the fear that it would lose it's magic in my hands.

Part of the wonder of comfort food is that it is a gift, an assurance that is received into our hands from someone else's, like a medicine or a kiss on the forehead when you're sick. I was afraid to spoil that magic. 

On the other hand, there is also a comfort that lies in being able to help yourself when you're not able to go out, in figuring out how to create something so nostalgic and homey without having to change out of pajamas. It was becoming self reliant, like learning how to drive a car or being a cave person who figured out how to make fire and warm themselves. (Too much?) I finally learned how to make basic phở, and realized this was a gateway drug - I was soon experimenting with a multitude of different options, styles and tastes. Duck, pork, dumplings, egg noodles, rice noodles, prawns, basil, hot sauces, plum sauces, chili sauces... The list goes on and on.

This is the recipe to a very basic chicken phở. I love the traditional beef broth but hey - I still have a LOT of chicken broth to get through! There will be more phở later. Much, much more. 

I often experiment with different toppings and different herbs. There are so many of them in any Asian market - I usually pick off a piece of the leaf to see how it tastes - bitter, sour, spicy... Experimenting is great, and I never know what I'm going to find.

I prefer flat rice noodles, but there are hundreds of different options.

Makes one large serving, for a rainy day

1 liter of chicken broth (I like mine more fatty - so I cook it with a little added chicken fat)
2 star anise pods
1 lemon grass stalk, cut up 
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 piece of oxtail, meat on
1/4 lb beef brisket, partially frozen
1/4 onion, sliced
1 bunch green onion, chopped
1 tbsp chicken fat
Flat rice noodles, a fair amount


Sriracha sauce!
Vietnamese basil
Mung Bean Shoots
Limes, sliced

Basic rules of the road:

-NEVER cook noodles and broth in one pot. Cook them seperately.
-To cut beef into paper thin strips partially freeze it first.

In a large pot melt the chicken fat, and sautee the sliced onion.  Put in the star anise, the lemon grass (this is usually not in the recipe, but it adds incredible flavor and hey, this is my recipe ;) ) and oxtail into the simmering onions and brown for about 3 minutes on high heat. Pour in the chicken broth and simmer on low heat for about an hour, or until the meat is tender and falls off the bone. This adds so much more flavor to a plain chicken broth, although it's already delicious. At the end, add fish broth.
With tongs or using a sieve, separate the lemongrass and star anise from the broth (people also use little spice bags for cooking them, but I firmly believe that sauteing them at the beginning adds to the flavor more. You can't saute a muslin bag ;) Then, separate the meat from the bone.
In boiling water, cook the noodles and set them aside in a large bowl. I rinse them, to get rid of any left over rice goo - it will thicken your broth, and I like my broth clear.
Cut the brisket into very thin stripes - I LOVE rare brisket and I probably cut it a bit thicker than most people, but that's the great thing about doing this yourself - you can pick your favorite things about it and go crazy with them. I am planning on doing an "ultimate phở" post, where I can share the pure everything but the kitchen sink insanity that is my perfect phở. Serve and top with favorite toppings!

Today's inspiration:

"Still Life With the Red Cock"

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