When I first met my husband, he was a classic meat and potatoes man. Vegetables were an afterthought at best, exotic cuisine was Beef and Broccoli from the local takeout place and the first thing he ever cooked for me started from a little blue box – the less said about that, the better. The exception to this was pho. Probably half of our dates that first year were at his favorite pho restaurant. He loved pho and he taught me to love it, with its delicious fragrant broth, paper-thin onions, slurp-able rice noodles and thin slices of tender, just barely cooked by the heat of the broth, beef. As I got used to pho, I experimented with adding different amounts of hoisin and sriracha (more when you have a stuffy nose), as well as lime juice, bean sprouts (just a few, please) and fresh herbs (the tiniest basil leaves are the best). He was more adventurous with his choices of meat (tripe, anyone?), but we both enjoyed getting to know each other over steaming bowls of pho.
Several years later, we still turn to pho to provide a quick meal on a busy night, to warm us on chilly days or to cure what ails us – nothing beats it when you feel a cold coming on. Pho is one of our comfort foods. I’d played around with the idea of making pho from scratch in the past, but the recipes I found required hours of boiling stock and called for enormous quantities of oxtails and marrow bones and an industrial sized pot. That plan got quickly set aside. So I was thrilled when this month’s Daring Cooks’ Challenge was announced. I even squealed to my husband that he’d never guess what the challenge was. And he did – based solely on how excited I sounded. It’s amazing the things we’re willing to do when you throw in the words ‘daring’ and ‘challenge’.
Jaden of Steamy Kitchen provided us with the recipes for Pho Ga or chicken pho. She gave us the option of making Quick Vietnamese Chicken Pho from her new cookbook, which makes pho a weeknight option by using store-bought stock instead of homemade. Or we could live up to our Daring name and make the longer, more traditional version with either beef or chicken. I, of course, opted for the longer version found here because homemade stock would have only the flavors I wanted in it – most store bought stocks are made with vegetables that are not traditional in pho stock.
After some of the recent challenges, I felt lucky that I already had most of the ingredients on hand, even the spices and condiments. The stock making process was very similar to making an ordinary chicken soup. Plus I had a devoted four-legged volunteer ready to assist in the process, should I need him. He was very attentive to the entire process, since he usually gets some part of any chicken I butcher, but not this time – I needed all the precious bones for the soup. Jaden suggested a new-to-me method of par-boiling the chicken for five minutes to remove most of the impurities and discarding that water before starting over to simmer the stock. This drastically reduced the amount of skimming I had to do later.
There are two keys to a fragrant and rich-tasting pho: first you must toast the whole spices to release their oils before adding them to the simmering stock. This step is not included in the recipe link above, but it’s essential. Second, you must char the onion and ginger – I put it under the broiler while I was butchering the chicken. Neither of these steps took long at all, but they were absolutely worth it. I simmered my stock longer than suggested, closer to 3 hours, so the stock was probably reduced more than normal; we got four bowls of pho from it. When the stock was finished, it had a light, delicate flavor that only needed salt to round it out. I am used to the stronger beef version, so this was quite different. I will probably decrease the amount of water or double the chicken and spices when I make this again. I also sliced my chicken breast instead of shredding it, added sliced napa cabbage to get in an extra vegetable and used the red onions called for, though I’ll use white in the future because the red was too strong. I think I’ll try out the beef version soon, now that fall has really started. Most importantly, I’m no longer afraid of making my own pho and I’m more appreciative that my husband and I still have our pho place for those times when I just don’t feel like making my own.