Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Tale of Two Phos and Some Eggplant

My favorite dish is my mom's pho. Pho (which actually has a squiggly thing on top of the o and is pronounced something like "fuh") is one of the more famous Vietnamese dishes, essentially beef noodle soup. Especially spectacular beef noodle soup. Slow cooked and delectable. Whenever I go down to LA (which is admittedly not as often as my family would like), my mom makes me pho. I don't know how other people's mothers make pho, but mine does it in the crockpot with oxtails and it's oh so yummy served with wheat noodles (dried udon) as opposed to the rice noodles the rest of the world seems to use. Here's the recipe:

For four:
oxtails, maybe a couple pounds, enough for four whatever that means
two yellow onions, peeled and chopped in half
several carrots (4-5, what looks good), chopped into 4-6 inch sections
large chunk of ginger, maybe a couple thick thumbs, ends and any nastiness cut off, then sliced
but not all the way through
lemongrass, one or two stalks, cut into 6 inch sections then sliced partially through
6 or 7 or more anisestars placed in a large teaball along with the 5 spice
chinese 5 spice, I think she told me a couple teaspoons or so, I always like to use a lot.
beef bouillon made into broth, enough for the pot

Slow cook the above in a crockpot (on high until it boils, then on low for 4-6 hours).
Remove the meat, onion and carrots from the broth and refrigerate separately from the broth. Discard the lemongrass and ginger chunks as well as the spices from the tea ball.

Refrigerating the broth for a while congeals the fat so it can be removed. Usually we cook the broth the day before it's going to be served, then let it sit in the fridge overnight, remove the fat in the morning and later before eating, warm up the broth again.

Pho is served with thin cut beef and lots of toppings. Cook noodles (rice or wheat according to taste) and portion into large bowls. Place some of the cooked carrot and onion as well as some of the soft beef from the oxtails into each bowl.

Cooking the thin-cut beef just before serving. Each portion of beef is placed in the ladle and lowered into the hot broth to cook for a few seconds until just barely cooked or even a little undercooked.
Still pink. It will cook further in the soup after it's served.

My mom bringing the pho out to the table. It's already topped with chopped green onions and marinated red onions. Red onions sliced finely and marinated in rice vinegar and sugar are a delicious and beautiful topping. Some bean sprouts are also briefly cooked in the hot broth similar to the beef. Fresh bean sprouts are placed at the table to be added by individuals for extra crispiness.

Each person can add lime to taste to the soup. Lime or lemon is an absolute must to bring out the soup's flavor. My brother and I used to know this dish as the soup with lots of lemon. We squeeze two or three wedges in and sometimes put the peel in the soup as well for extra oomph. Other things that can/should be added are greens like cilantro, asian basil and mint.
Chile is good too.

Making pho is not too difficult and the results are super tasty. So when my friend Steve asked if I wanted to help him cook a community dinner, I figured it could be easily scaled up a bit for the 20 or so people he said was the usual number of mouths to feed. (Steve lives in a co-housing community made up of individually owned homes whose people have knocked out the backyard fences and created a community garden as well as sharing several meals a week made in the community house.) Not too many people there eat beef, so I figured we could do it vegetarian, plus have a sweet and sour eggplant dish and sweet chili tofu and chicken over rice (when in doubt, fill 'em up with rice).

Vegetarian pho can be made by leaving out the oxtail and beef bouillon, substituting veggie bouillon and if I'm cooking, adding extra anise and five spice for good luck (wanna make sure it's got enough flavor), plus tofu towards the end. It doesn't have to cook as long and doesn't need to be cooled to remove fat. All very good for cooking for a large group in sort of a hurry. I was working at the clinic that Sunday morning with my shift ending at three. Dinner was supposed to be served at 6:30. Of course I rarely get to leave the clinic right when my shift is done; usually I don't escape until an hour or two later. I was a little nervous all morning anyways, because the 20 people Steve had said we were feeding when we talked Saturday night had turned into 30 by Sunday morning. It didn't help when I called him towards three to let him know I wouldn't be out on time and he said we were now cooking for 40. I'm really not good for cooking for more than 12.

Luckily since I was 30 minutes away, I got to delegate to Steve. I'd cut up 20 people's worth of veggies for the soup and brought it over in the morning with what I'd thought were clear directions (but if you read my recipes, you probably realize that they're a little vague). Steve was only slightly frazzled as he multiplied and chopped and manned the stove. Dinner was only 15-20 minutes late (ok, bad/dangerous form when cooking for the masses, but pretty good for this gal who routinely serves dinner an hour later than planned) and there was plenty of food. (Including mounds of eggplant which by the way is delicious and easy if you sautee onions and garlic in a bit of oil until onions are translucent, then add in 1/2 inch cubed eggplant with a bit more oil and some water, cover and cook until eggplant is just about done, then stir in a sauce made with 2tb soy sauce, 2 tb rice vinegar and 2 tsp sugar plus some cornstarch scaled up to be enough for the amount of eggplant.) Stomachs were full, there was widespread contentment and no angry mobs. The end.

Oh, and here's an appetizer that my mom and I made while I was home.
After reading Annie's blog, I've been very inspired to take food photos.

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