Thursday, March 28, 2013

Pho Phail But Then a Win



I adore beef pho. Because I am lucky to live in a city like Toronto, there is no need to make it at home to be perfectly honest. Why would I go to all that trouble when I can walk out the door and be at Mimi on Gerrard in 15 minutes, sitting down to a piping hot bowl of perfection. For this reason, I have never actually attempted to make it home.



I grew up in a house where money was tight and food had to stretch to feed 7 people, three of them growing boys who ate like wildebeest with the munchies. Because of this, we ate a lot of hamburger stew, canned creamed corn and white sandwich bread and although my mom did make a few things I really loved, they were special occasion foods and were rare treats. The best day of the year was always my birthday. My mother would not only let us stay home from school for our birthday but she would also make whatever you requested for your special meal. Of course, because I was a horrible child, I made her make the three things that were her most labour intensive dishes. Every year, like clockwork, she knew she was going to have to get up at the crack of dawn and start preparing cabbage rolls and baked beans. She could take a little break mid afternoon but then it was back to the stove to make my scalloped potatoes and lemon meringue pie. This, as you can see, was not an exotic meal but it was my favourite meal and she did indulge me without complaint. For me, it was the other 364 days that I had trouble with.


From the age of 5 I told anyone who asked that when I grew up I would to move to the mythical, magical city Toronto, home to a number of Chinatowns, India Town, Little Italy, and Greektown on the The Danforth and that is precisely what I did the summer after I turned 18. 


One of my first apartments here was atop a Vietnamese restaurant on College Street at the mouth of Kensington market. We would eat there three or four times a week because for $5 we could eat until we couldn’t move and the food was more delicious than anything I knew how to make for myself. Shockingly, it was called The Something Saigon like every other Vietnamese joint. Later on I would defect over to the Pho Hung but The Something Siagon was my first love. I would try other dishes from time to time but my favourite thing in the whole world was rare beef pho and I never, ever got sick of eating it. 
One day, after a few months of regular patronage, I fell ill and couldn’t go out to eat. After I had not been to the restaurant for a day or two, the owner asked after me and my friends told her I was too sick to come down. The next thing I knew, she came upstairs with a big bowl of soup on a tray for me.  She tapped on the door and left a tray with a bowl of beef pho for me. For the next few days she left a tray outside of the door and would pick up the empty bowl that I left back out there in the hall later in the evening. For a young girl away from her mother for the first time, that soup suddenly represented home even though the dish itself couldn’t have been farther away from any food home had ever provided. I spent the next decade traveling and discovering the world but pho was always the first Toronto food I would start to miss and the first meal I would eat when I came home. 

Almost 30 years later, pho is still what I crave when I am sick, sad, upset or stressed. It is comfort, love and home rolled up into one steaming bowl of soupy noodles.
Oh and I never ate a bite of canned cream corn again.


A few weeks ago I was asked to write a short post on a food that tells a story about me in some way for Gastropost and so, naturally I chose to write about pho.  It pinpoints the exact moment in my life when I first fell in love with the asian flavours that continue to dominate my cooking.

Because I was going to write about pho, I thought I really should try to make it myself and so I spent a couple of days reading blogs and online recipes and they all looked more or less the same. I was intrigued by the idea of making the stock in my crock pot so I finally settled on a recipe, went shopping and got all of my ingredients. Using two crockpots because both of mine were too small for a proper batch, I made it before bed. I dreamed about soup all night long as it simmered away, filling the house with the most amazing smells. When I finally woke up, I jumped out of bed and ran into the kitchen, as exited as a kid on christmas morning to taste it and I have to be honest - I was utterly disappointed. It tasted like really fragrant but bland beefy water and nothing like the broth I am used it. The smell was right but the flavour just wasn't there. I could have cried.

For once I followed a recipe to the letter and the broth was just not flavourful and didn't taste like any pho broth I have ever eaten. I kind of panicked and added way more fish sauce and that kind of helped a bit but it was just bland, bland, bland and pho broth needs to almost be a bit over seasoned so that after you add all of the unseasoned noodles and beef, it balances itself out.

My final act of desperation was to dissolve a pho soup cube into the soup and then left it to sit for the day. We did eat it for dinner and although it ended up being pretty tasty once you filled the bowl with all of the herbs and lots of fresh lime, but it still didn't taste quite right and it was certainly not worth all of the time and effort that went into it.
For that reason I am not going to share that recipe.

Okay, all that said, I couldn't stop thinking about my crappy beef broth and I kept looking for other recipes but all of them sounded more or less the same. I have no reason to believe that I will be just as disappointed if I try it again. Some called for roasting the bones first and doing a bit more of that sort of thing, but, to be honest, I just won't do that because I can get great pho anywhere and I didn't want to be let down again.

Then I found this recipe for cheater pho on neighbour food blog. I am okay using the Campbell's low sodium chicken stock in the box but I have never really loved the taste of the beef. I throw chicken stock in everything, regardless of what sort of meat I am cooking but it got good reviews and it couldn't be worse than my original soup, right? So I adapted this recipe a bit, used a bit less beef broth, added a bit of chicken broth and water and made a quick, cheater cheater pumpkin eater pho. I am absolutely embarrassed to say that it was actually tastier than the pho I made from scratch. The best part is that it was also really quick and it was all done and in the bowls and on the table in about 30 minutes.

You know, sometimes it is what it is.

before and after adding broth

Cheater Cheater Pumpkin Eater Beef Pho

adapted from neighbor food blog
serves 4 or 5

for the broth:

4 cups or 900 ml of beef broth
2 cups or 500ml of chicken broth
1 cup or 250ml water
about 1 tbls canola or other veg oil
1 small onion, peeled and cut in half
2" piece of ginger, sliced into coins
1/2 cinnamon stick
1 tsp coriander seed
1/2 tsp fennel seed
1 star anise
1 clove
1 cardamom pod
1 tbls brown sugar or palm sugar
2 tbsl fish sauce
2 tbls hoisin sauce





for the soup bowls:
1 454g or about 16oz package medium dried rice noodles
about 1/2 lb raw flank steak, london broil, eye or round sliced thinly as possible
limes, cut into wedges
fresh cilantro, thai basil (normal basil will do) and mint
a couple of handfuls of bean sprouts
thinly sliced onion
hoisin sauce
siracha sauce

Put the beef broth, chicken broth and water in a pot and bring to a boil. While it's coming to the boil, heat a frying pan over med high heat. Put the cinnamon stick, coriander, fennel, star anise and the clove in the dry pan and toast for a minute until fragrant. Remove the spices and throw them into the soup broth. Add a bit of canola oil to the same hot pan and fry the onion halves and the ginger coins until they get really browned, almost starting to burn. Remove the onion and ginger and put that in the soup broth too. Now add the hoisin and the fish sauce, bring to a boil, cover, lower heat and simmer for at least 15 minutes or so.
While the soup broth is simmering, get your bowl ingredients ready. The best way to slice the beef thinly is to throw the meat into the freezer for about 20 minutes or so and take it out and slice it as thinly as you can, against the grain. Set aside.
Bring another big pot of water to the boil and cook your rice noodles according to the package directions. You want to take the noodles out when they are just a hair shy of being totally cooked as they will continue to soften in the hot broth. Pour them into a strainer and rinse them under some cold tap water. Give the strainer a good shake and then divide the noodles up between your bowls. Divide up the bean sprouts, herbs and sliced onion amongst the bowls as well. If you know how you like it, you can squeeze in the lime , add hot sauce and/or hoisin sauce etc.
If you aren't sure, leave the herbs and lime out of the soup and serve them on a plate and let people doctor up their own bowls.
Now, you have to pour your simmering broth over the noodles and beef in the bowls. I just poured it straight from the pot using a fine, mesh strainer but you can also strain the broth into another, clean pot if you don't want to do that. As long as you strain all of the solids out of the soup broth you are good. Let the bowls sit for a minute and push the beef down to make sure it's all covered in the hot soup because the hot soup is what will cook the beef.



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