You all know that I love Asian food. One of my all-time favorite Asian dishes is pho, that lovely and heart-warming Vietnamese noodle soup. It is traditionally a beef-broth soup (if made correctly the broth is a real labor of love) with thin slices of beef that cook in the broth, rice noodles and vegetables and herbs such as broccoli, cabbage, onion, cilantro, bean sprouts and mint. If you order pho in a restaurant, they usually bring you a large platter heaped with herbs that you can add yourself.
As I don’t eat very much meat and am on a budget after all of the good-bye dinners of the past week, I opted to make a cheaper and easier vegetarian version. I have made this version of pho once before when I hosted an Asian potluck a few months ago. It was quite a comical sight: me in my tiny kitchen, working with 2 hot plates and very limited cooking utensils, trying to cook the rice noodles and simmer the broth and cook all of the vegetables to serve 8 people. But, I got it done in the end and was very happy with the results, as were the guests based on all of the empty bowls! However, the second time around I didn’t have time to go to the Asian market across town before hand, so when the craving for pho struck last night, I had to work with what I had in my fridge. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the cabbage, broccoli or bean sprouts that are the traditional pho accompaniments. Instead, I had a frozen bag of mixed vegetables that I keep for emergencies – emergency meaning when I don’t have time to go to the open-air market. I know the bagged stuff isn’t really any better, but I just find it so difficult to buy over-priced, terrible quality, un-organic produce at the supermarket. At least the bagged stuff looks pretty and is organic and doesn’t come wrapped in obscene amounts of plastic. Why does all of the organic produce at the supermarket in France come wrapped individually?! Je ne comprends pas…
So, I made my faux pho again, except this time it was double faux as it was not only vegetarian, but also untraditional in it’s ingredients. It had red peppers, egg and dill – not what comes to mind when you think of pho! But, at least the broth was sort of authentic. Whatever it was, it was delicious and I enjoyed it in a slurpy fervor as only a person deprived of Asian food could do. This is yet another example that you should never feel locked into a recipe: cooking should be inventive, intuitive and convenient. Use what you have! Who knows, you might just love your improvised version better than the original. As the say, necessity is the mother of all invention…
Vegetarian Phở (Vietnamese Noodle Soup) From the wonderful Emily Ho at The Kitchn, with notes from Caely in parentheses.
1 large onion, peeled and halved
2-inch piece fresh ginger root, peeled and halved lengthwise
3-inch cinnamon stick, preferably Vietnamese cassia-cinnamon
1 star anise (I couldn’t find star anise here, so I used 1 teaspoon of green anise seeds)
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
4 cups unsalted vegetable stock ( I used homemade and I highly recommend doing this if you have the time!)
2 teaspoons soy sauce
4 carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/2 pound dried flat rice noodles (known as bánh phở; use 1/16″, 1/8″, or 1/4″ width depending on availability and preference)
Protein such as fried or baked tofu, bean curd skin, or seitan (I used raw tofu the first time I made the pho, and a fried egg the second time – both versions were delicious!)
Vegetables such as bok choy, napa cabbage, or broccoli (bean sprouts too – this is my favorite part of pho! How could they forget to mention the bean sprouts?)
1/2 onion, very thinly sliced
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1 chile pepper (Thai bird, serrano, or jalapeño), sliced
1 lime, cut into wedges
1/2 cup bean sprouts
Large handful of herbs: cilantro, Thai basil
Hoisin sauce, sriracha (optional)
For the broth
Char onion and ginger over an open flame (holding with tongs) or directly under a broiler until slightly blackened, about 5 minutes on each side. Rinse with water.
In a large pot, dry roast cinnamon, star anise, cloves, and coriander over medium-low heat, stirring to prevent burning. When spices are aromatic, add vegetable stock, soy sauce, carrots, and charred onion and ginger.
Bring broth to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes. Strain and keep hot until ready to serve.
For the noodles
While broth is simmering, place noodles in a large bowl and cover with hot water. Let stand for 20-30 minutes or until tender but still chewy. Drain. (If soaking does not soften the noodles enough, blanch them in a pot of boiling water for a few seconds.)
For the toppings (optional)
While broth is simmering, prepare toppings as desired – slice and cook tofu, lightly steam or blanch vegetables, etc. Toppings should be unseasoned or only lightly seasoned so as not to interfere with the flavor of the broth.
Divide noodles between two bowls. Arrange toppings over noodles. Ladle about 2 cups of broth into each bowl. Serve with garnishes on the side, which diners should add to taste.