How to make pho – a cheat’s version…

Every culture has one – a dish that makes you feel so good inside, it can’t possibly be wrong. A dish that tastes like it should be good for you, that it should be able to beat anything that ails you into submission. Folk food, family food, street food.

Pho, (pronounced “fur” or “fuh” for the uninitiated) is one such dish. It started life as a labourer’s breakfast and is now a lunchtime favourite.

It sounds simple enough- flat rice noodles, thinly sliced raw beef, a few herbs and spring onions, and then an aromatic boiling broth is poured over the lot to cook the meat. How hard could it be? But all pho is not created equal.

Good pho has hidden depths of flavour, enhanced by the chilli, lemon, basil and whatever you add to it. It’s the noodle soup of the Gods, and just by eating it you’re treating your body as a temple.

Whenever I feel as though I need a little self-care, as if the sniffle could possibly be threatening to turn into my annual head cold, as if I’ve been spending too much time doing tasks that I don’t find in the least rewarding and my brain is tired and my soul empty – that’s when I go for this soup.

The problem is, the really good pho – the pho that you get at really good pho places – involves making a stock from beef bones and simmering it for 4 hours. Of course, you get the benefit of the bone broth, but it’s not exactly a quick fix for a craving.

To this end, I’ve come up with my cheatie pho – the one that you go to after a long day when you don’t have time to think but you want to be healthy and feel warm and cosy on the inside. And there’s nothing to be guilty about here.

Ingredients

Yes, it’s quite a list but the aromatics tend to be ones we usually have on hand and the whole thing goes together quite quickly. As with all my recipes, this is a combo of a few ideas and the quantities are, shall we say, inexact. Taste the stock as you go and adjust to your own taste. This quantity feeds the 3 of us with leftover stock for lunch the next day. We find 1 225-250g steak is ample for the three of us for dinner.

If you want you can do this with chicken as well – just substitute good chicken stock for the beef and a couple of thinly sliced chicken breasts that you poach in the soup before serving.

For the stock

  • 2 litres beef stock
  • 1 onion, thinly sliced
  • a good size knob of ginger – I use a piece about the length of my thumb – sliced but don’t worry about peeling it
  • 4 cloves garlic – smash with the back of a knife but don’t worry about peeling it
  • 1 cinnamon quill
  • 3 pieces star anise
  • 5 cardamon pods, bruised
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tsp five-spice powder
  • 2 tbsp fish sauce (you can add more later if it needs the salt)
  • a few whole cloves
  • 2 kaffir lime leaves (or some peeled lime rind)
  • If you have one, a stalk of lemongrass (bruised)
  • Optional: 1 tbsp grated palm sugar (or caster sugar)

For the soup

  • Noodles – you can use 200g rice vermicelli or fresh rice noodles – it’s up to you.
  • 250g beef fillet
  • 2 spring onions, sliced
  • 1 onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 long red chilli, de-seeded and sliced

To serve

  • 2 small chillies, sliced
  • fresh basil
  • lime cheeks

Making the stock:

  • Fry the onion, garlic and ginger in a couple of tablespoons of oil (I usually use rice bran) in a large saucepan. You want them to soften and colour just a little.
  • Add the rest of the ingredients and bring to the boil. Once the stock is boiling, reduce the heat and simmer for 20-30 mins. Check for seasoning and add more fish sauce or some grated palm sugar to taste. We tend not to use the sugar. Squeeze in some lime or lemon juice if required.

Putting the soup together:

  • Place your noodles in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Vermicelli normally needs about 10mins soaking.
  • Slice your beef as finely as possible. It will cook in your broth so needs to be as thin as it’s possible for beef to be. A good trick is to put it in the freezer for an hour or two – it’s much easier to slice when you take it out.
  • Strain your stock and return it to the pan, bringing it back to the boil.
  • Divide the noodles between the bowls, top with the onions, then the beef and pour over the hot soup. If the beef is thin enough, the stock should be enough to cook it to medium-rare.
  • Garnish with the spring onions and chillis.
  • Serve with the basil, sliced hot chillis and lime on the side.

How to make corn and ginger soup…

Ok, I know that corn is one of those starchy vegetables that’s probably best moderated, but I absolutely love it. Plus, it’s in season now – I bought four huge  – and I mean huge – cobs the other day at the markets for $3.

I was going to make sweetcorn fritters for breakfast with them, but when Sunday morning came along I couldn’t be faffed. Instead, I stripped the cobs off the kernels and used half of them in this soup. In case you’re wondering, the other half has gone into the freezer for when I can be bothered to do the fritters.

One of my favourite dishes in the world is really good Chinese takeaway sweetcorn and chicken soup. I like making it at home too – to avoid the MSG and seriously salty aftertaste – but Miss 19 doesn’t like the gloopy texture from the cornflour and eggs.  She does, however like this one.

You’re seasoning this with shaoxing wine and soy sauce so it still has a vaguely Asian taste to it, but is much lighter in taste and texture than the Chinese takeaway version. Plus, you get the fabulously sunny yellow from the corn still shining through.

We had some stock left over from when we had Hainanese chicken rice the other night, so that went in as well and added another layer of gingery flavour – I usually add a knob of ginger, a heap of garlic cloves and the green spring onion ends to the water I poach my chicken in.

Anyways, to the soup…

What you’ll need

  • 2 cups corn kernels
  • About a tablespoon grated ginger
  • 1 clove of garlic, grated
  • 1 litre chicken stock or water
  • Finely sliced spring onions – about half a cup
  • 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine (sometimes it’s spelt shao hsing)
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce (or to taste) – use tamari or gluten-free soy sauce if you’re gluten intolerant
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 or 2 finely sliced thai chillis – if you have them lying around and want to spice things up a tad…purely optional

What you do with it

Heat some vegetable oil (we use rice bran oil) in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the ginger, garlic, spring onions, and chillis (if you’re using them) and stir-fry for a minute or so, before tossing in the corn and doing the same for another minute. Pour in your stock (or water) and bring it to the boil. That’s pretty much it – except for the seasoning ie the Shaoxing, soy sauce and salt and pepper. Simmer for another 5 minutes or so and you’re done.

If you want to make it look a tad more spesh, drizzle over a couple of drops of sesame oil, sprinkle some more sliced spring onion, and maybe toss in some chopped coriander.

To take it to another level, add some sliced poached chicken into the bowl before pouring the soup over it. That turns it from lunch into Sunday dinner.