Friday, March 26, 2010

Busy Busy, Pho Sho

Wow... I've been busy lately. Too busy to blog and almost too busy to cook.

Between work, SXSW, and my recent stint as a wedding photographer at Eric and Kelly's wedding, I've been pretty overwhelmed. I've been so tied up, in fact, that I didn't get a chance to blog about the Vietnamese dinner party I hosted a couple of weekends back.

For some reason, I have been obsessing about Vietnamese food recently. I have yet to find a Vietnamese restaurant in town that is above the low end of average. We ate at the Slanted Door awhile back while we were in San Francisco, and that gave me an idea of just how mind blowing really good Vietnamese food can be.

In particular, I have been obsessing about Pho.

For some time, I have been cultivating a deep fondness for slow cooked stocks and soups. Through the wisdom of my various cookbooks, and particularly from reading Thomas Keller, I have learned of the importance and soulfulness of homemade stock. Pho Bo, or Vietnamese beef noodle soup, for those not familiar, executed properly is one of the most amazing uses of beef stock that I have ever come across.

Pho is not really a gourmet food, per se. You can get it for like $5 a bowl at pretty much any Vietnamese restaurant. I have found, though, based on past experience that with most stock based soups, it is possible to create transcendently good dishes so long as you are willing to invest the time and love. So, I went on a quest to make homemade Pho Bo.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across the following page that contained a recipe for Pho Bo from Chef Didier Corlou (recipe is about half way down the page):

I followed this recipe almost exactly, using grass fed beef marrow bones cooked slowly over the course of a few hours to extract all of the goodness. I used a a combination of rump roast braised in the stock as it cooked and thin sliced filet mignon, poached at serving time in the broth. I couldn't find fresh banh pho noodles at Whole Foods and didn't have time to drive up to the Asian Markets, so I had to settle with the dried stuff. I served with a family style plate of various herbs (mint, basil, cilantro), mung bean sprouts, and lime wedges. On the side, I made some grilled shrimp and tofu spring rolls with a homemade shrimp stock and lime based dipping sauce and a spicy cucumber salad. I also provided a little bowl of thinly sliced birds eye chili peppers. The peppers actually ended up being a bit of a problem... I somehow managed to end up with what may have been the hottest batch of bird's eye peppers I have ever tasted in my life. Folks were putting 3-5 slivers of peppers in their pho and ending up with nuclear winter.

The pho turned out quite good, though I think I will tweak my approach next time I make it. I would classify the above recipe as a more subtle pho in terms of seasoning. The broth did come out with a good body, beef flavor, and mouthfeel... way better than what I've had in Austin restaurants for sure.

I was a little surprised when cooking the recipe by a few things that went against my understanding of certain fundamentals. First, I was surprised to see that there was no parboiling step for the bones... There was a rinse step, but no parboil which is generally desirable when making any sort of refined stock base. Furthermore, the simmer time seemed way short at 2 1/2 hours. I realize that Thomas Keller's 12+ hour simmer times for stocks are probably slightly over the top, but I really don't think that 2 1/2 hours is enough time to properly develop a full depth of flavor in a beef or veal stock. That said, I followed the recipe and it did come out quite well. However, I am pretty sure that a six+ hour simmer time would have made it a hell of a lot better. Also, I'll probably be cranking up the quantities of the spices next time... this was a little more subtle than I typically like go. I would have probably doubled the anise, cinamon, and ginger. Also, I didn't have black cardamom pods so I had to use green.

Unfortunately since I was cooking pho for eight and I got behind schedule while trying to learn to roll spring rolls on the fly, I didn't get any photos of the meal. Shame on me.

Anyhow, I just got a brand new deep fryer from Amazon, so I'm sure to be in the kitchen soon. Jessica is looking forward to gluten/dairy free fried chicken and waffles... I'll probably make myself the real deal, though ;) Also, I have a couple of extra sticks of butter and a snickers bar lying around, so perhaps I'll fry those up as well and see if I can put myself into a diabetic coma.