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Pho: Perfecting the Vietnamese comfort food

Ari LeVaux, More Content Now | 3/10/2017, 6 a.m.
If you’ve been living under a rock at the bottom of the ocean for the last decade, you might – ...
Pressure Cooker Beef Pho. Photo: John Lee

If you’ve been living under a rock at the bottom of the ocean for the last decade, you might – might – have missed the ascendency of pho, Vietnam’s internationally beloved comfort food. The steaming meal is both soup and salad in the same bowl, a fragrant beef broth in which delicate rice noodles and meat parts comingle with fresh herbs and sprouts, amid a customized mixture of condiments. In summer, pho heats you up and makes you sweat, breaking the seasonal fever. In winter, pho will warm your bones and melt away your congestion. It’s equally nourishing and satisfying in spring and fall, morning and night.

I tend to do my cooking by improvisation, but that doesn’t work with pho, despite its apparent simplicity. The broth is elusive, even if you know what the ingredients are. Inevitably, one or more of the spices will come on too strong, resulting in more of a cacophony than the understated symphony that has conquered the slurping masses.

My numerous failures left me discouraged, with no other choice than to head for my local pho shop to get my fix. But this drought ended when Andrea Nguyen, the undisputed authority on Vietnamese food in America, was kind enough to email me the keys to the kingdom.

I found myself on a list of recipe testers for Nguyen’s masterful new “The Pho Cookbook” (Ten Speed Press, 2017). My main assignment was to help replicate and troubleshoot the recipe for pressure cooker pho, a method that expedites the usual hours-long simmering of bones behind your typical pho broth.

Other than the wholly unexpected addition of a quartered apple – Nguyen’s substitute for Vietnamese rock sugar – there weren’t any surprises in the ingredient list. I’d used them all before in my previous failed attempts.

With Nguyen’s permission I share the recipe that I helped test. Being a lover of pho and my Instant Pot, this recipe has worn a very soft spot in my heart and belly.

Pressure Cooker Beef Pho

For the broth:

  • 3 pounds beef bones
  • 1 pound beef brisket, unsliced
  • 2½ star anise pods (20 robust points, total)
  • 1 3-inch piece of cinnamon
  • 3 whole cloves
  • Chubby, 2-inch section of ginger, peeled, thickly sliced, bruised
  • 1 large yellow onion, halved and thickly sliced
  • 1 small Fuji apple, peeled, cored and cut into thumbnail-size chunks
  • 2¼ teaspoons fine sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 teaspoon sugar

For the bowls:

  • 10 ounces dried, narrow rice noodles
  • Cooked beef from the broth, sliced thin
  • 4-5 ounces thinly sliced raw beef steak
  • ½ small red or yellow onion, thinly sliced against the grain and soaked in water for 10 minutes
  • 2 thinly sliced green onions, green parts only
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • Black pepper, to taste
  • Optional: bean sprouts, chile slices, mint, Thai basil, lime wedges, hoisin sauce, sriracha sauce
  1. Rinse bones.

  2. Toast the spices on medium heat in the pressure cooker for a few minutes, shaking or stirring, until fragrant. Add ginger and onion; stir until aromatic and slightly charred.

  3. Add four cups water to stop the cooking process. Add the bones, brisket, apple, salt and five more cups of water. Lock the lid and pressure-cook for 20 minutes at 15 psi or higher.

  4. Remove from heat. Allow pressure to go down to the point where you can open the pressure cooker. Season with fish sauce, salt and sugar. Remove the meat, soak in water for 10 minutes to prevent drying, and set aside until serving time. Refrigerate the broth to make it easy to skim fat, if desired.

  5. While broth is cooking, soak the noodles in hot water until pliable and opaque. Drain and rinse and drain again. Divide among four bowls. At serving time, dunk each portion of noodles in boiling water, then replace in the bowls. Top with the brisket, steak, onion, green onion, cilantro and pepper. Heat the broth to a boil and ladle into the bowls. Dive in and add condiments to tweak flavor.

Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column that’s appeared in more than 50 newspapers in 25 states. Ari lives can be reached at flash@flashinthepan.net.