Serious Eats: Recipes

Cook the Book: Phở

"This phở might not be quite as nuanced as the restaurant version but it's still entirely satisfying."

[Photograph: Caroline Russock]

Some people go straight for the chicken noodle when they are sick, but when I feel under-the-weather, only one soup inevitably makes me feel better. No matter how bad I'm feeling I can usually manage to get myself to the nearest Vietnamese restaurant, if only to get my phở to-go. It's the ideal mix of savory, herbal, spicy, and hearty, and never fails to improve whatever is ailing me.

Aside from being my go-to cure-all, phở is the ultimate customizable soup—broth and rice noodles are a given but the rest of the dish is entirely up to you.

Choose your cuts of meat, meatballs, or a selection of offal, and then when your bowl arrives, you can customize it even further with basil, bean sprouts, cilantro, limes, chiles, chili sauce, plum sauce, vinegar—really the possibilities are endless.

But for all of my phở enjoyment, I've never ventured to make it at home. The complexity of the broth paired with my total lack of Vietnamese cooking skills landed this soup pretty low on my priorities list.

Thankfully this week's Cook the Book selection, The Best Soups in the World by Clifford A. Wright included a recipe for a homemade version of phở.

The recipe confirmed my feelings: the majority of the work is making the broth. After reading Wright's instructions, I realized this broth wasn't all that different from making any other stock: meaty bones and aromatic vegetables and spices, simmered long and low. In other words, something that I could handle.

I made a pilgrimage to my nearest Asian market and returned home with pounds of beef soup bones and chicken wings. I dusted off the old lobster pot—it was the only one that could handle all of the ingredients—and began my phở broth.

The process was easy: onions browned and then removed, meat and water added and boiled, then the rest of the aromatics go in, skimmed occasionally and simmered for six hours. By the time the broth was finished it was incredibly phở-like—the cinnamon and anise came through beautifully and the stock was insanely meaty.

The next day I took off the layer of fat and set about assembling the rest of the phở ingredients. I got my hands on lovely basil, bean sprouts, and some shabu-shabu beef.

With the noodles soaked and the broth boiling, I set out all of the phở garnishes and tucked in. The broth was wonderful: warm and spiced with the perfect slick of fat on top and hot enough to cook but not overcook the meat. Along with all of the accompaniments this was a pretty great home approximation of phở.

Next time I might go heavier on the beef bones and lighter on the chicken, and be a bit more generous with the salt, but I was quite happy with the results. This phở might not be quite as nuanced as the restaurant version but it's still entirely satisfying. On a cold winter night it was an absolute joy to eat.

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