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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

the hungry tiger

My second attempt at pho was a big success, flavorful and perfectly pho-like and inspiring widespread sentiments of health and wellbeing. It wasn't difficult, but given the substantial difference between this batch and the last one, some attention to detail is obviously called for. The write-up below is thus annotated especially to help highlight potential pitfalls.

In preparation, not on the day when we actually put the pho together, I made the broth. First I made a nice pot of vegetable stock according to my usual method. Then I strained it and put it back into the pot along with a tablespoon of soy sauce; a 1" piece of fresh ginger that I had roasted under the broiler for about 3 minutes, until it started to char; 5 fat cloves of garlic, roughly chopped; 2 cinnamon sticks; 3 star anise pods; about a teaspoon of cloves; and an onion cut in quarters. I simmered this for about 25 minutes and then strained it. I added the juice of one Meyer lemon, because I had some around that I had brought home from Berkeley. Important note: At this point, the broth should taste too strong -- after all, its flavor is going to be diluted by all the other things that go into the bowl.

My shopping list for ingredients that went into the pho:

Thin rice noodles
Seasoned crispy tofu
Fresh basil
Big crunchy bean sprouts
LimePlum sauce
Chili-garlic sauce

The peanuts and cilantro (chopped), basil (torn), and bean sprouts go on top of the soup right before it is served, along with a good squeeze of lime juice. Plum sauce and chili sauce are added at the table. The rest goes into the bowl before you pour the hot broth over. I think it is nice to lightly steam the broccoli and carrots, and then to toss the onion and tofu into the steamer for just a few seconds to warm them through. The heat of the broth will cook the cabbage plenty.
Important note #2: One of the things that was sub-optimal last time was my failure to arrange things so that the assembled pho was sufficiently hot. The noodles get cooked by a soak in hot water, and are then rinsed in cold water--I think it is nice to use lukewarm water at the end, so there is nothing too cold to make your soup tepid. Similarly, it makes sense to steam the vegetables only after you have already brought your broth up to a simmer, so they don't get cold while you do other things.

About streamlining the process: Because we went out directly after dinner last night, the kitchen is now a wreck. Making pho is not a tidy and contained process, though the cleanup is actually fairly un-onerous: there's nothing sticky or baked-on or otherwise tenacious. And though the ingredient list is long, and you have to interact with a lot of different parts to the recipe, it's all pretty straightforward, as long as you take care of the broth ahead of time. In fact, you can do almost everything ahead of time, which would make this a fine party food, and also allow you to avoid the kitchen explosion effect. I think I will try to enact this strategy more fully the next time I make it.

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