Living in a city west of the Cascades, there is no food as comforting and ubiquitous as pho. As a college student in Portland many years ago, I lived for a trip to Pho Hung. For a long time, it was my very first stop when I was back in town, regardless of the time of day or whether I was, in fact, ready for a meal. Comfort food is a priority, people.
At the time, that concoction of rich, fatty, perfectly savory and sweet broth perfectly cooking the slices of beef as the bowl arrived at my table seemed like magic of the first order. It still kind of does, actually, except now I know it’s the kind of magic that can totally be made at home. Even more magical? It’s not hard.
Depending on the contents of your spice cabinet, you may need to make a trip to Penzey’s, or a well-stocked grocery store baking section. Cut the onion and ginger in half, oil them up a little and pop them under the broiler until they get a little char on them. Put the rest of the spices in a tea strainer bag (or make a sachet from cheesecloth), and set aside.
Meanwhile, put your bones in a large pot of water and bring it to a boil.
We enjoy frequenting Seattle’s awesome Japanese grocery store Uwajimaya, where beef knuckle bones are a standard choice in the meat case. If you’re not so lucky and don’t have a huge supermarket full of Asian groceries, go to the butcher counter and ask for bones. They have them, go ask! We also got super lucky on this trip, and found some meaty short rib-looking cuts labeled (and priced) as beef bones. They were great in the broth, but they’re not strictly necessary.
Here’s the key thing you want to see in your bones:
Lot of cartilage, plenty of marrow! All that good stuff is going to make your broth richer, tastier, and fuller bodied. Cartilage is where soup magic comes from. Seriously. (They don’t all have to look exactly like this. Just get good, cartilage-y bones.)
Boil the bones for a few minutes, then toss out the water (it’ll be full of scum) and rinse any remaining scum off the bones. And wash the pot! This will make your final broth clearer and cleaner tasting.
Put your onion, ginger, spices, and bones back in the pot with fresh cold water and bring to a boil, then simmer for 3 hours. Yes, really, 3 hours. You don’t have to stand there the whole time, just check on it about hourly. It’s going to boil off a little, I top up the put a couple times over the course of the 3 hours.
Your house is going to smell really awesome while this is happening, just in case you were curious. It’s heavenly.
So it’s 3 hours later now, right? And you’re ready to make some soup! But slow down there, speedy – you could make soup today, sure. But want to know a secret? It’s going to be way better tomorrow. Fish out the bones and other large detritus (my onion always disintegrates, but the ginger will be pretty intact), then strain the liquid into a large container and refrigerate it overnight. This is going to accomplish two important things. One: all those flavors are going to mellow and marry, making a much tastier finished product. Two: the fat and broth are going to separate, which will give you the power to control the fattiness of your broth! Mr. Pie and I usually remove about 75% of the original fat and use it for flavoring other dishes (white beans + pho fat = best. ever.). One of us might also put a little extra back in the pot when making soup.
This is one of my favorite cold-weather staples, and one that offers lots of options for customization. The last batch we made didn’t last long enough for any of it to make it into the freezer, but the next one definitely will.