Star anise and cinnamon perfume the air, but not in the manner in which we might think of Christmas potpourri or a random autumn’s candle. The aromas wafting through the air are intermingled with nuances of beef, ginger, onions and myriad delights that you may or may not be able to discern at first whiff.
By the time you reach the kitchen, you should be able to tell what I’m cooking; I am making a big batch of pho, that magical and nourishing, ubiquitous Vietnamese soup of which I could probably never tire. I am trying to perfect my recipe, as I want to mimic as best as I can the one that is made at my favorite Vietnamese restaurant, Simply Bahn Mi.
After long and arduous stays in our Nation’s Capital recently, I have found myself heading down to Georgetown Proper on more than one occasion to enjoy a much-needed respite and a quick bowl of this refreshing, vibrant and (quite frankly) curative dish.
The owners of the restaurant Simply Bahn Mi are John and Diana (brother and sister), and they are always smiling and friendly when I enter. I have eaten there four times, and have yet to be disappointed. I’ve been there when they are slammed, and also during Georgetown University’s spring break when it was slow, and the food was consistently worthy. About a month or two ago, I asked John to sell me a bahn mi like he eats it, and I received the most amazing sandwich with homemade Vietnamese pâté, braised pork belly, pickled vegetables, greens and herbs on a crusty, but soft baguette. Wrapped in butcher paper stamped with an artisanal stamp, it satisfied all senses.
But I digress; back to the pho.
I have made pho before, and in fact I’ve made some delicious pho, but I have never feigned to be at the Vietnamese-grandmother-cooking-in-the-basement-kitchen level of pho cookery. I would never raise myself up to that level of hubris. I may never get there, but that’s just fine. When I can’t eat at Simply Bahn Mi, I’ll just have to do with making pho myself.
There are a few things to remember when making the broth. First, you must start with a high-quality veal or beef broth, assuming that your finished product will be a beef pho. To start with a cheap bouillon or carton-stock would be a short-coming in this dish. You can certainly fortify any of these to make them presentable, but fresh stock is the way to go. There are plenty of recipes online and in books, so you can do that research on your own.
Second, make sure that you cut your vegetables large at this part of the race. If you cut them too small, they will disintegrate over the period of an hour or two at an active simmer, leaving you with a cloudy broth. Enrich your stock according to the recipe below, strain (discarding these vegetables), and then have fresh, crisp vegetables on hand for the finished bowl of soup.
When I use garlic, ginger and lemongrass in recipes such as this, I typically “bruise” them, or hit them repetitively with the back of a chef’s knife. This will allow for the water to enter these fibrous ingredients and leech out what we want: their essence and their flavor.
Simply Bahn Mi may be my favorite restaurant in DC, as much for its delicious foods as for the laid-back atmosphere and friendly demeanor of the owners. In our business, it seems to be getting harder and harder to find places like this. And since we’re called the “hospitality Industry,” you would think that being hospitable would be a given. It’s not. But the good folks here have it down pat, and I can’t wait to go back for another bit of R&R.
**This is my recipe, not SBM’s
makes about 1 gallon
5 quarts beef or veal stock
1 daikon or radish, peeled and chunked
6 scallions, charred under broiler or on flame
2 carrots, roasted and chunked
6 cloves of fresh garlic, bruised
2 inches of lemongrass, bruised
3 inches of fresh ginger, peeled and bruised
1 Large red onion, large chunk
4 Whole star anise
1 Cinnamon stick
1 tbsp. Black peppercorns OR
Szecuan peppercorns, whole
1. Combine ingredients and bring to a boil
2. Turn down to a simmer and cook for about an hour and a half. Keep a lid on it so the steam goes back into the broth
3. Adjust seasoning and strain. Set aside and keep hot, or chill and reheat at service time if enough time elapses
4. Follow instructions below for assembling your finished pho
For The Finished Bowl
enough for 6 servings
12 ounces Shaved sirloin
1 package rice noodles, soaked, cooked and cooled
2 Carrots, peeled and shredded
6 eggs, poached soft
1 bunch cilantro
18 Basil leaves (at least)
12 Mint leaves (optional)
3 Scallions, fresh and sliced
2 Shallots, shaved fine
6 Lime wedges
3 Jalapeno, sliced
1 bag bean sprouts
1. When you are ready to assemble your pho, lightly poach the beef while the broth is piping hot
2. Divide noodles evenly between six bowls
3. Top with fresh vegetables, egg and beef
4. Serve with lime on the side, and of course Sriracha or another chili sauce