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 an unbalanced cacophony than the understated, harmonious 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 cookbook, 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 bowl of pho.
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.
PRESSURE COOKER BEEF PHO
Adapted with permission from The Pho Cookbook by Andrea Nguyen (Ten Speed Press, 2017)
3 lbs beef bones
1 lb beef brisket, unsliced
2 ½ star anise pods (20 robust points, total)
1 3-inch piece of cinnamon
3 whole cloves
1 small Fuji apple, peeled, cored, and cut into thumbnail-size chunks
Chubby, 2-inch section of ginger, peeled, thickly sliced, bruised
1 large yellow onion, halved and thickly sliced
2 ¼ teaspoons fine sea salt
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
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. (Nguyen gives recipes for homemade versions of hoisin sauce, chile sauce, sate sauce, and garlic vinegar)
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.
Add four cups of 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.
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 if desired. 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.
While the 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. Invite people over to enjoy your handiwork while you assault them with pho puns. Your audience will be captive until the pho runs dry.