"Is that her real nose?"
"Is she a real blonde?"
And, "Are those things REAL?!"
Whether we prefer it or not, we always want to know whether what we are getting is the real thing. The types of questions above are most often directed at women (that is a whole other topic), but the same attitude, the same obsession with authenticity, also applies to food. Is that real, wild salmon on the menu? Is this lamb actually grass fed? Are these raspberries truly organic? We ask these questions out of genuine concern that we are getting the purest, the healthiest, the most ethical; in short, the real thing.
When Mike and I returned home from spending the weekend in South Beach, we wanted to eat something light and restorative. We needed to recover from a couple indulgent restaurant meals and a whole lot of cocktails with complex names I can’t remember. In my mind, this called for a deeply aromatic soup full of soft rice noodles, vegetables and fresh herbs. Rice noodle soup is the most stomach-friendly food I can think of, and some of the best noodle soups I’ve had are Vietnamese pho.
Sunday afternoon was overcast and stormy (still 90 degrees, but stormy), the perfect day to fill the condo with the smell of spicy stock simmering on the stove. I looked over several recipes for pho, and mainly followed one from the January 2006 issue of Gourmet, found here. It calls for 4 pounds of meaty beef shanks which I found at the local supermarket. Another recipe in a Williams-Sonoma book of authentic Southeast Asian recipes called for some beef bones as well as several oxtails; otherwise, it was very close to the Gourmet recipe. I followed the directions carefully, parboiling and rinsing the beef to remove extra scum. I simmered them with oven-blistered onions and ginger, and a sachet of cloves, cinnamon and anise for two hours as their perfume filled the kitchen. When I finally took that first taste I was ready for rich, beefy warmth to fill my mouth, but the flavor was watered down and only slightly beefy. I continued to simmer, hoping the flavors would intensify, but I knew it had already been long enough. The beef itself was falling off the bones with tenderness, and the large pearls of marrow were soft and gelatinous. My stock was not terrible, but it did lack the depth and complexity I had hoped for.
I proceeded according to the recipe, and we enjoyed the soft rice noodles, the crunch of the bean sprouts and all the herby accents. Still, the fundamental piece of the recipe, the unifier of all the other ingredients, did not measure up. I have since looked at several more recipes, and some call for oxtails, but others are similar to the Gourmet recipe. Some called for simmering the bones several hours longer, but 3 hours was the most common directive. Maybe I will try again with oxtails sometime. Meanwhile, I had a bowl of leftover noodles, bean sprouts and herb sprigs that could not go to waste until then. On Monday night, I bought a box of good beef stock at the market and flavored it with lime and fish sauce. I poured the boiling stock over my noodles and added the various accoutrements. My faux pho did not have the authentic flavor I’ve tasted in Vietnamese restaurants, but I preferred it to the insipid flavor of my attempt at the real thing.
Of course I prefer authenticity, but sometimes a recipe just doesn't work. Maybe my beef shanks were inferior, or the moon was misaligned with whatever planet rules the boiling of beef bones. I’ll keep striving for true pho, but it was comforting to find that faking it, just once in a while, isn’t a bad substitute for the real thing.
This is my favorite part of eating pho--a big, beautiful plate of fresh herbs and other flavorful add-ins. Even if your pho is faux, a handful of basil, cilantro and mint lends a fresh, homemade touch.
First, you soak the rice noodles in cold water for 20 minutes, then boil for about one minute. They should be just barely al dente.
A close up of the real thing. I did veer a bit from traditional pho by adding carrots and snow peas. I love my veggies.
The cornerstone of a faux pho--good store bought stock.