Sunday, May 19, 2013

Pho Noodle Soup in the Boonies

In late 2001, my husband and I became economic refugees from Silicon Valley. For a variety of reasons, the first stop in our exodus was Sonora, California. Since my husband and I were both telecommuting at the time, we could pretty much live anywhere as long as we had a good Internet connection. We lived in Sonora for 3 years, later giving up on California entirely and moving to Oregon.

Sonora is just north of Yosemite. If you love nature, trees, mountains, snow in the winter, and hot, dry summers, Sonora is the place for you. The area, in general, makes its money from tourism and retirees. Nearby Murphys is the hub of a small "wine country" that I would recommend any wine lover visit at least once in their lives. We always think off our time in Sonora with nostalgia, missing both the area and the friends we left there.

As much as we loved Sonora, it can easily be described as "the boonies". One of the hazards of living in the boonies is a lack of variety in restaurant selection. We found some good food, but one thing Sonora didn't have was a good Vietnamese restaurant. We missed pho.

Pho (the proper spelling being phở, and pronounced "fa") is a deceptively simple soup of rice noodles, beef and onion. I say "deceptively" because despite its simple appearance, authentic pho takes hours of preparation using ingredients that aren't always available in the boonies. So, in order to have pho in Sonora, I had to learn how to make it at home myself using what I could find at the local grocery store.

I found this recipe and adapted it for the amount of time I had to make dinner and the ingredients I could find (i.e. homemade broth was not a possibility). After much trial and error with substitutes, I came up with a recipe that is a classic "a dashes of this, a sprinkle of that, taste, add a little more of that, repeat" recipe, which was never recorded in print until now. And let me tell you, coming up with a recipe with specific measurements was not as easy as it sounds--it took me several tries to get it tasting just right.

I call this "Cheater's Pho" because I make no representation that this is authentic. In fact, if you are Vietnamese, I advise you to read no further, because you'll probably want to send me hate mail for how "adulterated" this pho is. I try to stay true to the flavors of traditional pho, keeping in mind the Vietnamese cooking philosophy that balances sweet, salty, sour, savory and spice. But beyond that, it's far from the authentic Vietnamese preparation.

The recipe assumes you don't have access to fresh herbs (as was the case for me in the depths of a Sonora winter). If you do, feel free to substitute.

A traditional garnish to add is mung bean sprouts, but lately I've found it difficult to get fresh bean sprouts at the store, so I substitute mushrooms when I can't find them.

If you want a heartier soup, you can increase the amount of beef (up to 3/4 pound) or noodles (up to 7 ounces) without having to adjust the amount of broth. But if you are watching your diet, use the amounts as I have them.

This recipe feeds 2, and requires large bowls to serve it in (we're not talking regular salad or soup bowls here--I actually use 2 serving bowls). While hot tea or other traditional Vietnamese beverages can be served with this, my fellow wineos can serve it with a nice Merlot.

Cheater's Pho

32 ounces Pacific Foods Organic Beef Broth (tip: don't bother with the low-sodium variety--you'll just want to add salt later)
3/4 tsp sugar or splenda
A pinch of black pepper
1/4 tsp dry basil
1/4 tsp dry cilantro
1/4 tsp dry parsley
1/8 tsp garlic powder
1/8 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp lime juice
1 tsp Thai Kitchen Fish Sauce
1 tsp Kikkoman Rice Vinegar

Soup Components:
5 ounces Thai Kitchen Stir-Fry Rice Noodles (these aren't exactly the correct noodles, but they are the most readily-available substitute that I could find no matter where I've lived, and I don't like how their thin rice noodles turn out)
Thinly sliced yellow onion (about 1/4 of an onion, or as much as desired)
1 green onion, sliced into 1/8" slices
1/2 pound lean beef, thinly sliced (a top round roast or sirloin works well for this, but you can use whatever you have on hand. I recommend slicing it when it's still partially frozen, as that makes it easier to get super-thin slices.)

Garnishes to Serve on the Side:
Mung bean sprouts or thinly sliced mushrooms
Fresh lemon basil leaves
Lime wedges
Sliced jalapeno
Hoisin Sauce
Sriracha Chili Sauce

In a large sauce pan or stock pot, combine all the ingredients for the broth, and heat over medium heat (you eventually want it to come to a boil, but it's OK if it heats slowly--it gives the flavors time to blend).

While your broth is heating, bring a medium pot of water to a boil, and add the rice noodles. Then turn off the heat and allow the noodles to soak for 6 minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain the noodles and evenly divide between two large soup bowls. It's OK if the noodles are ready ahead of the rest of the soup--when you pour in the broth, it should be hot enough to reheat the noodles.

When the broth comes to a simmer, add the yellow onion. When the broth comes to a boil, add the green onion and beef, and cook for 1-2 minutes. (If the beef cooks too long, it will become tough. You want it to be faintly pink when you serve it, and the hot broth will continue to cook it in the bowls.)

Divide the soup evenly between the two bowls. Garnish and enjoy!


  1. Grow your own bean sprouts...pretty easy..takes about a week for a harvest (depending on temp) My family was in that biz back in the days

  2. Might be interesting to try. Of course, I'd have to find the beans....