“Only the pure in heart can make a good soup.” ~ Ludwig van Beethoven
Vietnamese Pho. I can’t figure out if it is pronounced fuh, foe, foo. I swear, I say it one way and get corrected to another. I say it the other way, and get corrected back. My mind starts boggling into fee-fi-fo-fum. So, I am not even going to go there. Instead, I am going to share a delicious Vietnamese pho soup recipe with elk meat as the star of the show.
Whenever I visit a city, my main focus is eating. I search out new food genres and indulge in a vacation of taste bud treats. This past winter, I toured the streets of Denver, Colorado, visiting art galleries, book stores, food trucks, coffee shops, and even the United States Mint. The most distinct experience was definitely Vietnamese food. On the west side of Denver, there is a business district known as Little Saigon. The area is filled with Vietnamese restaurants and shopping, and also Vietnamese people. Not only was the food very unique and foreign to me, but the culture is so strong in the area you do not feel like you are moments away from downtown Denver. Here is where I experienced pho.
Pho is a broth based Vietnamese soup, which is traditionally made from beef bones but chicken can also be found. The hot, steaming bowl of broth and rice noodles is actually used to cook the thinly sliced pieces of meat, and then the entire bowl is personally flavored by the diner using a huge variety of garnishments. Traditional Vietnamese garnishments include green onions, sliced chili peppers, culantro, bean sprouts, spicy Thai basil, and limes. Other condiments can also include hoisin, soy sauce, sriracha, and fish sauce.
My first experience with pho was a little, mmmm, I guess you could say stressful. The menu is actually quite large and somehow everything looked the same but different at the same time. The waiters spoke excellent English, but their accents were so thick. I felt silly, but I could barely understand anyone for some reason, probably from my anxieties of dealing with a new experience that were causing my mind to almost race. I ordered a bowl of Tai Sach, which was a rice noodle soup with rare steak and tripe. I thought trying to say the name was going to be the difficult part; however, when the waiter emerged carrying a huge plate overflowing with bean sprouts, basil, and limes, I was very confused. I couldn’t figure out if the plate was some giant salad I was supposed to eat before the soup, if he had brought the wrong thing out, or if this was indeed some weird version of noodle soup. My face blushing red, I simply thanked the waiter and stared, my hands folded in my lap, at the mound of greenery before me. I tried to glance at other diners in hopes of finding direction with my meal, but the restaurant was mostly empty. So instead I sat and waited. I didn’t know what I was waiting for or for how long I would wait, but I just quietly sat and waited.
After a few minutes, the waiter returned with a giant bowl in his hands. Aw, this must be the soup, I thought. He presented the steaming bowl of broth, meat, and noodles and then quickly retreated. The bowl was so big. I remembered ordering a medium, but this bowl looked large enough to be a pot of soup for several people. Even more confused, I tasted the soup. Meh. It was alright. The broth was good, but very simple and solely a beef flavor. Well, that was that.
The waiter, obviously sensing my confusion with the entire experience, appeared by my side and pointed to the “salad.” He gestured towards the soup, and told me to mix the items on the plate with my noodle soup. Suddenly everything clicked. I dropped a handful of green onions and sliced peppers in to the bowl. I ripped basil and sprinkled it over the top. I squeezed the limes and watched as the juice swirled with the oils in the broth. I drizzled hoisin and dashed in a bit of fish sauce. It was amazing! The meat was so tender and flavorful from the broth, and the herbs and citrus played with flavors in a way I had never experienced before. It was fun too.
When I got home, I looked at the elk meat in my freezer, and decided I wanted to try my own version of pho. It definitely is different from the soup I had in Denver for several reasons. Elk has a very distinct flavor of its own, and is not really the same as beef. Also, it is hard in the desert to find things like culantro and Thai basil. But I made do, and it was delicious.
The key to a good pho is in the broth. You could go to the store and buy a couple cans of broth for your soup, but the whole fun of this soup is making the broth yourself. This time, I made my broth using beef bones, but next time I am going to try it with the actual bones from the elk. I will let you know how that goes when I do it. But for now, the beef broth.
First, preheat the oven to 450 degrees. On a large baking sheet, place the beef bones and a large yellow onion cut in half. Roast the bones for about an hour, allowing the flavors to really develop on your bone. The onion needs to pulled out after about 45 minutes after it becomes soft and charred. You can also slice the ginger into one inch thick pieces and lay it on the pan, but it only needs about ten minutes or so before it becomes golden brown, so watch it closely.
Get out the large crock pot, and I mean large because the bones are going to go in so you need the space! Drop in the roasted bones, charred onion, ginger slices, salt, coriander, fish sauce, and star anise in the pot. In case you haven’t worked with star anise before, which up until now I had never used it but had seen it on the shelves at the store, it is pretty easy to find. It is located with all the other spices, but it is a bit more expensive than some of your other basic spices. You just add the entire star to the pot and then remove it after you’re finished cooking. Pretty simple.
Fill the pot with water, which depending on your crock pot size, should be about four quarts. Set the pot to low and allow to simmer for six to ten hours. The longer it can simmer the better the flavors will develop in the broth. This is a great meal to start before you head to work and then dinner is ready when you get home.
Rice noodles, which are like pasta noodles but instead of being constructed from flour and eggs, like traditional Italian style pasta noodles, they are made from rice. You can find them in the Asian foods section of most grocery stores. The town I live in has very limited ethnic cuisine choices, but even they carry rice noodles so I think they are usually easy to find. The noodles are available in a fresh version and a dried version. Either one is fine, but the local store here only carries a dried version. They also are available in a variety of sizes. For this recipe, I used a medium sized noodle.
Place the noodles in a large bowl of cold water and allow them soak for an hour. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and drop the soaked noodles in. This is a very quick boil! Only leave the noodles in the water for about a minute and then pull them out.
Finally, it is time to slice your meat. For this to work, the slices need to be very, very thin. It helps to throw the meat slice in the freezer for about fifteen to twenty minutes. This way you can get a better grip on the meat while you work with it, and it won’t slide around under your knife. I used the infraspinatus, often referred to as a flank steak, which I find to be a very under-utilized cut of meat. I think a lot of people think of the flat iron as a throw away steak, but it is actually the second most tender cut off the animal after the tenderloin. I think it worked perfect for this recipe because it is tender, which is always great, but has just a little bit of toughness that helps hold it together.
After the broth is finished simmering, pour it through a fine sieve and remove the bones, onion slices, ginger, and star anise. You also might want to soup off some of the excess fat from the top of the broth. I then moved the broth to a stock pot on the stove and added a little heat to it. You want the broth to be hot when you first add it to your bowl so it will lightly cook your meat slices.
All that is left now is to assemble your bowl! As in the Vietnamese restaurant I visited, I used a huge bowl! I filled the bowl with a huge ladle of the hot broth, dropped in a handful of rice noodles, and several slices of elk. At the table, I assembled a large cutting board filled with the garnishments and condiments people might want to add to their elk pho. Some possible garnishments include Thai basil, culantro, hot pepper slices, bean sprouts, dandelion greens, green onions, lime slices, cilantro, and mint. I had to use Italian basil because Thai was not available in our store, but it was still great! For condiments, I had hoisin, sriracha, chili paste, soy sauce, and fish sauce.
Pho is so delicious and is great for a dinner party. Everyone can make their soup unique by adding the garnishments and developing the flavors they enjoy most. Some bowls will end up spicy, and some can be super sweet. It all depends on the person. I highly recommend trying this recipe with your next elk, because the meat blends so well with the flavor possibilities.