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Here at Food52, we love recipes -- but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.
Today: A spin on Vietnamese phở that lets you take control of the spices and scents and textures -- no recipe or meat required.
Phở is a soup you stick your face in before you eat. You can’t help but smell it: mellow onion, all those spices, zesty lime, and hits from just-relaxed herbs all steaming up together. It simultaneously nestles you underneath your blankets and ships you to the street markets of Hanoi.
Having so many flavors at work in one soup means you have a lot to tinker with. First, there’s the broth: Classically, it’s beef- or chicken-based, but you can get an equally robust (and vegan) broth by taking some traditional broth ingredients, which you likely already have in your pantry, to the oven or stove beforehand. Plus, by using your nose, you can adjust the spice components of your broth before it gets to simmering, so you know you’ll like the final flavor. And we hope you really like it, because this broth is something to have on hand for the week, to carry whatever miscellaneous vegetables need using up.
In addition to the wide array of vegetables that fit into this soup, there are noodles, proteins, and umpteen garnishes to dabble in. Stir in as many or as few as you want, or let each person choose their own (a phở bar!). A few slurps, with all the textures of the mix-ins and that anchor of a broth, and you’ll feel good, fortified. Here's how to do it:
1. Scorch. Cut an onion and 2 pieces of ginger in half; the peel can stay on. Using tongs, place the pieces of onion and ginger directly over the flame of your gas stove, one by one. Hold them there for 3 to 4 minutes, turning every so often so all the sides get black. It might look as if you’re making onion s’mores (which sound horrible) -- but there’s a good reason you’re going there: Charring the aromatics gives them a smokiness and a nice, mellow sweetness.
If this indoor campfire sounds treacherous, you could also broil the onion and ginger in the oven for 3 to 4 minutes on each side. You could also skip the charring step entirely and proceed to step two using chopped raw onion and ginger, though the broth won’t end up quite as sweet and soothing.
2. Make the broth. Put the onion and ginger in a soup pot with 6 or so cups of water. Next come the spices. Measure a cupped palmful (or a tablespoon) each of fennel seeds, coriander seeds, and peppercorns, and add them to a little bowl. Throw in a few cardamom pods, star anise, cloves, and cinnamon sticks. Smell the mixture: Do you like how it smells? Do you want to eat a soup that tastes like that? Into the soup pot they go. Are you not getting enough fennel, or do you want more of another spice? Add a bit more, smell to make sure it smells like what you want, then add the spices to the pot. Throw in a pinch of salt.
3. Simmer. Bring the mixture to a boil, and let it simmer, covered, for an hour.
4. While you wait, prep your mix-ins. They may be a combination of:
- Noodles: cooked rice noodles or soba (cook your noodles beforehand -- cooking them in the broth will make the broth murky and starchy)
- Chopped raw vegetables: bok choy, kale, spinach, broccoli, asparagus, mung bean sprouts, mushrooms, snap peas, or whatever you have lying around
- Protein: tofu, shelled edamame, or -- for the non-vegetarian route -- cooked chicken or turkey or very thinly sliced raw beef
- Garnish: lime, cilantro, basil, mint, Sriracha, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, green onions, or crispy fried shallots
As you bide the time while your soup cooks, entertain yourself with some phonomenal puns: Pho is a phobulous, unphogettable Vietnamese soup -- pho real, it should be a phonomenon. Pho pho the win. Pho phoever. It’s pho sho what’s pho dinner. (Except really it’s pronounced “fah,” not “fo,” so you can phoget about this phonny business.)
5. Get ready to slurp. Your broth will be ready when you taste it and you like it. If the flavor isn’t intense enough, let it simmer for a little longer. If the spices are overwhelming, add a bit more water. Then, strain the broth and discard the solids. Ladle into big bowls and add as many or as few of your mix-ins as you’d like. Let the raw ones (everything but the noodles) soften a bit from the heat of the broth. Take a whiff. It's good, right?
Photos by Bobbi Lin