Way back in the days of 2015, my soon-to-be-lady and I were trying to figure out where to go to lunch.
Me: Have you tried pho?
My lady: No, what is pho?
Me: Oh, it’s this great Vietnamese beef noodle soup with brisket and flank steak, and you can put all sorts of jalapenos and cilantro in it.
ML: I LOVE CILANTRO!! Where is this magical place?
Me: It’s downtown, Pho Lang Thang.
ML: Ewww!! We went there for Sharon’s birthday lunch, and she told us to all get these gross sandwiches, and they had radishes and pate on it, and we all hated them!!
It took me a minute to know what sandwich she was talking about, and then I realized it was a banh mi. Which, depending on where you go, can be a bit of a crapshoot.
(Needless to say, we don’t hang out with Sharon anymore. Also, her name isn’t really Sharon; it’s Omarosa.)
Nevertheless, I talked her into giving the place a try, and we were hooked. I like to think that had something to do with us eventually becoming a couple – that’s about as far as my charm goes, semi-exotic foods.
So, pho, as I said above, is at its base a beef noodle soup. But it’s soooo much more than that. The broth is so deeply rich with beef flavor, the noodles soak up the broth, and you can add cooked brisket, flank steak, meatballs (which are unusually springy), and raw steak that literally cooks in the broth.
Making it at home, however…that’s another story.
It turns out that making pho broth from scratch is quite difficult. First, they use a lot of seldom-used parts of the cow, like beef knuckle. Which, I don’t know, maybe you can find that easily, but down here in Houston the last Beef Knuckles-R-Us went out of business last year, so that’s not easy to come by.
The other main obstacle to making pho at home is the amount of time it takes. A good beef broth usually takes 3-4 hours or so. But pho and all its beefy goodness…20 hours!!
20 hours?? Ain’t nobody got time for that!!! If I wake up at 7:30 on a Saturday, I’m napping by noon, there’s no way I’m staying upright for that long!
So my dreams of cooking pho were dashed, until…
Enter the Instant Pot!
Have we discussed the Instant Pot yet? How is this possible? The Instant Pot is fantastic! It’s a pressure cooker that you can saute in as well! How have we not discussed this?
This is weird, because typically Instant Pot evangelists put that out there within the first three sentences of introducing themselves. You know, the same way people say things like:
- “Hi, I’m Tom, I have a great Crossfit class I can get you into!”
- “Hi, I’m Kyler, I’m a vegan, do you like killing animals?”
- “Hi, I’m Dan, 9/11 was an inside job, what do you think about chemtrails?”
Ok, I like the pot, but not like that. Where the Instant Pot excels is as a pressure cooker (which I will not even pretend to be able to explain how it works, so let’s just assume it’s millions of microscopic evil demons jumping up and down on the food and telling the food to cook quicker because they have to be done by 8:00 so they can watch the latest Handmaid’s Tale episode because Aunt Lydia is soooooo dreamy!!)
Whatever the mysterious pressure cooker demons do, it allows you to make broths and other slow cook meals much faster than you can on a stove top, and without needing to worry about constantly tending to it – this is a huge plus for me.
And, with the pressure cooker demons on my side, I can use regular old soup bones and shanks instead of beef knuckles. Who’s back in the game!
(Those are seriously three of the weirdest paragraphs I’ve ever written, I’m afraid that I could pass a pee test and still be fired for drug abuse based on those alone.)
Back in the sane world where we cook pho…
The broth itself isn’t terribly complex. You’re just toasting some spices, sauteing a couple roughly chopped vegetables, adding the bones and the meat, and then let the cooking Gilead demons do their work.
(A quick sidebar about Instant Pot recipes. You’ll hear IP evangelists tell you how you can cook stews and soups in just 30 minutes. What they, and IP recipes, fail to acknowledge is the amount of time that it takes for the pot to come to pressure before the cooking begins. Depending on how much you have in the pot, that could take anywhere from a few minutes to up to 30. So, caveat emptor, or some other Latin.)
As good as the soup is, the toppings take it to another level. Just a slice or two of jalapeno pepper, or a sprig of basil or cilantro, is enough to flavor a big bowl on their own. A little squeeze of a lime wedge adds brightness to it. Bean sprouts (good luck finding fresh sprouts anywhere) are a popular topping, and add a crunchy texture. But don’t feel beholden to tradition; go crazy and add whatever else you’d like. Sriracha, hoisin sauce, carrots, shreds of Urban Meyer’s reputation, whatever floats your boat.
I will not kid you, however. This is not a simple to put together dish, or a one-pot affair of any sort. In addition to the Instant Pot, you’re also going to need:
- a stockpot to cook the noodles in
- a colander to drain the noodles
- a bowl to hold the noodles after you’ve drained them
- a strainer to strain the broth
- a bowl to strain the broth into
- a bowl to soak the cooked meat in
- plates/bowls to hold the toppings
- serving bowls
This can make for quite a mess in the kitchen. Around here, you could almost call it…Adam’s…Messy…Kitchen…
BAM SEE WHAT I DID THERE!!
Now, pho purists will tell you that the broth should be completely clear. And if you’re a psychopath that worries about the Pho Police banging down your door, knock yourself out and strain it through a coffee filter or cheesecloth. The rest of us that have less of an interest in making our lives more complicated will just use a strainer and be happy with it.
Pressure Cooker Pho
Adapted from The New York Times
Serves 4-6 good sized bowls
3 pounds beef knuckle, marrow or other soup bones, rinsed and drained
1 pound beef brisket, preferably flat, rinsed and drained
1 Fuji apple, cored, peeled, and chopped coarsely
1 large yellow onion, peeled and sliced thickly
2 ounces fresh ginger, peeled and sliced into large coins
2 ½ pieces star anise (if you can’t find star anise, 2 teaspoons of anise seed will work, fennel seed could be used in a pinch)
1 3-inch cinnamon stick
3 whole cloves
9 c water
2 ½ t kosher salt
2 T fish sauce
1 T Sugar
6 ounces beef steak, ribeye, flank, or skirt steak
12 ounces dried narrow rice sticks or pad Thai-style noodles
½ small yellow onion, sliced into thin rounds
2 green onions, greens and whites diced small
¼ cup chopped cilantro leaves
Several sprigs of Thai or Italian basil
1 jalapeno or Thai chili, sliced very thin
1 lime, quartered
To make the broth
Put the star anise, cinnamon and cloves in a large Instant Pot. Using the sauté function, toast for a few minutes, stirring frequently, until just fragrant. Add the onion and ginger, stir, and cook for a minute or two until just browned.
Add the water, bones, beef, apple and salt, and lock the lid. Set timer for 30 minutes.
While the broth is cooking, to make your life easier
Put the steak in the freezer for 15 to 20 minutes, to make it easier to cut. Slice very thinly across the grain, and set aside.
Cover the dried noodles in hot tap water and soak for 15-20 minutes. Drain, then rinse and set aside.
Soak the yellow onion in water for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, drain and set on a plate with the green onion slices, cilantro, basil, and jalapeno slices.
Once the broth has finished cooking
Allow the Instant Pot pressure to release naturally, about 15 to 20 minutes.
While the pressure is releasing
Fill a stockpot with water and bring to a rolling boil.
Once the pressure is fully released
Carefully remove the lid. Transfer the meat to a bowl (if you used shanks, add those as well), cover with water and soak for 10 minutes. Once cooled, cut into bite sized pieces.
Strain the broth into a medium stockpot or saucepan through a mesh strainer, and discard all solids. Add the fish sauce, sugar, and salt to the broth taste. Bring to a simmer over medium heat.
Add the noodles to the boiling water, and cook until the noodles are just tender, about 2-3 minutes. Remove from water and divide noodles among 4-6 bowls.
To each bowl, add the cooked and raw beef, arranging the raw slices flat.
Ladle broth over the noodles and beef.
Top with onions, green onions, jalapenos, or whatever other toppings you like.