Pho Chay on Boston’s Coldest Day

Weather talk to help us get acquainted: Today it’s a low of -6 in Boston, but it feels like -14 with the help of wind chill. Eric is out getting his semi-annual haircut to return the edges to his wollen head, and I’m here typing away mid-munch on my 3rd gluten-free and vegan cookie; I invented a batch of CCC dough last night out of thin air, just guided by my soul (which is how I made my cookbook-so be sure to pick up a copy or I’ll keep plugging it!!) and they were the best healthy cookies I’ve ever made–tooting my horn here!

Ok. We are pho chay MONSTERS.  (the ‘chay’ part means vegetarian in Vietnamese, btw.)

It’s a real wonder we didn’t fight to the death over this extra big bowl of pho. I wasn’t thinking too far and too hard about it, so I put it all into one big bowl for my food photo vision. But after the image was shot, it finally dawned on me who we were/what we were capable of/what is awakened in us whenever pho is brought to our table. We are not proud of this werewolf-like transformation; pho is our weakness.

We have been prowlers, seekers, investigators of the stuff, always sniffing out the next, new and more flavorful broth, taking two person polls, and having long discussions over which one was too sweet or too bland or juuuussst right. Goldilocks can’t compete with us here.

The thing is, Pho broth is a complicated concoction. And I won’t lie and tell you that I worked it out perfectly on my first homemade go-round; let’s just say we don’t have a grill to char our onion skins and some other stuff, but I did arrive at a liquid that is still insanely delicious and worthy of sharing.  But in truth, this will take at least a few more attempts to perfect to our very liking, and to taste just like our favorite version that we source from only four blocks away–the treacherous snow blocked us in this weekend, and so sparked the beginning of our long pho-making journey.

WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT PHO (pronounced fuh): First of all, you should read about the history of pho; it’s incredible!

Pho broth is a delicate balance of herbs and spices, sweetness and saltiness. Typically, it’s made by simmering animal bones alongside other ingredients, and the depth of this final liquid can be lost if you remove this primary component, so when it comes to the vegetarian version you can see why it may seem even more complicated to pull off. Currently, we’re over here sitting on 15+ (domineering-in-their-own-right) ingredients for bringing together this melange of life-in-a-bowl.

The necessary pieces of puzzle are the charred and smoky flavors that come from searing the onions and ginger, the spice of the cinnamon, the cloves, the star anise (this paired with the fennel seeds gives it a licorice-y note), and the sweetness from the onions and shallots.  I also found the aroma was spot-on and incredible after adding in the stems of a bundle of cilantro leaves. OMG. It filled the hallways in our apt complex with the smell of a restaurant’s kitchen–so much going on–, and I kept doing a double take to try to pinpoint the aroma, like a dog sniffing for a wild cat. “Oh that’s us??”

The point of this broth is to stand alone while being bright and bold enough to season all additions (usually raw beef slices or other pieces of meat) without overpowering anything at all.Whenever we eat Pho Chay, we order it with fried chunks of tofu.

The Tofu Topping: The tofu is spongy and meaty. How do you achieve this? By freezing the tofu! I first pat the entire block of extra firm tofu down with some wads of paper towel. Then I cut the block into big chunks and pat those down too, until they’re as dry as possible. Then I freeze those chunks, just spread them out on a pan or plate and stick it straight into the freezer overnight until they’re solid. When it’s time to assemble the soup, either fry them in a big batch of hot oil, or broil them after drizzling them generously with oil. Frying maintains the optimal sponginess, but today I chose to broil.

Pho Chay Broth (This makes a heck-of-a-lot of broth because we feel we can never have enough, and we can always package and freeze the rest for later):

  • 4 shallots, cut into halves, skins peeled
  • 1 small onion, cut into quarters
  • 2, 2-inch pieces of ginger
  • 3 star anise
  • 5 whole cloves (the spice)
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 8 cloves peeled garlic
  • 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
  • 1, 32-ounce containers of vegetable broth
  • 96 ounces water ( I just filled up the empty broth container with water 3 times)
  • 2 tbsp peanut oil
  • 6 Tbsp tamari or soy sauce
  • Hoisin!
  • the Ends of a Bushel of Cilantro
  • 2 Tbsp raw sugar, plus more to taste
  • salt to taste

Pho Chay Toppings:

  • Brown rice banh pho noodles- the wide version (they come in a variety of thicknesses), cooked, then shocked in ice water, and drained until ready to eat
  • Fried or Broiled Tofu
  • Fresh bean sprouts
  • Fresh cilantro leaves
  • Thai basil leaves
  • Lime wedges
  • Fried chili oil
  • extra hoisin
  • Thai chilies
  • button mushrooms, quartered (optional)
  • sliced carrots, scallions, bok choy, broccoli and other vegetables (optional)

Directions: 

Dry sear the onions, ginger, and spices in a pot until the onions are charred. Add in the garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes stirring constantly. Pour in the the container of vegetable broth, and bring to a boil. Transfer the a crock pot, and add in the 96 ounces water (it’s lots of water so make sure you aren’t using a mini crockpot…), peanut oil, soy sauce, a few tbsp of hoisin, and the stems of the cilantro bundle.  Let the broth cook there for 3-4 hours or until it begins to perfume. Add the sugar and taste, and then adjust the salt and sugar to balance. Strain the hot liquid.

We ready to serve, pour it over the cooked banh pho noodles. Squeeze over the lime, add the basil, extra cilantro, chili oil, tofu and bean sprouts!! Those things are mandatory, and anything else you enjoy.

Notes for next time: Next time, I will add less hoisin to the original broth (which is considered cheating to some purists), and I will add slices of sweet red pepper to the simmering broth along with carrots, white onions and earthy mushrooms. I will also over-charr my onions and ginger, and do my very best to keep my broth super clear. If you do it before me, let me know! Xx

Looking for some music to listen to while you sear some onions?:

One thought on “Pho Chay on Boston’s Coldest Day

  1. I made this for dinner tonight using the Slow Cooker Function of my Instant Pot, and oh my gosh, I cannot stop eating it. This has got to be the most divine Pho I have ever had. I can’t even begin to describe how amazing this recipe is. I cannot wait for leftovers tomorrow, and I will be adding this to our regular dinner rotation. Thank you for this gem.

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