Pho (pronounced like the first half of my favorite four-letter word), has been one of the trendiest Asian dishes on the American scene in the last few years. It’s total comfort, it’s incredibly healthy, and it’s soup. So obviously it’s a trend that makes frequent appearances in the McSorley house. And it just so happens to fit perfectly into my meal prep scheme.
You see, this is just Part I of my series of meal prep posts, focused on a gourmet, but also half-hearted version of meal prepping that allows for maximum flexibility on the day-to-day. I’m a person that loves to cook, and that stems mainly from an appetite that demands what it wants when it wants it. So the traditional approach to meal prep, which involves preparing an entire week’s worth of similar meals on the previous Sunday, doesn’t work for me. I need flexibility each day, or that pre-made food is just going to go to waste.
If I don’t crave it, I won’t eat it. I know myself.
So instead of wasting food with too much planning, or going the route of instant ramen every time I find myself too busy to cook– I’ve created a system of freezable back-up meals that I know I enjoy. I’ve chosen a variety of absolutely drool-worthy dishes that store well in the freezer and offer flexibility with what is in season, and what I have on hand. These next few posts will include recipes for these dishes and show you how to best store them in the freezer so that you have a quick, amazing dinner when you just cannot.
And if you can’t tell, that first recipe we’ll discuss is Pho.
It’s like salad in soup form, but it’s somehow meaty and rich and fishy while still being fresh and zingy. Thank you, Vietnam. The first thing you’re going to want to think about when you’re making this soup is the structure of your broth. Don’t purchase any of your greens or toppings until the broth is already made, because it may very well take you a few days, and no one likes soft bean sprouts. You’re going to want to go to your local butcher (or butcher section of your grocery store) and hunt down some beef soup bones. We want bones with very little fat, but lots of collagen, like leg bones and oxtails (which are traditionally used, but sometimes hard to find or expensive); however, any bones you can find will work. And don’t forget to check the freezer section!
When I buy bones for soups and stocks, I typically go for at least 5 or 6 pounds, simply because I don’t want to bother making something that takes more than 12 hours if I’m not going to make LOTS. But in this situation especially, you’re going to want a lot more than you think. The majority of the broth is going straight into the freezer, and it’s going to be nearly impossible to not slurp down a hefty portion before doing so.
So be warned: you need a truly large pot (stock pot) for this recipe. As you can see in the photo above, I ended up changing pans when I realized my dutch oven wasn’t going to cut it. This is a lotta soup.
When it comes to the meat for this soup, most recipes I’ve seen call for some very tender, expensive cuts. I think that’s dumb. The meat is sliced so paper thin, and only gently cooked by the heat of the broth as you serve it– so it’s very difficult to make it tough. I’ve used flank steaks, sirloin, chuck roast, and in all honesty, the chuck was the best. The trick is to freeze the roast solid, then take it out thirty minutes before you want to slice it. Then use your best serrated bread knife to make the thinnest slices possible– you want it practically shaven. When the meat thaws, it becomes extremely delicate and will cook instantly in your soup.
With this post, I’m including a little bonus recipe at the end for my homemade chili sauce/paste. Pho is usually topped with sriracha or chili oil to add some kick, but I wanted to make a sort of hybrid between sriracha and a fresher-tasting chili paste. It’s completely optional, but it adds the notes of garlic that I inevitably miss in any dish that doesn’t have loads. I made it with a mortar and pestle, but you can use a food processor if you prefer. The only reason I did it by hand is because my food processor doesn’t have low enough blades to grind small quantities of food. Rough life, right?
Every ingredient in the paste is optional and you can adjust the amounts according to your taste. Then simply spoon the desired amount on top of your assembled soup and enjoy!
Vietnamese Pho for Meal Prep
For the Broth:
5 lbs beef bone, preferably lean pieces like oxtail
2 onions, quartered
4 inch knob of ginger, sliced
1 cinnamon stick (I used half a stick of cassia and ceylon each)
4 whole star anise
5 whole cloves
5 cardamom pods
1 t coriander seeds
1 t fennel seeds
2-3 T high quality fish sauce
1 T sugar (optional)
2 T table salt (more to taste)
For the soup:
1 lb rice “stick” noodles
1-3 lb beef chuck or sirloin, very thinly sliced
1/2 white onion, very thinly sliced
1 bunch scallions, washed and roughly chopped
1 bunch cilantro, washed and roughly chopped
2-3 sprigs Thai basil
raw bean sprouts
chili sauce or sriracha
On the morning of day 1, add your soup bones to a very large stock pot and cover with water. Move to stove and bring to a rolling boil. Remove from heat.
While the bones are coming to a boil, take your quartered onions and ginger pieces, and char them with a kitchen torch, your oven’s broiler, or stovetop flame if you have a gas stove. You want them quite blackened on the outside. Let cool.
When the bones have cooled, drain them into a large colander. Use your sink’s sprayer to gently clean the bones from any scum or debris. Then place the bones back in the pot with about 2 gallons of water and replace on the stove top. Add the charred onions and ginger, as well as all of the whole spices. (For a little extra flavor, you can toast the whole spices in the oven or in a skillet until browned and fragrant). Bring the broth ingredients to a boil then turn down the heat to a steady simmer. Allow the mixture to simmer, adding water occasionally, for at least six hours (but up to twelve).
While the broth simmers, it’s time to prepare your other ingredients. Fully freeze your beef chuck, then take it out of the freezer to let it thaw slightly for about 20-30 minutes. Then use a paper towel to brace the meat in one hand while you use a sharp serrated knife in the other hand. Slice the meat as thin as you can, allowing it to rest longer if needed. I did my slices in small bursts every 15 minutes, allowing the next “layer” to thaw slightly before slicing. Reserve whatever portion of meat you think you’ll use immediately (or for lunch the next day–whenever your broth is finished). Line a baking sheet or a few plates with wax or parchment paper, then place the slices of beef side by side, untouching. Place them in the freezer until frozen solid before moving them to a storage container for future use.
Once your broth has a nice deep golden-brown color, it’s time to strain. Use tongs or a slotted spoon to remove all large pieces of bones or onions, then use a fine mesh sieve to strain out any smaller solids, straining the liquid into a large bowl. Wipe out the pot with a clean, damp cloth, then add the strained broth back into the pot. At this point, check to see how much fat is floating on the top. If it’s an excessive or unappetizing amount, let it cool completely and then refrigerate it overnight. The fat will solidify into a hard, white layer on top and will be easy to remove.
Next, take your strained broth (or your cooled, refrigerated and de-fatted broth) and add 2 tablespoons of fish sauce, 1 tablespoon of sugar, and 2 tablespoons of salt. Simmer until dissolved, then taste. If the soup tastes to “beefy” or heavy, add a bit more sugar and fish sauce, then salt to taste. You may also need to add more water if your broth has condensed considerably. The soup should taste savory and meaty, but light. Once the broth tastes as it should, let it continue to simmer, and add a few quarts of water to a medium-sized pot. Bring to a boil. Add the rice noodles (I did a full 16 oz to get a few meals out of them, but use as much as you need), and cook until tender, stirring constantly so they don’t stick. This will take 4-10 minutes depending on the thickness of noodles. Once cooked, strain immediately and run under cold water to stop the cooking process and to keep them from sticking.
Add desired amount of noodles to a large bowl, then arrange your reserved raw beef slices on top. Spoon over very hot broth (that’s why you need to keep it simmering), until the meat begins to turn brown and the noodles are covered. Then sprinkle desired amounts of sliced white onions, cilantro, and scallions, and top with bean sprouts and Thai basil. Add lime juice, sriracha (or homemade chili paste), and hoisin to taste. Enjoy immediately while steaming hot!
For meal prep:
After you have consumed your day’s fill of soup, let the remainder of the broth simmer until is is reduced by about 3/4. Let the concentrated broth cool completely. Once the broth is room temperature, pour it into a spouted container and use the spouted container to fill 2-4 ice cube trays with broth. Move ice cube trays to the freezer and let freeze overnight or until solid. Move frozen broth concentrate cubes into a large, freezer-safe container, and store in the freezer with your frozen beef strips.
When you’re craving some pho and you don’t have 12 hours to spare, take 3-4 pho broth concentrate cubes from your freezer, as well as a few strips of pre-frozen raw beef. Set the beef aside on a small plate to thaw, and add the soup cubes to a small pot or saucepan. Bring the pot to medium heat to melt the cubes, then add water until the flavor is no longer concentrated. Bring to a simmer. In another pot, bring a quart of water to a boil and add a portion of rice noodles (or your noodles of choices). Once noodles are cooked through, strain and add to a serving bowl. Add the thawed (it’s okay if they’re not fully thawed) beef slices to your bowl, then pour over the simmering broth. Add onions, scallions, cilantro, basil, thai basil, sprouts, lime or lemon, or other aromatics, and sauces as desired. Enjoy immediately.
Homemade Thai Chili Sauce/Paste
1 cup dried Thai chilis
2 cloves garlic
juice from 1/3 lime
1 t coarse/raw sugar
coarse salt to taste
Place dried chilis in a small saucepan and add just enough water to cover. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, then let simmer about 10 minutes or until softened. Let stand until cooled. Drain any excess water from chilis and pat dry. Add hydrated chilis to a mortar and roughly break up the chilies with the pestle. Then, the two cloves of raw garlic and crush until you have a mostly homogeneous paste. Add the sugar and some coarse salt, then continue to crush/grind the paste until it reaches your desired texture. Add lime juice and then adjust salt and sugar to taste.