Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Confessions of a Phở-natic

Blasted blogger somehow overwrote my newer version with a draft so now I have to reconstruct.  Other recent blogs on the topic of Phở
Genealogy of Phở
Real Phở Bo Recipe

So my foodie friend over at Streatery called my out on my claim to be "not zealous" and the lengths I am willing to go to acquire quality meat--organic, pasture-raised if possible, humanely butchered.

Yes, I have sourced sustainably-raised Sonoma Liberty duck legs to make bún măng vịt|duck bamboo soup (post forthcoming) after 3 months/attempts (and I'm not too proud to say I did it through a raw pet feed coop;  I've volunteer schlepped thousands of pounds of raw meat for two months to make good on this).

Yes, I have been an itinerant meat dealer slinging cryovac'ed cuts from a organic heritage hog (red wattle!), hustlin' all up in east Oakland.  Holla! (or if you're in Fruitvale ¡Hola!)

Meat Man
Head of State —

Mangalista yummy!
And I have braved the mega-hipster crowd and hours long line at Pork Prom just to eat crumbs of the curly haired Hungarian Mangalitsa.

And I have divvied up 120 lbs of delicious organic hog and offal as it defrosted blood all over my floor.

But, I am not zealous.  I am enthusiastic.  I just like good food and good health at a reasonable cost.

So here are some confessions of a Phở-natic:

  • My recipe is my own.  Of course I didn't invent it.  Over the years of trying to phở-ness (oh yes, I will portmanteau phở into every conceivable iteration) with advice from my mom, my oldest aunty, I cross-referred to existing recipes from cookbooks and internet for quantity because you know "add as much as you like to taste, I don't know how you like it" is not a valid measurement and rice bowls and soup spoons are not reliable measurements.  And although I did acquire a digital scale to ride this new foodie trend of weighing food, I still don't think in metric.  Sorry, American born.
  • I don't eat beef.  I stopped eating it in on a regular basis in 2003 after noticing I was not digesting it very well and what's more, would develop boils after eating conventionally produced beef.  Eww! TMI I know.  I make beef phở on infrequent occasions and try to use only the highest quality beef, so boils are no longer a problem and I take enzymes to help me digest.  I make chicken phở far more frequently.  I gave up on restaurant phở last year not just because the broth was mediocre and masked by liberal use of nước mắm to cover up the lack of hours long bone extracting simmering, but also because the excessive amounts of MSG gave me severe intestinal cramps and prompted a bad metabolic crash.  And that's without slurping the broth.  I may make exceptions for Turtle Tower (SF) and Pho Nguyen Hue (OC) but probably only if I am carrying my supplements that buffer me from chemicals that my body finds toxic.  Otherwise I will violate the cardinal rule of eating at a phở specialty restaurant by ordering from the non-phở menu.  Can't go wrong with a grilled meat rice plate.  Cross my fingers.  Now that we are sourcing grass-fed/-finished, pasture-raised, sustainable beef, I've increased my beef intake with minimal repurcussions.  I like tripe in my phở but I've yet to source organic, non-chemically processed tripe and we're not ready to buy half a cow.
  • When I am on a budget or cannot find time to source local organic, grass-fed beef or organic pasture-raised chicken--which is most of the time--I buy halal, that is, beef/chicken that is grown in accordance with spiritual strictures tastes better than meat grown for greed & environmental destruction.  And that is not just the Bay Area smug talking.  I'll post again about my local meat sources, but currently, I go to Indian Market and get their organic, halal Petaluma Poultry chicken for $2.29/lb.  It's really a marked taste improvement over supermarket chicken.  I had pasture raised chicken for the first time a few months ago and was really astounded by the flavor which blew my now-ordinary seeming organic halal chicken out of the farmyard.
  • I put leafy greens in my phở.  No, I'm not talking about ngò gai, basil, and cilantro.  I'm talking raw baby power greens--chard, baby kale and baby spinach are my current faves.  What da phở?  Weo, I never claimed to be a purist about phở (ok, maybe I did).  I love my people's food, but here in the US, it consists of too much refined whites and too much meat.  I need greens with every meal to feel nourished.  I make sure they are cooked to reduce the oxalic acid in raw greens to which I am very sensitive.
  • I don't like onions.  Although I faithfully follow my grandmother's method of carmelizing a whole onion, I've been allergic to onions ever since I can remember (yes, this is a real thing.  I would get rashes and have respiratory issues.) and rarely used it in the last two decades of my cooking experience.  However, my chiropractor recently cured me of this allergy (not just for backs, yo!) and now onions are back in my pantry.  Perhaps, this is the missing ingredient to make my phở taste like my grandmother's.  And indeed, it does make a difference to the color of the broth.
  • Making my own brown rice phở noodles or substituting another kind of brown rice noodle is on my list of to-do's to try to make phở even more nutritious.  I am lucky enough to have a mother-in-law who grew up in a rural hamlet in the delta making everything from scratch so I pick her brain a lot and there's also my bro and Streatery's genius.  I had an epic first attempt fail with brown rice bánh xèo (a future blog post one day) but I'm not giving up just yet.  So until I master brown rice flour, I have been known to eat phở with brown rice; that's the actual rice grains.  It's... interesting.
  • On the noodle tip, I prefer even-wider-than-fettucine-XL-sized bánh phở|noodles which seems to be a northern thing.  I've only ever seen wide noodles at the northern style restaurant Turtle Tower in the Tenderloin because they make their own noodles by hand.  So this means I choose the dried, made overseas noodles over the "fresh" regional-/California-made noodles which typically comes in narrower widths.  I also choose the dried kind because they don't use wheat/gluten or preservatives unlike the fresh ones.  But if I am willing to pay the discomfort with chemical preservatives and do choose fresh, I go for the wider hủ tiếu|rice noodles.
  • Besides leafy greens, I garnish my phở with basil, cilantro, ngò gai (when I have it), occasionally blanched mung bean sprouts, Red Boat nước mắm
    ắm nhi
    ắm nhi
    , and lime/lemon juice.  Other than RB which is a recent artisanal product, that's how I've eaten it since I was a child and how I came to appreciate the nuances of broth unpolluted by condiments.  I still lift my bowl to slurp the last of the broth which btw is entirely polite in Việt etiquette.
  • I have been known to substitute dried Italian basil when I don't have have Thai basil on hand.  What can I say, our herb garden didn't over-winter last year and I can't get to the Asian store that often.  Our garden this year had African basil and chocolate basil, not Thai basil, so that is what went in the phở.
  • As I indicated as much in my flagship blog post, I am not attached to any "real food" celebrity or branded dietary program.  I finally watched Food, Inc for the first time a few months ago.  And I've yet to finish reading The Omnivore's Dilemma.  When I volunteered to table for my HMN chapter at the Wise Traditions WAPF conference last year, I had no clue who Sally Fallon is or why our chapter leader mom was so excited she punched me when she saw her; I was there to see if I could get discounted organic stuff in the vendor section (not so much).  I've only been to one foodie convening and really it was just something to do with my bro & his girlfriend when they were in town.  So I'm not really a convert to anything, just appreciate real food.
  • I cheat time--though not nutritional value--with a pressure cooker.  I have a vintage Fissler Vitavit Royal that I inherited from my grandmother before she passed.  It must be rather fancy because replacing the aged gasket & valve set me back $30.  I can only cook family sized amounts in this one because the bones take up so much volume.  The provenance of this special pressure cooker was probably my gourmand fashion designer uncle turned gourmand friar-priest uncle when he entered the monastery.  He is probably also why my grandmother who couldn't read english was also in possession of Craig Clairborne's NY Times Cookbook which I inherited as well, though I donated/recycled it last year.  (Gasp!  What can I say, America's Test Kitchen is my go-to cookbook.)  This takes me from 5 hours with my cauldron to 1-1.5 hours with my pressure cooker.  An indication for me as to the quality is if the broth is gelatinous overnight in the fridge from the rendered collagen.
  • I re-use the bones and that gets me maximum nutrient extraction and value for my dollar (or use-per-eat to paraphrase my girlfriend Tuyen's theory of economic consumer rationalization).  I make batches and freeze the broth because I am too lazy to can though I admire the efficiency and smarts of making shelf-stable canned broth.  I defrost weekly or thereabouts and everyone in the family sips a cup of broth on the daily for the mineral content immune boost.  Note that bones can be made for 2-3 re-uses but after that, it diminishes in beefy flavor so you'll have to add meat cuts.  The bones can then continue to be used for bone broth/hunter's tea.
  • I met a Hawai'i-kine custom surfboard maker in Santa Barbara back in January.  He told me how he's been blackballed at the local phở joint for trying to mod his phở too many times trying to make it more like the saimin he missed (itself a fusion of local ethnic groups).  Maybe 5 years ago this might have prompted an one-sided traditionalist argument on my part (though I don't know that I'd even argue, if it wasn't for people mod'ing, bánh mỳ ổ|Vietnamese sandwich may have never come into existence and the world would be a sadder place for it), but I just shrugged and told him how to make his own phở and mod it however he wanted.  Some folks add carrots or daikon to the pho to sweeten it.  Others add pork bones.  I like my phở with kale and brown rice.  Who am I to judge?
 So there you have it.  Keepin' it phở real.

Ăn Ngon Lành|Eat Delectably!

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