Easy Beef Pho (more “Faux” than authentic “Pho”)

This is a cheap, comforting-but-healthy bowl of tender rib meat and bone broth. And it’s super-easy to make – the passage of time does all the work for you. It’s hands-off pho, as 1. apart from roughly chopping some aromatics and slipping the tender meat off the bones at the end of cooking, you really don’t do much, and 2. it also stands for “Hands off my pho!” because once I’ve got my slurp on with a bowl of this umami sensation, I’m not prepared to share! Vietnamese Beef Pho Having said that, it’s the kind of meal you want to make in bulk with your biggest pot. We put it on the oven first thing in the morning and then left it to cool, so it was ready in time for a spontaneous after church dinner with friends. It would work making overnight before you want to serve it – there isn’t much fat in the broth, but it’s easiest to remove when the broth/bones have been left to cool or in the fridge, so that you can easily remove the thin layer of solidified fat from the top before reheating to serve.

The meat here is the Meaty Beef Bones sold by Morrisons for £3 a kilo, and you probably want at least one bone each. Since they were first sold, I’ve been trying to come up with a recipe that works well for them – that makes the rib meat and collagen tender enough to eat without losing its flavour (like when I boiled them) or becoming rubbery and not using the bone (like when I grilled). When I finally came up with this recipe, I texted my brother immediately: “I have WON meaty beef bones!!” – he understood immediately, and messaged back asking for the method and with a suitably enthusiastic looking emoji.

This method combines a slow simmer, which releases all the nutrients and flavour from the bone, melts the collagen into collapse and the meat into fork-tender shreds, with a furious grilling where the fat and wobbly bits (marinated in fish sauce and brown sugar) crisp up and get a smoky edge of char. There is no searing of the meat beforehand (so tedious/stressful!) Serve with lime wedges, chilli sauce and noodles (we used zero-calorie shirataki noodles, but flat rice noodles would be more authentic) and fresh veg like pea shoots, spring onions and garlic chives, along with crispy onions and crispy kale for some extra crunch.

Recipe: Easy Beef Pho

Serves 8 (or 6 with leftovers for 2 – see bonus recipe)

8 meaty beef bones (if you don’t have these then oxtail would work well)
3 onions, peeled and roughly quartered
4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed with the flat side of a knife
Thumb-sized knob of ginger, peeled (use a teaspoon!) and roughly chopped
1 star anise (optional)
1 tsp fennel seeds (optional)
Approx. 2l of cold water (use a measuring jug) to cover bones
200ml light soya sauce
1Tbsp salt

For beef marinade:
approx 2Tbsp dark brown sugar
approx 2Tbsp fish sauce

To serve:
Noodles e.g. shirataki (just rinse), flat rice noodles (soak according to packet instructions), wheat noodles (boil according to packet instructions)
Fresh vegetables e.g. pea shoots, beansprouts, frozen peas (place in a sieve and dunk in boiling water to just cook), spring onions, garlic chives
Sriacha chilli sauce, crispy onions and crispy kale for some extra crunch

Ideally you can make this in an large lidded ovenproof pot, like a cast iron, to make it a one-bowl dish, but otherwise use a large frying pan to fry the aromatics and then scrape them into an ovenproof container big enough to hold all the bones and cover them with water, e.g. a roasting tin, which you can cover tightly with a double layer of foil.

1. Preheat the oven to 120C. In a small amount of oil, fry the onions, garlic and ginger on a medium/high heat until soft and slightly charred.

2. (if using a cast iron pot) Add the bones  and cover with soy sauce and cold water, and add salt, star anise and fennel seeds (if using). Bring to the boil over a high heat, cover and place in the oven for 5 hours. (if using a roasting dish) Transfer the charred aromatics to the roasting dish, scraping out the pan well, and add the bones, soya sauce, salt, star anise and fennel (if using). Pour hot water from the kettle over the bones, making sure they are fully submerged. Cover the roasting tin tightly with a double layer of foil and place in the oven for 5 hours. After two hours, check that the water isn’t being lost and if it is, top up with more hot water.

3. Check that the meat is very tender – the broth should be a rich burnished colour. If it is not, increase the heat by 20 degrees and cook for another 1-2 hours or so. When the meat is tender, take the dish out and skim off the fat if you are serving it immediately – apparently an ice cube is the easiest way. Otherwise leave it to cool, and when cool, place it in the fridge.

4. Half an hour before serving, preheat the grill to 230C. (If you are making crispy kale, give it a rinse and roughly squeeze dry with a clean tea towel, and toss on a baking sheet with a bit of oil and salt, then slide it high into the oven for 10 mins or so until crisp) Carefully remove the fat from the broth and discard. Line a large oven tray lined with baking parchment, and remove the bones from the broth. The meat should slip off easily – it doesn’t look super appetising at this point – a wobbly mass of grey/brown meat, cartilage and fat – put it all on the tray with as little liquid as possible, and return the bones to the broth. Heat up the broth on the stove with the lid on (pour it into a pot if using a roasting tray)

5. Shake the fish sauce over the meat, and spoon over the sugar. Use your hands to evenly coat the meat and arrange it in a single layer on the baking tray. Grill fiercely for about 10 minutes, checking that it doesn’t burn. All those wobbly bits should have crispy edges and there should be a lovely charred glaze.

6. Whilst the meat is grilling, heat your bowls, either at the bottom of the oven or by getting them all wet and microwaving on high for one minute. Prepare your vegetables (which might just mean giving your spring onions a wash before getting ready to scissor them on to each bowl) and noodles (soaking/boiling/rinsing depending on what you use) and get the sriacha sauce and jars of crispy onion on the table. Make sure the broth has come to a simmer and check for seasoning.

7. With the table set, give each person a hot bowl of noodles and get them to help themselves to vegetables and ladle over the hot broth (through a sieve – the broth should be clear). When the meat is ready, tip it all onto a chopping board and slice into 1cm pieces against the grain – you will end up with a heap of sweet-smoky shreds of meat and yielding collagen – all of it delicious. Any juices that have come off the meat during cooking can be tipped into the broth to further enrich the flavour. Place the meat-heaped board into the centre of the table and let everyone help themselves, piling meat onto the steaming bowls of noodles and vegetables, seasoning to taste with chilli sauce and shaking over crispy shards of golden onion and dark green kale.

Bonus Recipe – Leftovers!

We were left with a little broth, bits of vegetables and no meat, but the broth is just too good to throw away – so the next day we sliced a couple of leeks into ribbons and softened them in a little oil  with some chopped garlic until they were sweet and slightly browned, before adding sliced tofu puffs (inexpensive – from the refrigerated section in the Chinese supermarket) and a few clumps of enoki mushrooms. A splash of rice wine and soya sauce, and the leftover broth, and the whole thing was brought to a fast boil before adding in shirataki noodles, and the leftover veg (garlic chives and pea shoots) and serving. LeftoPhos The broth was darker and sweeter, and the porous tofu absorbed all the meaty, smoky flavours beautifully, whilst the heaps of vegetables and zero noodles made a satisfying, but not heavy meal. The range of vegetable flavours – from caramelised, almost disintegrating leeks, to punchy garlic chives just softened by the broth, add interest and levels of flavour to a very quick and simple healthy dish.

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