Vietnamese beef noodle soup (pho bo): $1.88/bowl

I’m not even going to pretend for a minute this is real pho. It’s missing the lime slices, Thai basil, sprouts, chiles, sriracha and hoisin sauce; the meat is wrong; the beef stock comes from a jar…I could go on and on.

That said, I’ve eaten a lot of pho at a lot of restaurants, and I’ve even made it the “correct” way at home using oxtail and beef bones, and this bastardized, not-at-all authentic version happens to be the closest I’ve come to restaurant pho. (That is, minus the condiments. If you can afford a lime at the very least, by all means buy one to slice up and squeeze over the soup. And I heartily endorse the Thai basil as well.) It also happens to be quick and easy and totally doable for a weeknight meal, and if you use smaller bowls and serve a garden salad on the side, it could easily stretch to 4 servings.

• 8 oz. top round steak (discount meat, thawed): $1.52
• 4 cups beef broth = 4 tsp. from Better Than Bouillon Base (Costco jar): 50 cents
• 3 shallots, peeled and quartered: 50 cents
• 1/2 package bean-thread noodles (89 cents at Asian market): 45 cents
• (1) 1-inch piece ginger, sliced and bruised: 20 cents
• Leaves from 1/2 bunch cilantro (38 cents), roughly chopped: 19 cents
• 3 T Vietnamese fish sauce: 10 cents
• 2 T brown sugar: 10 cents
• 2 T vegetable oil (bulk): 10 cents.
• 1 T coriander seeds (bulk): 5 cents
 • 3 star anise (bulk): 2 cents
• 1 cinnamon stick, broken in half (bulk): 2 cents
• 5 cloves (bulk): 1 cent
• Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper for steak: 1 cent
Total: $3.77/2 = $1.88/bowl

Remove the steak from the refrigerator and season with salt and pepper on both sides. Allow it to come up to room temperature.

Heat a tall pot (I use a Calphalon 12-quart stockpot, but it’s kind of large) over medium-high heat, and add the coriander, star anise, cinnamon stick, and cloves. Toast until fragrant, and remove to a small bowl.

Add the 2 T vegetable oil, bruised ginger, and shallots, and cook until the shallots have charred spots and the ginger has colored. (I’ve also tried charring the shallots and ginger under the broiler, but something about cooking them in the oil seems to bring out noticeably more flavor.) Add the toasted spices and again stir until fragrant.

Add 1 1/2 cups water, the 4 cups beef broth, 3 T fish sauce, and 2 T sugar (granulated is OK too if you don’t have brown), and boil for about 15 or 20 minutes. The flavors will concentrate as the liquid reduces, but you may find yourself needing to add a little more sugar, fish sauce, or beef base to taste, if you like a stronger broth.

Meanwhile, put half the bean thread noodles in a pot or heat-proof bowl, and boil enough water in a teapot or kettle to cover them. Pour the boiling water over the noodles and break them up a bit with a fork. Cover the bowl or pot and let soak about 10 minutes. Test a noodle after 5 minutes to make sure it’s not going to be overcooked after 10. Once the noodles are done, pour them into a large sieve or strainer and rinse with cold water. Divide between two (or among four) soup bowls.

Tear off the cilantro leaves and roughly chop. Put in a bowl for garnish.

Preheat the broiler and broil the steak about 5 minutes on both sides; cover with foil and let rest for another 5 minutes before slicing very thinly and dividing it between the soup bowls. It’s OK if it’s still quite rare in the middle; the hot soup will cook it.

Strain the broth, return it to the pot, and reheat it until boiling. Pour over the noodles and beef, and garnish with cilantro leaves (or lime and Thai basil, if you’re a high roller).

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