Traditionally, pho is a seriously beefy soup – beef bones and meat are simmered for a few hours along with charred onion and ginger, toasted star anise and cloves, and other aromatics, and thinly sliced sirloin is cooked in the hot broth at service – and there’s really nothing like it. Still, sometimes you want something cleaner and lighter, or something you can make with just what you have on hand. (And it’s surprising how few of the ingredients here are at all difficult to find. Even the rice noodles, dried shiitake, and star anise aren’t too hard to track down, especially if you’re near an Asian market, natural foods grocery, or even just a slightly above-average supermarket.)
This recipe – based on one from Mai Pham’s Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table(essential if you’re interested in cooking Vietnamese food) – uses shiitake mushrooms and lightly fried tofu in place of the beef, though the tofu is hardly essential – you could add sauteed fresh mushrooms, thinly sliced and sauteed collard greens, or anything else you have on hand. (The shiitakes are the real workhorses of this recipe – they flavor the broth and provide texture in the finished bowl.) This recipe isn’t – and isn’t aiming to be – a substitute for beef pho, but with the charred onions and ginger and toasted star anise and cloves (which, along with the beef, are the defining flavors of traditional pho), it has the flavor of the real thing, and it’s plenty delicious in its own right.
This recipe uses shiitake mushrooms and lightly fried tofu in place of the beef, though the tofu is hardly essential – you could add sauteed fresh mushrooms, thinly sliced and sauteed collard greens, or anything else you have on hand.
2jalapeño chiles, sliced into thin rings (or any other chile you want)
1lime, cut into 6 wedges
Put the mushrooms in a medium bowl, and cover with hot water. Let soak for 20 minutes.
Preheat your broiler, and line a small baking sheet with foil. Peel off the outer papery layers of skin off the onions, and put the onions and the ginger on the sheet. When the broiler is ready, broil the onions and ginger until charred and blackened, about 7 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside until cool enough to handle.
When the onions and ginger are somewhat cooled, peel off the outer, blackened layers from the onions, and remove any seriously burned spots from the ginger. Put the onions and ginger, along with the carrots, in a large stockpot. Drain the mushrooms, reserving the water, and add to the stockpot.
Strain the mushroom water through a fine-mesh strainer into a large measuring cup. (There should be around two cups of water, though don't worry if there's more or less.) Add the mushroom water and enough tap water to the stockpot to equal 4 quarts. Bring everything to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat, and simmer for 90 minutes.
While the broth is simmering, heat a small, dry skillet over medium heat, and toast the star anise and cloves, shaking often, until fragrant, around 4 minutes. Remove to a small bowl and set aside.
After the broth has simmered for 90 minutes, add the star anise, cloves, soy sauce, salt, and sugar to the broth. Let simmer for 30 more minutes.
15 minutes before you're ready to serve, put the rice noodles in a large bowl and cover with warm water. Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
Heat the oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Cut the tofu into three or four large blocks, and, when the oil is hot, add to the skillet. Cook, turning once, for around 5 minutes, or until the tofu is browned and firmer. Drain on a paper-towel-lined plate. Slice into 1/4-inch slices.
Pour the broth through a strainer or use a skimmer to remove all the solids. Discard all the solids except the mushrooms. Bring the broth to a roiling boil.
Slice the mushrooms into thin strips. Set aside.
When the water for the noodles is boiling, add the noodles and cook until tender, around 3-4 minutes. Drain, and rinse under cold water until cool.
To serve: Divide the noodles among four large bowls. Top each with the sliced onion, scallions, sliced mushrooms, and tofu. Ladle 2-3 cups of boiling broth into each bowl, and let everyone garnish their bowls with the cilantro, basil, sprouts, chiles, and squeezes of lime as they see fit.