Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Daring Cooks' October Challenge: Vietnamese Pho and Dessert Wontons

I’m back from my vacation!

So, where did I go? Here are some hints:

Ok, I guess that could be anywhere that has huge national parks and gorgeous coasts. Here’s another hint; but beware, it's not the same country as above (in fact, this country has no coastline):

Points to whoever recognizes the castle! But I’ll post about my trip some other day, let’s move on. Today is Daring Cooks’ Day!

I didn’t have a lot of time to get this challenge done, since I only came home a few days ago. But there was no way I was missing this one, because this month’s challenge was special to me: Vietnamese pho. Our hostess was Jaden Hair, from Steamy Kitchen, and author of the recently published cookbook of the same name.

As I’ve mentioned before, my mother is Vietnamese. However, although I’ve eaten more than my share of pho, I never had the homemade variety growing up: pho was something we always went out for. As I found out, this was because making really good pho takes a while. However, it’s totally worth it.

Our hostess offered us a range of options for this challenge, including variations on flavour and cooking time. There was a quickie version, using ready-made broth. And then there was a much longer version, which required making our own broth. I immediately went for the long recipe. You see, I had made a previous attempt at pho a few months back, with broth from a can, and it tasted nothing like real pho. Granted, perhaps I had simply used a bad recipe: all the Daring Cooks who used Jaden’s quick recipe seemed very happy with the results. Still, I felt like doing this the way my grandmother did it.

We also had a choice between chicken or beef. Again, I didn’t hesitate: I went straight for the beef. This is because my mother, who knows her pho even though she doesn’t make it, has always told me that beef pho is the more authentic one, as well as the one with the most flavour. I’m as Western as they come, at this point in my life, but I figured that, as long I was pretending to be my grandmother, I might as well go all the way. Plus, I like beef.

The first step was to char the onions and ginger. I had read about this trick before, on Andrea Nguyen’s website Viet World Kitchen: burning the vegetables gives more flavour to your broth. It was a rather counter-intuitive experience for me, however, as I spend so much of my time trying not to burn things in the oven. I kept wanting to snatch the veggies out from under the broiler.

Ok, with my onions nice and black (or at least as black as I was prepared to let them get), it was time to make the broth. I bought a ton of marrow bones (I literally emptied the supermarket section), along with a nice piece of chuck meat. I parboiled the bones to remove all the yucky stuff, then threw in the meat, burnt vegetables, spices, and let everything simmer for… 3 hours. I think this is why my mother decided it wasn’t worth making pho at home, when there was a perfectly good Vietnamese restaurant two blocks away.

Anyways, 3 hours later, I had a nice, dark and, thanks to frequent skimming, clear beef broth. However, because I had used so many marrow bones, it was quite fatty. I’m comfortable with a little bit of fat, but when the broth leaves a greasy film on your lips, that’s just too much. Fortunately, I had made the broth a day ahead; so I left it in the fridge overnight, so that in the morning all the fat had congealed at the surface, and I was able to spoon it out. A little trick I stumbled upon while making stew last year.

The rest was pretty straightforward. I boiled and drained my noodles, added some slices of both raw and simmered beef, poured the broth over and garnished with coriander, spring onions, soy sprouts and mint leaves. I like raw meat, so I didn’t let mine cook too long in the broth.

I didn’t add any hoisin or chili sauce, because I wanted to taste the broth itself. I was very pleased with the result: it tasted almost exactly like good restaurant pho! I couldn’t have hoped for better. And the simmered meat was really tender and tasty.

The second part of the challenge was deep-fried dessert wontons. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any wonton wrappers around here (and I had no time to get to Chinatown), so I used Chinese egg roll wrappers. They were rather difficult to work with, so I kept my shapes pretty simple. For the filling, I wanted to use mascarpone, and made two variations: one chocolate-pistachio, and one lemon.

The chocolate version came out fine, but the lemon one was a disaster. The filling was too wet, because of the lemon juice, and as a result the wrapper burst while frying. Burnt lemony mascarpone in the frying oil. Not pretty. But at least both fillings were good. I’ll probably make them again, but maybe not wonton style… Definitely not egg roll style. I think I prefer good ol’ phylo dough.

Ok, so the wontons weren’t a revelation, but I definitely feel like I learnt something worthwhile by making my own pho. I’m hoping my mother will be proud – though I don’t think I’d dare serve it to her. It was good, but I’m sure it wasn’t perfect by some obscure criteria I haven’t figured out yet.

Check here for the DC blogroll, to see the amazing soups everyone else made, and here for the basic challenge. If you want to try the 3-hour long beef pho recipe (and you really should), you’ll find it here, on Jaden’s website.


  1. Okay - I'm horrible at guessing location from photos, however it looks absolutely gorgeous!!

    Pho wise, you did amazingly & I'm so glad you loved it =D.

  2. Your pho looks yummy and your wonton filling too, it looks so chocolate-y. :)

  3. Hmm, not sure but that castle does look vaguely familiar.. It's not Versailles in France is it? I have never been to Versailles so wouldn't really know but it kind of looks like a european castle. Loved to hear all about your trip!

    Now on to the Pho! I went for the chicken version and totally loved it, although I did make the quick version. Your beef version looks fabulous too and I do think I will be making that some time in the near future!

  4. The pictures of your trip are me wondering where it was taken.
    I don't recognise the castle,...

    Your pho ga looks great & so tasty too,..Welcome back & I hope that you enjoyed your holiday,...

  5. I know where you wnet...becuase you told me hihi. But won't say to let other guess. Wow your long version Pho looks great. The chocolate wonton with marscapone...salavating. But happy to hear I am not allone with a disaster there hehe.

  6. mmm the beef pho looks yummy! And sorry to hear about your lemon marsapone wonton... it sounded delicious tho! Please post up the ones you're gonna make with phyllo dough, i would love to see them!

  7. Welcome back, Val..and I'm so glad you had a great vacation! The photos are gorgeous!

    That said, your beef pho turned out beautiful and mouth watering..and I don't care how messy either of your wontons were, I want them both! Nice job on everything! :)

  8. Oh! Nice photos :-) and the pho looks delicious, I bet you thatthe roasted onion gives the soup an special flavor.