A fabulous pho finale

My Luong speaks to the class before eating at Lawton School while Nicholas Rodriguez and her daughters Kimberly Luu (right) and Kathy reach for sauce.
My Luong speaks to the class before eating at Lawton School while Nicholas Rodriguez and her daughters Kimberly Luu (right) and Kathy reach for sauce. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 13, 2014

For 10 weeks, since our after-school cooking classes began at Lawton Elementary, Kimberly Luu had been talking about having her mom come in to make her favorite soup, the Vietnamese rice noodle soup called pho.

But it was never entirely clear her mom was on board. "I think she wants to, I'm not sure," Kim would say.

It turns out, it wasn't the soup her mom was hesitant about. It was explaining how to make it - in English.

My Luong, a native of Can Tho, Vietnam, who works as a bookkeeper, explained when she arrived at school that she had told her daughter: "This is not so easy for me. If you ask me to talk about financial report and accounts payable, I can do that. I know the words," she said. "But the cooking - I don't know how to call this," she said, lifting a ladle.

Truly, though, she had nothing to worry about, because if she was unsure of a word, Kim and her younger sister Kathy filled in, seamlessly going back and forth from Vietnamese to English.

"What the name of this?" My asked, lifting a bunch of leafy herbs.

"Cilantro!" Kim shouted.

"OK, cil-an-tro," said My, trying out the word. "We need to wash and chop that."

As she put the students to work prepping ingredients, she showed us a menu from a Vietnamese restaurant: "So many different kinds of pho," she said, pointing to about a dozen variations, including chicken, flank steak, shrimp, brisket, vegetarian. She had asked the owner of her favorite Vietnamese restaurant what most Americans order and was told meatballs, so that is what she brought, a Vietnamese packaged variety of small beef meatballs.

Because the broth takes hours to cook, she made that at home, but she took pictures on her iPhone to show us the process: boiling the bones, toasting the anise, cinnamon, coriander, fennel, and cloves, and when it was simmering, skimming the scum from the top.

"I don't know how to cook till I get married," she said, and by that time, she was far away from Vietnam and her mother, who is such a good cook that she caters family weddings.

"I had to teach myself," My said, from cookbooks and the Internet. "But growing up, before I cook, I watch her. I know how it should taste."

She clearly picked up kitchen skills, effortlessly and expertly demonstrating how to chop herbs: cutting a bunch in half and then holding them together "tight" to chop, producing clean cuts.

And she admitted, she has a fail-safe: phoning her mom, who is still in Vietnam.

"I call her all the time. I talk to her this morning making the broth!"

Every Vietnamese recipe has a trick, she said, and her mother knows them all. With pho, it is important to "wash" the bones by bringing them to a boil, then dumping the water and starting again. Also, never put the lid on the broth when it is simmering, or it will not be clear.

Another trick is washing the herbs with salt water. Instead of rinsing herbs in a colander, she fills a pan with salted water and soaks them, then rinses them, which, she says, kills germs on anything eaten raw.

Nobody was more surprised than My when her daughter said she wanted to sign up for a cooking class. "Kim was afraid of the stove and afraid of knives," her mom said. "I said, 'Are you sure?' "

"Now she can make her own noodles, her own eggs. She not afraid."

In fact, the other day, when they were grocery shopping, Kim asked her mom to buy her an apron.

"I'm so happy," said My.

When we started classes back in March, Kim was shy and tentative, saying she ate mostly rice and porridge, and was unsure about many of the foods we were cooking.

But soon enough, she found she loved a lot of the recipes, especially the tortellini soup, ratatouille, and sweet potato fries. But on this day, she was proud to have her mother sharing one of the recipes she and her family love so much.

"Wait until you taste it," she said with a knowing smile.

As the kids chopped cilantro and scallions, washed the basil and mint, sliced the limes, and set the table, little sister Kathy asked for small bowls to show the others how to make her special sauce, a mix of Sriracha, hoisin, and a squeeze of lime, for dipping the meatballs.

"It's sooo good - trust me," said Kathy, squinting her eyes to demonstrate just how good.

While waiting for the water to boil for the noodles, My had the kids arrange herbs and limes on platters to be added to the soup at the table. Then she had them line up the soup bowls while she measured the thin, white noodles for each bowl, winding a handful of them around a chopstick to estimate the right amount.

After the noodles had a quick turn in boiling water, an assembly line ensued, with My putting noodles in each bowl, the girls adding scallion, cilantro, meatballs, bean sprouts, and then a ladle of broth.

At the table, we added the other herbs, a squeeze of lime, and Kathy's sauce, if desired.

It was the best pho I had ever tasted - the broth so clear and clean, with subtle resonance of anise and ginger, the fresh herbs so fragrant on top.

"This is just fantastic!" I said.

Nick, who had never tasted pho before, was more than impressed. "Wow! That is a very, very good broth," he said, taking a sip. "Really delicious!"

Kathy gave Nick a quick lesson in how to use chopsticks for the noodles and he tried his best, but liked the soup too much to struggle, and settled for a fork.

The sisters, sitting next to each other and across from their mother, silently sipped their soup and basked in the glow of her talent.

Kim let out a big sigh, and then said, to no one in particular, "Today is the happiest day of my life."

Vietnamese Pho

Makes 8 servings

For the broth:

2 onions, halved

4-inch nub of ginger, halved lengthwise

5 to 6 pounds of good beef bones

3 pounds of good pork bones

6 quarts of water

1 package pho spices (1 cinnamon stick, 1 tablespoon coriander seeds, 1 tablespoon fennel seeds, 5 whole star anise, 1 cardamom pod, 6 whole cloves, see note

11/2 tablespoons kosher salt (half if regular table salt)

For the bowls:

Two bunches of scallions

Two large bunches of cilantro

Big handful of each: mint, basil

2 pounds rice noodles (dried or fresh)

3 11-ounce packages of small Vietnamese meatballs (Bo Vien Gan), see note

2 to 3 limes, cut into wedges

2 big handfuls of bean sprouts

Hoisin sauce

Sriracha hot sauce

1. Char: Turn broiler on high and move rack to the highest spot. Place ginger and onions on baking sheet. Brush just a bit of cooking oil on the cut side of each. Broil on high until ginger and onions begin to char. Turn over and continue to char. This should take a total of 10-15 minutes.

2. Empty the spice package into a saute pan over medium heat, and toast the spices over medium heat until aromatic, shaking pan occasionally, being careful not to let them burn. Set aside.

3. Parboil the bones: Fill large pot (12-quart) with cool water. Boil water, then add bones, keeping the heat on high. Boil vigorously for 2 to 3 minutes. Drain, rinse bones and pot, and refill pot with bones and 6 quarts of cool water. Bring to boil over high heat and lower to simmer. Use a mesh strainer to remove any scum.

4. Boil broth: Add ginger, onion, toasted spices and salt and simmer uncovered for 2 to 3 hours. Strain broth and return the broth to the pot. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding salt if necessary.

5. As the broth is boiling, wash herbs and pat to dry. Finely chop the scallions and one bunch of cilantro. Set aside to be added to the soup before it goes to the table. Arrange other herbs and limes on a platter. Guests can add those as they wish.

6. Prepare noodles following the directions on your package of noodles for boiling time.

7. Wash the meatballs and cut each one in half. Add the meatballs to the broth and bring it to a boil. Reduce heat and heat the meatballs through.

8. Line up the soup bowls next to the stove. Fill each bowl with rice noodles, meatballs, chopped cilantro and scallions. As soon as the broth comes back to a boil, ladle into bowls. Serve immediately. Guests can garnish their own bowls as they wish.

Note: These ingredients can be purchased at some Asian markets and at Vietnamese groceries such as Ben City Supermarket, 5520 Whitaker Ave., 215-537-8938.

Per serving: 392 calories; 44 grams protein; 33 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram sugar; 10 grams fat; 120 milligrams cholesterol; 989 milligrams sodium; 2 grams dietary fiber.

My Daughter's Kitchen

The mission. To teach schoolchildren to prepare healthy, easy meals on a budget.

The reach. Volunteers are in 10 Philadelphia schools, with intent to expand the program.

The partner. The Vetri Foundation, which shares the goal of encouraging healthy eating for children.

To support. Send donations to Vetri Foundation for Children, 1113 Admiral Peary Way, Quarters N, Philadelphia 19112; note "My Daughter's Kitchen" in the memo. Or go to vetrifoundation.org.

To participate. Submit recipes to be considered for classes. Must be simple, nutritious, protein-rich, prepared in less than an hour, and cost less than $20 for six servings. Send recipes to Food@philly.com.




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