The classic Vietnamese beef soup is all about the stock, which is traditionally a serious, all-day undertaking in itself and the subject of fetishistic secrecy and devotion. As much as I'd enjoy being that hardcore, I love and need pho too much for it to be a once-in-a-great-while ordeal. This version is relatively streamlined, although you will need at least 2 hours to simmer the beef, and more would not hurt. Pho, by the way, is perhaps not pronounced the way you think. I've been told it should be more like "Phuh" (rhymes with duh), but elongated and with an upward rise at the end, so it comes out sort of like "phu-uh?"
Makes 4 to 6 servings
2 large chunks ginger, each about the size of a fingerling potato (3 inches or so)
1 large onion, halved across the equator
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2-1/2 to 3-1/2 pounds beef shank or shin bones, with meat
2 or 3 intact star anise pieces
1 cinnamon stick
3 or 4 cloves
3 or 4 white peppercorns
1/2 cup fish sauce, plus more to taste
3 tablespoons sugar
Juice from 3 or 4 limes, to taste
Half a 17 1/2-ounce package thin rice noodles (the ones labeled "banh pho," if you can get them)
In whatever quantities and combination you like, but not optional
Bean sprouts, as fresh as possible
Sliced fresh green chilies
Sprigs of cilantro
Sprigs of Thai basil
Sprigs of mint
Chili sauce (like Sriracha)
Preheat the broiler. Gently rub the ginger and onion with the oil and place them on a foil-lined sheet pan. Set the pan 2 to 3 inches beneath the broiler. Broil, watching closely and turning halfway through, until slightly charred, 5 to 7 minutes. If you prefer, you can accomplish this by leaving out the oil and charring the ginger and onion over an open flame, with tongs. I find the onion tends to slip my grasp, crashing into the flames, when I try to do this.
Place the beef bones and the charred ginger and onions in a large stockpot and cover with at least 3 quarts of cool water. Add the star anise, cinnamon, cloves and peppercorns. Bring just to a simmer and cook, simmering at the very lowest possible heat, for at least 2 hours and up to 4. The meat should fall off the bones. The longer you simmer, the more water will evaporate. Try to top up periodically with enough water to keep the ingredients covered, but don't add any more water for the last half-hour. You should end up with close to 2 quarts of broth.
Lift the meat out of the pot with a slotted spoon, leaving behind the bones, and set aside to cool. Season the broth with fish sauce, sugar and lime juice to taste.
Soak the noodles in warm water until just softened, about 10 minutes.
When the meat has cooled, separate the ringlike tendon from the outside of the flesh (you can discard it, but it really is especially delicious in pho; if it's chewy rather than quiveringly soft, it just needs more time in the pot). Gently slice up the tender meat and tendon into approximately 1/2-inch pieces.
Strain the broth into a clean soup pot. Drain the noodles and add them to the pot, along with the meat. Simmer together until the noodles are cooked, about 7 minutes. Serve the noodles, meat and broth straight from the pot, allowing everyone to re-season to taste (with fish sauce, limes, hoisin sauce, chili sauce) and add their own garnishes.