Thursday, January 27, 2011

Banh Pho Timbales with Demi-Glace, Bok Choy, Basil, Lime, and Onion

I think this might be my best recipe yet. It came about because I bought a couple of packages of banh pho noodles for $1 each, thinking I'd be able to use them for pad thai. I looked up banh pho, and started thinking that soup sounded really good to me, so I tried to make it from scratch. And failed. My soup was okay, but it was bland and obviously didn't use all the wonderful fresh ingredients to their full advantage. My attempt at pho's complex broth worked out pretty well; I cheated and used some miso to give it some richness, though I made a mushroom broth first with other veggies, onion, garlic, five-spice, etc.

Having all the elements of pho in place, I decided to give them new form (a.k.a. salvage what I could). The wonderful, wonderful result was these pho timbales with a rich demi-glace, bok choy, basil, lime, and white and green onion.

As I've discovered while doing research for this blog, Vietnamese people all over the world take Pho very seriously (click on the link above for pronunciation info and more). While the presentation here is markedly non-traditional, all the flavors are drawn from the classic Vietnamese dish and its many variations (for the people who feel betrayed by the lack of beef and fish sauce, I'm clinging to pho chay). I hope that this comes off as a tribute rather than a desecration, and I would be eager for seasoning corrections from readers. Also, I don't want to share the fate of Rachael Ray, who was lambasted for her "Phunky BBQ Pho with Pork." This was fair, as she used angel hair pasta and called it her dish Thai-inspired.

One unique characteristic of Pho is the use of charred onion and charred fresh ginger to add flavor and color to the broth, a detail I include in my recipe. It is thought that this element may have came in to the dish from French colonials, since the charring method is not found in other Vietnamese soups, and is shared by the French pot-au-feu. I did take a bit of a short cut with Chinese five-spice powder, but you can also use cinnamon, clove, star anise, fennel, and a hot pepper (the five-spice I have uses Szechuan pepper).

For Pho Timbales

Banh Pho noodles (rice noodles), fully cooked
Five-Spice Powder
An oil with an unobtrusive flavor, like grapeseed

In a large bowl, sprinkle noodles with oil, then salt and five-spice. Add the seasonings progressively, mixing well in between additions and tasting. It does take a lot of seasoning because the noodles are such a blank slate, and the flavor will intensify slightly as the noodles cook and lose water. Spray a jumbo muffin tin or set of small custard ramekins with oil, then take handfuls of the noodles and pack them into the tin, making sure that each cavity is full, and tucking any stray noodles back in. Bake for 20-25 minutes at 450, checking for done-ness with a spatula. The sides should easily pull away from the muffin tin; the top should give, but the noodles should not separate as you poke the top. Remove from oven and let them rest while you get the plates ready.

For the Demi-Glace

With a broth, there's a lot of flexibility based on what you have, etc., but here are some basic guidelines.


Mushroom broth, veggie broth, or vegan beef-style broth (They make vegan beef bullion cubes. Who knew?)

Fresh onion and fresh ginger, charred over a gas flame or roasted under a broiler until charred. If you are using the oven, don't have the oven on, just the broiler.
Five-spice powder

If you're making your broth from scratch, the charred onion and ginger will add a great dark golden color to your broth. Don't waste any of that; I would even take some of your broth and swish it around in the pan you roasted them in to get every last bit of caramelized onion. Don't use too much water, though, because you want your flavor to be as intense as possible. Mushrooms make a great addition to a home-made broth.

If you're using a prepared broth, bring it to a simmer and add your charred onion and ginger, five-spice, and whatever you need to adjust the flavor of the broth you're using (onion, mushroom, ginger, garlic, etc.). Watch out for salt, though, as prepared broths are often pretty salty to begin with.

I didn't get to try this, because I couldn't find mine, but I think if you added a little bit of dulse or some other dried seaweed, it might contribute a little bit of the fish-sauce flavor. Also, ume vinegar has the particular kind of saltiness that feels very sea-foody, so I'll try that combo next time.

Once you have the broth done, cook it down slowly to a syrupy consistency, stirring regularly. If you leave it alone for too long and you have some problems with the consistency, add a couple of drops of water and whisk. Traditional beef demi-glaces are cooked for many hours, sometimes even a period of days, with spices and meats added during that time. Taste your sauce as you go, adjusting flavors.

If you are having a lot of trouble getting it to thicken or if you are a naturally impatient person like me, you can add a little arrowroot (only a pinch) to thicken it. As with any time you are using arrowroot or cornstarch to thicken a liquid, take a little bit of the demi-glace out and mix it in a small bowl with the arrowroot, then return that mixture to the larger saucepan and whisk until completely combined.

When your demi-glace is done, cool it completely and transfer it into a plastic squeeze-bottle if you have one, or some other container if you don't, and refrigerate it until you need it. Any extra you have left over will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks.

For the Plate

Thinly-sliced white onion
Bean sprouts (I forgot to include them when I plated the dish for the picture, but you should definitely use them)
Basil, cut chiffonade
Bok choy leaves, whole or sliced to your liking
Mushrooms, whatever kind you like, sauteed in a light oil, like grapeseed (I used portobello because that's what I had, but use what you like. Also, feel free to have them raw, I just can't handle raw mushrooms).
Sliced green onion
A wedge of lime, to be squeezed over the dish when ready to eat

 Arrange a generous amount of white onion on the plate, then place a pho timbale on top. Stack your mushrooms on top of the timbale and drizzle it generously with the demi-glace. Surround it with the bok choy, basil, sprouts, green onion, and a decorative slice of lime. When you're ready to serve, squeeze a slice of lime over the dish.


Vietnamese Pho

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