One of my biggest relocation regrets is losing regular access to my favorite Vietnamese Pho & Grill restaurant in suburban Maryland. The owner and his family would chat me up and ask about my daughters whenever I stopped by to pick up my carryout order, which almost never varied:
Vegetarian Pho Soup. Extra tofu, please.
That winter, by accident, my daughters and I became convinced of its magical powers. Feeling the beginnings of a cold or flu coming on, we settled on pho (pronounced “fuh”) soup from this new spot in town because (a) we were too wiped out to scavenge around the kitchen for a meal, (b) I generally try to avoid cooking on days that end in “y,” and (c) it sounded like the only food option we’d be able to keep down without vomiting.
Splayed out in the living room with lap trays and a 4-hour Law & Order marathon, we sipped our pho soup like haggard refugees and waited for the icy grip of the flu to descend. (The spicy kick of the broth was almost too much for my scratchy throat to handle, but I persevered.) One of us may have barked out to turn the TV down, but since we couldn’t find the remote, no one moved. Until morning.
The next day we all felt remarkably better. The flu bullet, miraculously, had been dodged.
The Pho, we whispered to each other in awe.
From that point on, whenever anyone first sneezed or complained of a tickle at the back of their throat, we’d call out: Get the Pho! Their number was put on speed dial, and even Siri stopped offering up all other neighboring alternatives that were “somewhat close to you.”
Then I got remarried and moved to Northern Virginia. Late summer and fall passed, and I never gave things a second thought until coworkers all around me started dropping like flies at the onset of a new flu season. Oh shite, I thought. The Vegetarian Pho. Where will I get it? HOW will I get it?
Don’t misunderstand. Thanks to the remarkable demographic diversity in the DMV (that’s DC-Maryland-Virginia, for those of you far outside the Beltway), there are plenty of Pho eateries scattered about. The problem is that all seem to be dominated by the traditional beef offering. After scouring countless strip malls I’ve yet to find a single pho menu featuring my beloved vegetarian version, made without the typical beef broth. (One shop owner kept confusing my request by repeating, “No problem, you order without beef, we make it for you.” But what about the broth, I questioned him. That’s still made with beef, right? “Yes.” So, then…not vegetarian, actually. At all. “No.” OK. Thanks, dude.)
Seems my guy in suburban Maryland was way ahead of the pho curve. Who knew the others would be so slow to catch on?
The local carryout search continues. In the meantime, I knew I’d have to figure out a way to make my own, especially since I’d recently starting cutting back on the amount of grain products I eat, to include rice noodles. (Pad Thai being the sole exception. That dish is umami heaven. I’ll never give it up.) You know where I’m going with this, right? I give you:
Homemade Vegetarian (or Not!) Pho with Zoodles.
The basic pho broth recipe comes to us from Martha Rose Schulman of the New York Times food page (online). I tweaked the recipe with my own add-ins (like miso, cardamon pods and coriander seeds), and continue to play around with it, but Martha’s blueprint is a great place for us to start. And it really speaks to the whole underlying concept of pho, which is that you’ll never prepare it the exact same way twice. There are tons of garnish variations to try!
One note: Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that while I eat a predominately plant-based diet, I’m no longer exclusively vegetarian or vegan, and do eat limited amounts of fish and select dairy products. (I follow the 80/20 Rule.) That’s why this broth recipe includes the option for fish sauce as an ingredient, for those who desire a more traditional flavor. If you’re a strict vegan or vegetarian, don’t freak out. Simply omit it, or substitute soy sauce.
Likewise, if you don’t own a spiral slicer like the ones here or here, not to worry. Substitute cooked rice noodles for the zoodles (zucchini noodles) for now, and keep things moving. Work with what you’ve got. If you’re not ready for the whole zoodles thing but are still trying to avoid products made with white (refined) rice, look for a quality brown rice noodle substitute (see pics below).
The point is, there are a thousand and one ways to make Pho work for you. For example, I’m sure you’ll notice my version skips the traditional jalapeño slices. In my opinion, there’s enough heat going on with the Sriracha sauce. If you like your food super spicy, then by all means pile on.
This recipe serves approximately 8 starving supermodels OR 4 children OR 2 foodies who laugh at normal serving sizes, and always go back for seconds. It really depends on who you’ve invited over. Enjoy!
A Word About the Wonderbag: I cooked my pho broth while I slept. I’m not a sleepwalker, just a proud owner of a new Wonderbag, a portable, non-electric slow cooker that I’d gotten for Christmas. After bringing the broth ingredients to a boil for 5 minutes, I turned off the fire, placed the pot in the Wonderbag, and went to bed. When I got up the next morning, the broth had been slow-cooked and simmered to perfection, using no additional electricity or power. You’ll be seeing tons more recipes from me using this global game changer of a kitchen tool, but for now, if you don’t own a Wonderbag, simply substitute methods using a traditional stovetop (detailed in the recipe below), or electric slow cooker. Interested in learning more about the Wonderbag? Check out my previous post here.