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Potluck Staples 3: Vegan Pho (Faux Pho)

Pho is a big part of my life. Really. I cannot live without it. If you set me the difficult task of naming my top 5 favourite foods, it probably wouldn’t quite make the cut – I love it, but mostly pho just one of those comfort things. A failsafe fix for a crappy work day.

Once a week, I sacrifice half my lunch break just to get the tram into the city to have pho for lunch. My pho-buddies and I constantly talk about our noodley love in front of other friends (I use “talk about” loosely here – mainly it’s just exclaiming “PHO PHO PHO!” at inappropriate moments) some of whom are vegetarian or vegan; and ok, let’s face it, I’m not sorry. But one of my main instincts is always to spread my love of food and it makes me sad that they have no way of finding out what we’re on about.

In fact, in spite of the large Vietnamese population in Melbourne, a fair few people even among ominvores, are still unaware of what pho is or have just never tried it. I figured that the best way to share my love of the magical bowl of awesome was to bring it to a potluck, and to spread the love even further by attempting a vegan version.

When I’m not eating out, I rarely eat any meat or dairy on weekdays and as such, I’m not unfamiliar with making delicious vegan meals. But what I had never done at home before is make a vegan version of a dish which is traditionally supposed to be totally based around meat!

Pho was worth making an exception for, though. I went on a search for vegetarian/vegan pho recipes online and the results were all miserable. There were definitely some out there, but most were disappointingly inadequate or unauthentic.

But how, you ask, can you possibly make a vegan version of a meat-based dish “authentic”? Well, I too, was skeptical at first, but then I realised that there’s so much more to pho than just its beefiness! Most important of all are the fragrant spices in the stock – their quantity in ratio to each other and to the amount of stock and the stewing time are all factors that can make and break pho. The depth of flavour of the broth is obviously important, but the stock base doesn’t absolutely have to be beef! Then, after serving, all those extras such as that squeeze of lemon, slices of fresh chili, that squirt of sriracha sauce, dollop of chili oil, drip of fish sauce, handful of mung bean shoots and sprigs of Vietnamese mint become the indispensable, customisable “personal touch” component of the dish.

The problem with the recipes I found on the internet was that they were for the most part created by vegetarians who had never tried traditional beef pho, or people generally unexposed to Vietnamese food who just heard about this “trendy” dish and tried to create a “healthy” version. I was determined to piece together my own recipe which kept as many elements exactly the same as the authentic version as possible, substituting only the “beef factor”.

I decided to use mushrooms as the base for the broth, as they’re powerful enough to form the depth of flavour needed, as well as being physically “meaty” enough to substitute actual beef slices in the dish. Making a mushroom consomme would provide the necessary clarity of stock! In addition, mushrooms also contain high levels of glutamate, the magic behind the “umami” taste and can be described as “naturally occurring MSG”. This is pretty important as in a vegan version I wouldn’t be able to include the traditional ingredient of fish sauce, which is extremely rich in glutamate/umami. In addition, I decided, based on the concept of umami, to make “vegan fish sauce” which could be used in the dish and also added as a condiment by the diner in whatever quantities they liked. This all eliminated the need to add any actual MSG (which I would never do anyway, but many Vietnamese restaurants do do).

Experimentation time. I had one test day, which was only a reasonable success after a couple of “saves”, and a second, almost perfect run on potluck day. The main issues in the test run had to do with the consomme – one recipe recommended that I pre-soak the vegetables and mushrooms in olive oil to soften them, which rendered the resulting stock too oily even after several filtrations and skimmings. Then, the cooking time of the final broth with dry spices had to be adjusted – on first try, the spices overpowered the consomme and I realised vegetable stock was more delicate than meat stock and needed less time to infuse with spices, so I set about diluting the over-spiced parts of the stock by pouring half it out, making more consomme and adding that to the original. Of course, the next time I simply reduced the cooking time – we can’t treat it like regular pho as the spices overpower the mushroom broth, which is a little more delicate than beef stock!

DON'T soak your stock vegetables in olive oil, just soak in water!

DON’T soak your stock vegetables in olive oil, just soak in water!

Who thinks I should just shut up and get on with sharing the recipe before I tell my life story?
Ok. Don’t be put off by the length – there are a lot of ingredients, but the techniques are simple.

Vegan Pho with Mushrooms (Indie’s Faux Pho)

Things to note

Serves: 10-12 snack or potluck serves
Prep time: Approx 40 minutes Cooking time: Approx 2.5 hours, on and off (you can wander off and do stuff?)

The Shopping List

Vegetables etcdon’t be shocked at how much mushroom you’ll need!
4 cups (about 400g) button mushrooms
5 cups shitaake mushrooms
2 cups mixed other mushrooms (recommended types include oyster mushrooms, shimeiji and enoki)
2 white or brown onions
2 shallots
1 large (or 2 quite small) carrots)
1-2 stalks celery
1 bulb garlic
2 cm thumb of ginger
6-10 fresh red chilies
3 lemons
Several handfuls of mung bean sprouts

Herbs
Half bunch fresh coriander
1 bunch Vietnamese mint
1 bunch Thai basil
A few bay leaves

From the Asian Grocers
Premium soy sauce
Sriracha sauce
Hoisin sauce (optional)
1.5 cups wakame (a type of fresh seaweed – other types may also work)
Nori flakes (a type of dried seaweed) or Japanese seasoning packets containing nori
Miso paste
Sesame oil
2 trays silken tofu (very soft)
2 large packets (or 600-800g) thin to medium Vietnamese rice noodles, sometimes called “rice stick” – try to buy the best brand, as they’ll have a much better texture

Dry spices
Peppercorns
Star anise
Cloves
Cassia bark
Cinnamon stick
Cardomom pods
Fennel seeds
Coriander seeds
Palm Sugar
Saffron (optional if you’re on a budget)
Salt

From the health food store
Dark agave syrup
Try here

The mushroom consomme base

Please note these ingredients are already mentioned in the shopping list above, this just separates them out so you know what to do with them, when and where.

Part 1
3 cups button mushrooms, roughly quartered
1 cup shiitake mushrooms, roughly quartered
2 cups approx additional mixed mushrooms (I used oyster and enoki)
1 onion, sliced in half rings
2 shallots, diced
1 large carrot, thinly sliced
2 long stalk of celery, thinly sliced
3 litres cold water

Part 2
2 cups shiitake mushrooms, roughly quartered
1 cup button mushrooms, roughly quartered
3/4 cup premium soy sauce
2 bay leaves
2 tbsp salt

Part 3
1/2 cup chopped coriander
1 tbsp saffron

  1. Soak Part 1 ingredients with a pinch of salt in water for approx 2 hours at room temperature.
  2. Transfer to a soup pot. Add the cold water and bring to a light boil on medium heat, uncovered.
  3. Turn the heat down to very low, cover with a lid and simmer for 45 minutes
  4. Add half of the coriander from Part 3 and continue to simmer for 15 minutes.
  5. Turn heat off and allow to cool for 10 minutes.
  6. Strain the broth through a sieve/colander lined with 2 layers of muslin cloth.
  7. Transfer broth back to the pot.
  8. Add in the remaining Part 2 ingredients.
  9. Continue to simmer, covered, for 20 minutes.
  10. Add the rest of the ingredients (coriander and saffron) from Part 3 and simmer for a further 10 minutes.
  11. Remove bay leaves. Strain the broth through a sieve/colander lined with 2 layers of muslin cloth. Put aside.

Note that if you’re vegetarian but not vegan, and you want an even clearer stock, you can use the “egg white method” of clarification (Google will help!)

Vegan fish sauce (phish sauce)

While the mushroom consomme is simmering away, you can quickly whip up the vegan fish sauce on a separate element on the stove.

Why does a drop or two of fish sauce make such a difference to already great Asian dishes? The key is that word again – umami. I order to reproduce the impact of fish sauce, I needed to find ingredients that were high in glutamate in order to make my vegan “phish” sauce.

What’s needed for this (again, these ingredients are already in the shopping list above)
1 1/2 cups wakame seaweed
3 cups cold water
5 cloves garlic, crushed/minced
1 tbsp peppercorns
1 cup premium soy sauce
Nori flakes or nori-based seasoning
1.5 tbsp miso
1 tsp sesame oil
2 tsp salt

  1. Pull apart the wakame so the strands are separated
  2. Combine seaweed, garlic, peppercorns and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil.
  3. Lower heat and simmer about 15 minutes. Strain out the solid parts through double muslin, and return the liquid back to the pot.
  4. Add the soy sauce and nori flakes, bring back to a boil and cook until mixture is reduced by almost 1/3, or for 15 minutes.
  5. Stir in miso and mix very well until fully dissolved. Simmer for a further 5 minutes.
  6. Strain again through a double layer of muslin.
  7. Allow to cool for 10 minutes then pour into a bottle and shake well.
  8. Place aside as we’ll use it in the next part of the recipe!
Spices for pho (quantities here are from my first semi-failed attempt - refer to recipe for the quantities you should use)

Spices for pho (quantities here are from my first semi-failed attempt – refer to recipe for the quantities you should use)

THE BROTH

What you’ll need here (all ingredients are already listed in the shopping list)
2/3 (approx) onion – sliced in rings
Ginger – finely sliced
Garlic, 5 cloves, minced

4 whole star anise
3 whole cloves
1 cassia bark (approx 5cm)
1 cinnamon stick, bruised
1 cardomom pod
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds

1 tablespoon palm sugar
1.5 tablespoons dark agave syrup (or to taste – if you can’t find agave, can replace with coconut sugar or more palm sugar)
3 tablespoons vegan fish sauce (from recipe above)
2+ tablespoons salt (or to taste)

2 cups fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced attractively
2 tubs of silken tofu, sliced into approx 2cm squared cubes

  1. Prepare a slow cooker, or large stockpot or soup pot.
  2. Heat up a frying pan on medium for 2 minutes.
  3. Throw in the dry spices (star anise, cloves, cassia bark, cinnamon, cardomom pod, fennel seeds, coriander seeds) and toast for 3-4 minutes or until fragant. Then throw the spices into the slow cooker/stockpot
  4. Turn up the heat on the frying pan a little to medium-high, then throw in the onions, ginger and garlic to sear until sweetly fragrant. Also place these with the spices in the slow cooker or stockpot.
  5. Get the mushroom consomme we set aside and bring it back to a gentle simmer in a separate pot, adding 1 cup of water to it at the same time.
  6. Pour the mushroom broth onto the spices, onions, garlic and ginger.
  7. Add the salt and palm sugar.
  8. Turn the slow cooker to “low” or “auto” setting, or if using a pot, low heat. Cook for 15 minutes.
  9. Remove just the cinnamon stick and cardomom pod from the broth, leaving the rest of the spices.
  10. Add the agave syrup and vegan fish sauce.
  11. Add the sliced shiitake mushrooms and tofu.
  12. Continue to cook on low for a further 15-20 minutes until mushrooms are quite soft.

Almost there! Putting it all together

What have we got left?
Good quality thin Vietnamese rice noodles for 6 half-serves
Thai basil, many sprigs
Vietnamese mint, many sprigs
Chillies – as many as you want chopped, deseed optional
Several handfuls of Mung bean sprouts
Sriracha sauce
Hoisin sauce (optional – I don’t usually use it personally)
Vegan fish sauce, the bottle we made earlier
3 lemons, quartered (total 12 wedges)

  • While the pho broth is simmering, you can start to cook the rice noodles. Cook in two batches unless you have a very, very large pot, as, like with pasta, you need enough room to bring it to a rolling boil. Make sure it still has a little bite to it and don’t let it get too soft and soggy.
  • When the broth is done, serve by placing noodles into a bowl then ladling pho on top of it.
  • Serve with the mint, Thai basil, chopped chillies, bean sprouts, lemon wedges, on a plate in the middle of the table for free use, along with fish sauce and sriracha sauce.
  • Inhale this amazing dish like there’s no tomorrow!

Deliciously served in little plastic bowls at potluck! And look, someone's wearing Black Milk Campbell's soup leggings!

Deliciously served in little plastic bowls at potluck! And look, someone’s wearing Black Milk soup leggings!

So, that’s it! I hope I haven’t completely scared you off. This really is a fairly easy recipe once you get the hang of it. A big pot of my faux pho lasted like ten minutes at a potluck where there ended up being tons of left over food, even though three quarters of the attendees were omnivores.

Try and rope your significant other into chopping vegetables for you, and you’ll have a much easier time of it, I promise!

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