$5 Slow Food Challenge: Phô for the Lazy American

I think I’ve outdone myself this time.

My last $5 Slow Food Challenge, a phenomenally good smoked chicken posole, seriously knocked the $5 per-serving idea out of the park … I ended up with a cool $3.24 per quart. Not serving. QUART. Awesome. This is a little more ($4.91 per quart) but it can be stretched to make a dozen meals if you have a little imagination.

As usual, I have adapted this recipe both to my own lifestyle and tastes. I don’t have a family to feed, and (knock on wood) I no longer have to struggle with affording a decent meal for less than 5 bucks. So I do things like cook a huge crock pot full of soup, invite a bunch of friends over, and after dinner, I send each of them home with a tupperware container full of leftovers.

Vietnamese phô is one of those dishes than can be made a variety of ways, with any sort of meat or vegetable you have on hand. Traditionally it is made with beef broth and rice noodles, then the diner adds sriracha sauce and soy sauce, diced cabbage and bean sprouts, and if desired, jalapeños or other peppers.

Phô is also a great dish for newcomers to certain types of Asian cooking. With the exception of a few sauces and perhaps the fancy noodles, all of the ingredients are familiar to American cooks. This is a great way to start experimenting with Vietnamese dishes and to familiarize yourself with how wonderful it is. If you haven’t enjoyed a big bowl of phô and a bânh mí (Vietnamese sandwich on crusty bread), you’re seriously missing out.

I changed mine a little because I wanted to make mine a little heartier and added fresh sliced mushrooms and tofu chunks as well, I enjoy water chestnuts and usually have a can of sliced ones in the cupboard, and I happened to have a London broil steak that I made on the Fourth of July and may have accidentally overcooked on the grill. (Ahem.)

The cost breakdown:

  • $5.75 … a slab of London broil steak
  • $2.19 … 32-oz. of vegetable broth*
  • $0.99 … pack of sliced fresh mushrooms
  • $1.59 … package of extra-firm tofu
  • $0.49 … small head of cabbage
  • $0.50 … bunch of cilantro
  • $0.99 … bunch of basil
  • $1.69 … 1 lb. package of bean sprouts
  • $1.29 … can of sliced water chestnuts
  • $2.39 … bottle of sriracha**
  • $1.89 … package of rice noodles
  • $2.10 … bottle of soy sauce
  • $2.69 … jar of hoisin sauce

Total: $24.55

For a 5-quart crock pot, that works out to $4.91 per quart.

* Vegetable broth is simple to make using scraps of leftover vegetables. If you can make your own, it will obviously save you more money, plus you’ll be able to control the sodium, etc.

** You should already have this in your kitchen. Seriously; there’s nothing it cannot do.

Again, this recipe started out as a way to save a wonderful marinated London broil that I accidentally mangled on the grill, but if I were you, I’d keep it rare. I sliced the steak very thin and put it in the crock pot with half of the cilantro and basil, the vegetable broth, water chestnuts, and an additional few cups of water to fill the pot. I added a few tablespoons of hoisin, and a few dashes of soy sauce and sriracha.

If you use a rare steak instead of one that you also mangled, leave it out.

After the broth has been simmering for at least 5-6 hours, add the sliced mushrooms and cubed tofu. From then on, any additional simmering is just adding extra flavor.

When serving, put the (uncooked) noodles in the bowl, and cover with a handful of diced cabbage and some bean sprouts.

Garnish with the rest of the fresh cilantro and basil. Then pour the soup on top (it will cook the noodles) and add more sriracha.

My last $5 challenge was a traditional Mexican stew that can be made with a variety of types of ingredients, and can be stretched to feed a huge party if necessary, and this is very similar.

You can make this recipe even cheaper by eliminating the expensive steak and using only fresh veggies (like shredded carrot, diced zucchini or fresh corn), or by making your own stock from leftover vegetables or meat scraps. You can stretch this recipe by adding extra water and broth (plus extra spices), and padding the sides with the cheap diced cabbage.

… Or maybe, you’re like me, and after eating phô for a couple-three days, you start to think of ways to use what’s left.

1) Maybe you’d like to split the tofu and steak between a pot of soup and a nice sandwich? Traditionally, bânh mí is served on a crusty French roll (a nod to the Vietnamese/ French colonial fusion cuisine), but you can make it any way you like.

Prepare the tofu as I have described below. While it’s cooking, slather two slices of bread or a roll (I like sourdough) with mayo spiked with sriracha. Layer the tofu (and thinly sliced steak if you like) on the bread and add a layer of sliced cucumber, mushroom, and shreds of carrot (peel the carrot, then when it’s peeled, go right on peeling slices off with your vegetable peeler).  Sprinkle with soy sauce. Top with fresh basil leaves and enjoy.

2) Maybe you’d like something heartier, using the broth from the delicious phô?

Prepare a cup of white or brown rice according to package directions. Pile it in a bowl with shreds of carrot, cabbage, some bean sprouts, and whatever else you have left. Pour the phô on top. Don’t forget the fresh basil and a few dashes of sriracha.

All in all, this recipe, plus a few extras that cost very little (bread for sandwiches, a cucumber and a carrot, a cup of rice), made multiple meals over multiple days, with very little grumbling at the repetition.

As a side note, I want to share a new way to cook tofu I learned recently — well, new to me. I don’t know about you guys, but it’s hard for me to find a good way to cook tofu that doesn’t make it taste terrible. (Amirite folks?) Anyway, my neighbor is from Korea, and when she let me into her kitchen for an impromptu vegetarian lunch one day, I was blown away at the ease with which she turned the tofu into slices of deliciousness. (Please note that this was not the tofu she made, her slices were much prettier. She’s obviously a tofu expert of some sort.)

She cut the (extra-firm) tofu into thick slices, about 1/4 to 1/2 an inch. Then she warmed a pan with sesame oil, and after the tofu was cooked on one side, she flipped it and added soy sauce to each slice. Of course, I added a spot of sriracha to each slice.

This is the single easiest and tastiest way to cook tofu that I have yet discovered. There are many tastier, but none so easy and fast.

3 thoughts on “$5 Slow Food Challenge: Phô for the Lazy American

  1. Pingback: $5 Challenge for Fall: Vegetarian Value Meal | The H Blog: Stuff Hillary Likes

  2. Pingback: 5 sweet foodie gadgets you can’t live without | The H Blog: Stuff Hillary Likes

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