Last week, when the polar vortex, something that ought to be a frozen rum cocktail with an umbrella on top, but is sadly anything but, had begun to descend its icy grasp on all parts of the U.S., I made the best pot of soup of my life.
I realize I said the same — well, I technically called it “the best thing I ate in December” — about last Monday’s soup and that you think I’m being a bit melodramatic and that I need to go to some sort of calm-down-it’s-just-soup rehab for superlative abuse, but you’re only thinking that because you haven’t made this yet. Because while Monday may have been all about the parmesan brodo, by Tuesday night, we were all, “brodo who?” as we dug into bowls of intensely flavored broth with huge tears of succulent chicken and a tangle of rice noodles, topped with everything from scallions to mung bean sprouts, slivers of jalapeno and crispy-fried shallots, basil and cilantro and heady splashes of lime juice, hoisin and garlic-chili sauce that nothing will ever be right without again.
Goodbye, Jewish grandmother chicken noodle soup; we had a good run.
Hailing back to the early 20th century, phở is a noodle soup with meat and herbs that’s a popular street food in Vietnam, often eaten for breakfast. It’s commonly made with rare-cooked thin strips of beef (often cooked right in your piping hot soup bowl), but I was less familiar with chicken phở, which is not terribly unlike traditional chicken noodle soup if chicken soup was acidic and crunchy/sweet/spicy/herbal/fermented/complex all at once. Right, so basically what they have in common is chicken and noodles.
However, especially if you are new to pho, it’s important not to get overly distracted by the “fixins,” no matter how perfect of a contrast they provide, and this is because the broth of the phở is really the most essential thing. The rich and complex broth — often with flavors from charred onion and roasted ginger to star anise, Vietnamese cinnamon to even black cardamom, coriander, fennel and cloves — is the everything, and while it may take a bit of time, it’s the ideal too-cold-to-go-outside afternoon project and will pay you back tenfold, filling your home with the most outrageously warming aroma, making the wait for spring absolutely bearable.
T-Minus 2 Days: Smitten Kitchen Facebook Chat! Pull up a chair! This Wednesday, January 15th from 12 to 1 p.m. EST on the Smitten Kitchen Facebook Wall (a top post will announce it; leave your questions in the comments) we’re starting something new, regularly scheduled open-invitation Ask Me Anything-style Q&A sessions that I’m hoping will both help me ease up inbox strain (i.e. I could answer your question immediately, rather than letting it fall into an inbox queue) and give us some off-site time to chat as fluidly as possible. I hope you can stop by. Whee!
One year ago: Gnocchi in Tomato Broth
Two years ago: Buckwheat Baby with Salted Caramel Syrup
Three years ago: Pizza with Bacon, Onions and Cream [Tarte Flambee]
Four years ago: Barley Risotto with Beans and Greens
Five years ago: Squash and Chickpea Moroccan Stew and Almond-Vanilla Rice Pudding
Six years ago: Lemon Bars, Crunchy Baked Pork Chops, and Pickled Carrot Sticks
Seven years ago: World Peace Cookies, Salade Lyonnaise and Artichoke Ravioli<
Absolutely perfect as printed from Vietnamese Home Cooking, but with extra notes added
This is adapted from a cookbook I’m greatly enjoying by Charles Phan of the famed Slanted Door. I feel like it could take years to soak it all in; it’s transporting in all the ways that a good cookbook should be. But what makes it great is recipes like these, which are standing ovation material: every cooking time nails it; the seasoning is perfect, right as written on the page; and true to its book title [“Home Cooking”] it’s absolutely doable for a home cook. More than doable; prepare to put this on regularly weekend rotation all winter.
The broth here is fairly simple (wonderful for beginners) but you should feel free to add any of the extra spices that sound good to you. Star anise is considered especially fundamental to phở. It’s typically served with a plate full of fixings including lime wedges, Thai basil, cilantro, slivers of jalapeno, mung bean sprouts and crispy shallots. You will probably see some chili-garlic sauce, Sriracha and hoisin nearby. If this sounds overwhelming to procure, do not sweat it; just get what you can or what sounds good. The beauty of phở is that it’s all about the broth, and one as good as this will taste dreamy even without a single bean sprout on top. Besides, Phan himself advises that “The trick is to add a little bit of each item as you eat your way through the bowl, not to dump them in all at once. You want the herbs to maintain their fragrance, the bean sprouts to stay crunchy — it’s all about aroma and texture, and if you add too much too soon, you’ll end up with black herbs and soft sprouts, which defeats the whole purpose.”
2 unpeeled yellow onions, quartered
Three 1/2-inch-thick slices of unpeeled fresh ginger, smashed
4 quarts cold water
3 pounds chicken bones or chicken wings
One fresh 3 1/2-pound chicken, quartered
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons sugar
Additional spices (optional): Cinnamon, star anise, black cardamoms, coriander seeds, fennel seeds or cloves
1/4 cup Asian fish sauce
1 pound dried rice noodles, a linguine shape (bánh phở) if you can find them
1 large scallion, thinly sliced
1 pound mung bean sprouts
1/2 cup torn basil leaves, Thai basil if you can find it
1/2 cup cilantro leaves
2 limes, cut into wedges
2 jalapeños, thinly sliced
Asian chili-garlic sauce
Crispy shallots, recipe follows
Char onions and ginger: Heat the oven to 400°F. Put the onions and ginger on a lightly oiled baking sheet and roast for 30 minutes, or until softened and lightly browned. [Alternate idea suggested in the comments: If you have a gas range, just char them a bit over a flame. It would save a lot of time.]
Cook the chicken: Fill a large stockpot with the water and bring to a boil. Add the roasted onions and ginger, and the chicken bones or wings, quartered chicken, salt, sugar and any of the optional spices and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to moderate and simmer until the chicken is cooked, about 30 minutes.
Remove the chicken and finish the broth: Using tongs, transfer the quartered chicken to a plate and let cool slightly. Remove the meat from the bones and refrigerate. Return the skin and bones to the stockpot and simmer for 2 hours longer. Strain the chicken broth into a large soup pot and cook over high heat until reduced to 12 cups, about 15 minutes. Stir in the fish sauce; adjust to taste.
*Prepare noodles: In a large bowl of warm water, soak the noodles until pliable, about 20 minutes. You can also prepare the noodles according to the package instructions, if they differ. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Drain the noodles, then add them to the saucepan and boil over high heat until tender, about 3 minutes. Drain well. Divide the noodles between 6 large bowls and sprinkle with the scallion.
Finish and serve the soup: Add the reserved chicken to the broth and simmer until heated through. Ladle the broth and chicken over the noodles. Serve with the bean sprouts, basil, lime wedges, jalapeños, chili-garlic sauce, hoisin sauce and crispy shallots.
* Note: Phan has you cook the noodles separately in water, so they can be drained and used as needed. I believe he’s concerned about them overcooking in the soup pot. Theoretically, you could of course save time by cooking the noodles in the broth pot while the chicken reheats, however, the noodles are likely to make the broth cloudy, when ideal pho usually has a pristinely clear broth. [Thanks to everyone who mentioned the clouding issue in the comments.]
Do ahead: The broth can be made ahead and refrigerated for two days, a great way to divide up this recipe.
Crispy Fried Shallots
Why make so many? Phan says they’re an essential crispy, salty and sweet condiment in Vietnam, where they’re used in soups, on salads, in meatballs and even sprinkled on dumplings as garnish. Phan recommends that you twice-fry them, once at a low temp and a second at a higher one. I fudged this and just did it at higher one for less time, but they burned easily and I know his way is better, so am sharing this instead. I made about a quarter-recipe of this in a small skillet and wished we had more.
2 cups thinly sliced shallots (about 4 large shallots)
2 cups canola oil
In a small saucepan or large heavy skillet, heat the oil over medium-high until it registers 275°F on a deep-fry or candy thermometer. Add the shallots and cook, stirring frequently as they’ll want to cook unevenly, until light golden brown, about 4 to 8 minutes, depending on their thickness. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain.
Increase the heat to high and place a fine-mesh sieve over a heatproof bowl. When the oil registers 375°F on the deep-fry or candy thermometer, add return the fried shallots to the oil and cook just until they are crispy and well-browned, about 5 seconds, watching carefully so the shallots don’t burn.
Pour the oil and shallots through the sieve to immediately stop the cooking, then transfer to shallots to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Sprinkle with salt to season. Reserve the oil for another use. The shallots will keep, stored in an airtight container, for 1 day, but they’re best the day they are made.