Chicken Pho, or, How Pho Girl Ate Her Way Into a Nickname

It’s June and the weather looks like this:

Time for comfort food. Mine is pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup that is usually eaten for breakfast in Vietnam.

What a way to start the day.

My family made this soup with beef for years, but my mom and my aunts now opt for a lighter, quicker, but just as tasty version made with chicken, which doesn’t require the overnight simmer that many of us don’t have time for. I’ll get around to learning to make the long-simmering pho, but for now, I’d like to share one that you can actually put on the dinner table tonight.

My sister, Mimi, and I have managed to get out of cooking this soup for years. We’d show up at Mom’s whenever we had a hankering. Or even better, she’d drop off a huge, steaming pot on my doorstep. She spoiled us rotten.

But with Mom getting busier, and Mimi and I more than old enough to stand on our own two feet, it was time to learn…or eat this as an alternative:

This soup feeds a large group (10-12 adults) and only takes a couple of hours to cook–comparable to homemade chicken soup that many of us crave when we’re sick. Many of these ingredients are most easily found at an Asian or international foods market, but you can probably find them at supermarkets as well. Stock up on the spices–they’ll last a long time–and fresh pho noodles freeze really well, as does the broth.

The key is to find fresh ingredients and let the broth simmer slowly, on very low heat.

Put an enormous pot on on the stove and fill it to half way with 10 quarts (that’s 40 cups!) of water if you’re not going to cut it this recipe half, and bring it to a boil.

Shake the innards out of your 2 chickens (about 8-9 pounds). That’s what I do because I’m too chicken to stick my hand in a chicken. Rinse the chickens, then trim as much skin and fat from them as possible. Remove the breasts, thighs, and wings from the carcasses. Set all of it aside.

Toast one large onion and a piece of ginger big enough to fit in your palm. The oven broiler is perfect for this; just turn on your exhaust fan. Flip them once, and keep an eye on them. When the onion skin is charred, it’s time to remove them from the oven.

Peel 3/4 of a pound of daikon radish and cut it into fourths. This was actually leftover from the Banh Mi recipe I’d made several days earlier–it keeps very well in the refrigerator and I like finding multiple uses for ingredients I don’t normally have on hand, so they don’t go to waste.

This is a two-pound jicama. You want to remove the tough outer skin.

It’ll look like this. Cut it into eighths.

When the onion looks like this, it’s time to remove it and the ginger from the oven. Peel the charred skin off the onion and trim the ends.

Smash the ginger with a mallet…

And slice it in half lengthwise.

Now take the mallet to the lemongrass. Cut off the ends. Cut the remainder into large slices.

When the water comes to a boil, add all the chicken pieces (breasts on top so you can easily fish them out as they’ll finish cooking first), daikon radish, jicama, onion, ginger, and lemongrass.

It’ll take time for the water to return to a boil. Until then, regularly skim the pot to remove that unsightly residue.

Yup, that unsightly residue.

When the water comes to a boil, turn the heat way down to medium low. You want to see tiny bubbles occasionally rise to the surface. Anything more exciting than that, and you need to turn down the heat even more. Leave it be for awhile, except for the skimming.

Set a medium-sized pan over medium heat. When the pan warms up, add 3 cinnamon sticks, 3 whole cardamom, and 4 star anise. Toast them until they’re warm to the touch.

Add 30 whole cloves, 1/2 cup whole coriander, and 1 1/2 tablespoons fennel to the pan. Pour 2 cups of water into the pan and let the spices simmer for about 15 minutes.

Your kitchen will fill with the wonderful, warm, aromatic smell of the spices. When time’s up, pour the contents of the pan into a sieve over a measuring cup or bowl. Save that liquid.

By now, the chicken breasts are definitely done cooking. Remove them and shred the meat. Do the same with the dark meat when it’s done cooking. Leave the carcasses in the pot.

Add 1/2 cup of sugar to the stock pot. When it has completely dissolved, add 1/4 cup of salt. My mom says it’s critical that you add the sugar first, then the salt. She made me write it 100 times.

Once the salt has dissolved, taste the broth, and add more salt if needed.

Add 1/2 cup of fish sauce to the stock pot.

The contents of your stock pot won’t be very exciting to look at, until you add the liquid from the spices:

Congratulations! You’ve labored long and hard (actually, not all that long or hard) and made a pot of pho! All that’s left to do is to boil some noodles according to the package directions, put them in an obscenely large bowl, add some chicken meat, ladle in plenty of broth, and garnish with a squirt of lime juice, hoisin sauce, chili paste, Thai basil, thinly sliced scallion, bean sprouts, and cilantro.

Ingredients:

2 medium chickens (to total 8-9 pounds)

3/4 pound of daikon radish

2 pounds jicama–avoid ones with mottled, cracked skins

piece of ginger large enough to fit in your palm

1 large yellow onion

1 stalk lemongrass

3 cinnamon sticks

3 whole cardamom

4 star anise

30 whole cloves

1/2 cup whole coriander

1 1/2 tablespoons fennel

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 cup salt

1/2 cup fish sauce

3 bags fresh pho noodles (dried are fine if fresh are unavailable)

Garnishes:

Hoisin sauce

Chili paste

Thai basil

Chopped cilantro

Chopped green onion

Lime wedges

Bean sprouts

Instructions:

1. Fill a large stock pot with 10 quarts (40 cups) of water and bring to a boil (this fills half of my stock pot).

2. As the water is coming to a boil, trim as much skin from the chickens as possible. Wash the carcasses and separate the meat from the carcass–the breasts, wings, drumsticks, and thighs. Set all of this aside.

3. Toast the onion (skin on) and ginger using the broiler of your oven. You can move forward in the instructions, but when the onion skin is dark brown and crispy on the outside, remove the onion and ginger from the oven. Peel the onion skin and trim the ends. Pound the ginger with a mallet and cut it in half lengthwise.

4. Peel the daikon radish and cut into fourths.

5. Peel the jicama and cut into eights. (Note: jicama skin is pretty thick. If your peeler won’t go through it, use a knife to peel.)

6. Pound the lemongrass with a mallet. Cut off the ends and discard. Slice the remainder and add to the pot.

7. When the water comes to a boil, add the chicken (breasts on top so you can fish them out when they’re finished cooking), jicama, daikon, roasted, trimmed onion, ginger, and the lemongrass.

8. Regularly skim the top of the pot to remove residue.

9. When the water returns to a full boil, reduce heat to medium-low. You want to see small bubbles in the pot, as this indicates a slow simmer. Turn the heat down if the stock is bubbling too much. Allow the pot to simmer for 30-45 minutes.

10. Set a medium-sized pan over medium heat. When the pan is warm, add the 3 cinnamon sticks, 3 whole cardamom, and 4 star anise. Toast until they are warm to the touch. Turn off the heat and add the 30 cloves, 1/2 cup coriander, and 1 1/2 tablespoons fennel. Add 2 cups water to the pan and turn the burner back to high heat. When the water boils, turn the heat to medium-low and allow to simmer for 15 minutes. Strain and reserve liquid.

11. Remove the chicken pieces when they are cooked through. Shred the chicken breasts and some of the dark meat. We usually leave the meat on the drumsticks and serve them whole.

12. Add 1/2 cup sugar to the chicken stock.

13. When the sugar has dissolved, add 1/4 cup salt. IMPORTANT: Add the sugar before the salt.

14. Taste the broth and adjust the salt accordingly.

15. Add 1/2 cup fish sauce to the stock.

16. Add the reserved liquid from the spices to the pot.

Congratulations! You’ve just made homemade pho.

17. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add approximately 1 1/2 cups of pho noodles to the water, stir around for about 30 seconds, and drain immediately. Repeat for each additional serving.

18. Place the noodles, then some shredded chicken meat or a whole drumstick in a large bowl. Ladle enough broth to more than cover the noodles. Garnish with hoisin sauce, chili paste, Thai basil, green onion, cilantro, and bean sprouts to taste.


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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Chicken Pho, or, How Pho Girl Ate Her Way Into a Nickname

  1. Sundee

    Wow. I have a new respect for those many pho restaurants I pass every day, for pho itself, and for YOU. I think it’s so great you’re learning how to make dishes that reflect your heritage to pass on to your kids the great treasures you enjoyed from your mom. yeah!

  2. Nacho Man

    Sounds like Pho weather tomorrow. Just sayin……

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