I fell in love with Vietnamese food in, of all places, El Paso, TX. I hadn’t really had good Vietnamese food prior to that. But when I moved to El Paso, my good friend, Quyen (whose husband I was working with), ended up finding and recommending a great restaurant to me: Pho Tre Bien (my mouth is watering just thinking about it). Had I gone there with her, I probably would have written it off as another hole-in-the-wall Asian restaurant with a funny name (for anyone who knows the place now, it used to be in a strip mall and seat only 1/4 of what it does now). But after my first time there, I quickly became a regular (yes, the owner did know who I was), and it became “go to” place to bring guests, friends, and co-workers. I don’t think we have one friend that has not eaten there with us!
Last week, the dreary and miserable weather hit Chicago – cold, damp, rainy and, of course, windy. It was a perfect night for pho (“fuh”). My cousins were in town, so we decided to not fight the weather and go across the street to a Vietnamese restaurant, Saigon Sisters, to grab a large, steamy bowl of pho to warm us up. Ryan (the hubby) and I had been there before and had had an ok experience – not fabulous, but not horrible – and since we heard they had a new chef in the kitchen, we wanted to give it another try. We were hopeful because the restaurant also has a stand inside the French Market (a food court/urban market-type place two blocks away inside the Ogilvie Train Station) where we’d gotten great bahn mi (sandwiches) before.
So how was it? One of my cousins ordered a bowl of oxtail pho (sounded promising), and although it was ok, it was $15 and only an appetizer portion! This was the only pho they had at the restaurant (guess you have to go to the market to get the other stuff), and everything else was an attempt at making Vietnamese food more fancy and fusion-y. Now, I don’t have a problem with fusion and upscale food, but sometimes you just want street food in a ginormous bowl for $7. Guess this wasn’t what we were looking for (not to mention the service was really odd, but that is another story for another time).
When we got back home, I was all ramped up and eager to make pho on my own (my new motto is, if I can’t find it, I’ll just make it myself!) Now, we’re living in Chicago and I know there is a big bowl of pho out there waiting for me for $7, but I saw this as a challenge that I had to take.
I found a few popular pho recipes, and all of them talked about parboiling the chicken (and then washing it off and boiling it again) to make the broth clear, as well as charring the onions and ginger either on a grill or in the broiler. Now, if you’re like me, when you see extra steps like that, you tend to put that recipe away and drive to a Vietnamese restaurant. But I was not to be stopped.
Because last weekend ended up being packed with fun friend events (I’ll post some pictures of our food adventures soon), I wasn’t able to spend my Sunday cooking pho. But I had the chicken and didn’t want it to go to waste, so I found myself cooking pho on a Tuesday morning at 6:30 am. Ryan leaves the apartment early in the morning, and I get up with him and usually either cook or go to the gym.
I was definitely scared about charring onions and ginger in the broiler so early in the morning. Would I set the fire alarm off? Would people in our building wake up smelling smoke and freak out? It wasn’t too cold out, so I opened all of the windows and even brought out a fan. I was supposed to leave the onions and ginger in for 15 minutes, but I think it ended up being less, just because it started smelling and I panicked. But was it worth it? And did it make a difference? YES. Almost immediately, the onions became sweet and fragrant. Definitely worth the extra step (I’ll be more brave next time and keep them in longer).
Next was parboiling the chicken to get a really clear broth. I had a whole chicken to use, and I really wish I had one thing: a meat cleaver. Part of making the broth so delicious is to cut through the bone to expose some marrow. And although I have great Henckels knives, my largest one just didn’t have enough “oomph” and I struggled to butcher the chicken. I took a picture of the bloody mess I made, but then decided it was too gross to post.
Here is a picture of the chicken at it’s first boil, nice and scummy.
And now after dumping out the water, washing the chicken, and then putting it back to a boil with clean water. Crystal clear! I didn’t have any more scum for the rest of the cooking time.
So was this extra step worth it? I’m not sure. I mean, the broth was beautiful, but Ryan and I wondered if we lost any flavor from dumping out the first batch of water, or if we would really care if our soup was murky.
After 1 1/2 hours, I tasted it and it was amazing! I never added any salt, yet the broth was so flavorful from all of the spices, onion, and ginger. The only thing I accidentally (or was it a subconscious thing?) left out was a bunch of cilantro. The reason why I say perhaps it was subconscious is because, honestly, I don’t like cilantro . What?! Yes, I’m not the biggest fan of cilantro. Did you know Julia Child also did not like it? Now, I wouldn’t say I’m a hater, but it’s not at the top of my list, and maybe it’s just not my fault.
When it was time to put everything together, I boiled some rice noodles. When I was waiting for the water to boil, I noticed an interesting food pairing suggestion on the back of the bag: “Meat, Shrimp, Crap, Egg.” You would think, with great software like Google Translate nowadays, they wouldn’t have all these odd translations.
So here is the end product! It looks a little plain, but honestly, I like my pho with just a few bean sprouts, basil, and hot sauce (notice absence of cilantro). It was really yummy and I have to say totally worth the work.
- 1 whole chicken (4-5lbs)
- 1 whole onion, unpeeled and cut in half
- 3-inch chunk of ginger, unpeeled
- 2 tbl whole coriander seeds
- 4 whole cloves
- 2 whole star anise
- 2 T sugar
- 2 T fish sauce
- small bunch of cilantro stems only, tied in bunch with twine
- 1 lb dried rice noodles (about 1/4″ wide)
- bean sprouts
- cilantro tops
- 1/2 cup shaved red onions
- 1/2 lime, cut into 4 wedges
- Sriracha hot sauce
- Hoisin sauce
- sliced jalapenos
Place ginger and onion on a small baking sheet. Set to broil on high for 15 minutes (some ovens have options for broiling temps. I decided to go with 425F, but you can go up to 500). Turn the onion and ginger occasionally, to get an even char. The skin should get dark and the onion/ginger should get soft. After cooling, rub to get the charred skin off the onion and use a butter knife or spoon to scrape the skin off the ginger. Slice ginger into thick slices.
In a large stockpot, fill with water and boil. With a sharp cleaver, carve the chicken breast meat off and reserve. With the rest of chicken, whack hard through the bones to get sections about 3″ big. The more bone that is exposed, the more marrow that gets in the broth (= rich, flavorful). You can even whack several places along the bone just to expose more marrow. When the water boils, add chicken sections (not breast) and boil on high for 5 minutes. You’ll see lots of foam and scum come up to the surface. Drain, rinse your chicken of the scum and wash your pot thoroughly. Refill with about 4 quarts of clean, cold water.
Add chicken, chicken breast meat, onion, ginger and all of the broth spices in the pot and cover. Turn heat to high – let it come to boil, then immediately turn heat to low. Prop lid up so that steam can escape. After 15 minutes, remove the chicken breasts, shred or slice in pieces when cooled and set aside. With a large spoon, skim the surface of any impurities in the broth. Skimming every 20 minutes ensures a clear broth. Simmer a total of 1-1/2 hours. Taste and adjust seasoning with more fish sauce and or sugar.
Strain the broth, discard solids. Prepare noodles as per directions on package. Ladle broth, add chicken breast and soft noodles in each bowl. Enjoy with desired condiments