comfort me with chicken pho
During the cold Christmas break my family and I ensconced ourselves in a North Devon seaside cottage. Walks on the stunning cliffs were breathtaking, but the best bit was curling up in the cosy house and cooking. The area, near Ilfracombe, has a dearth of good restaurants, no fishmongers (which is perplexing and worrying) and one very large uninspiring superstore. My friend Alison, also with us, suggested we make Pho, the iconic Vietnamese soup with rice noodles and fresh herbs. Because the beef version involves ox tail bones (it was pretty certain the superstore wasn’t going to stock them) we decided on chicken instead. All the ingredients were found except dried rice noodles. Putting our food snobbery aside and we used the ‘ready for wok’ type. It still turned out amazing and we quietly slurped with sweat on our upper lips and heads bent over bowls.
The cornerstone to making good pho is the base. Once you get that right, you’re laughing all the way to the bank. Asian soups of sorts can be concocted….rice, coconut milk, dumplings….the list goes on. Making stock is frustrating and even after hours of toiling it can taste like dishwater. I can smugly say I have a method that is foolproof and delicious. First the chicken pieces and vegetables are roasted and then slowly simmered without stirring. Mixing results in cloudy, dirty looking broth so remember-hands off. It’s best to make this the day before. Once refrigerated, the fat will harden and make it easy to remove.
Asian chicken broth
6 large chicken legs with skin
3 large carrots peeled
4 stick celery
2 onions peeled
3 cloves garlic peeled
thumb size chunk of ginger sliced
2 star anise
2 cinnamon sticks
1 red chili halved
1 tsp salt
Preheat oven to 200c/400f. Place the chicken pieces in a large roasting dish. Slice the carrots, celery and onions into chunks add to the chicken. Place the ginger in as well. Season well with lots of salt and pepper. Roast for 1 hour or until the skin is golden. Pour everything, including the juices, into a large stockpot. Add the cinnamon, star anise, garlic, chili and the salt. Bring to a boil and cover half way with a lid. Let simmer for 2 hours without stirring on low heat. It should just quieting and slowly bubble. Remove from the heat and gently scoop out the chicken. Leave to cool slightly before removing the flesh. Discard the bones and fat. Drain the stock into a clean pot and discard the vegetables. Taste for salt and refrigerate covered. This makes enough stock for 6 large bowls of soup.
Chicken Pho Soup
1 recipe Asian stock-see above
Poached chicken from above recipe
200g/7oz rice noodles-linguine size
1 bunch spring onions finely sliced
1 large handful fresh mint leaves
1 large handful fresh coriander/cilantro leaves
1 large handful fresh Thai or regular basil leaves
1 thumb size red chili sliced
Sriracha hot chili sauce or other chili sauce
2 limes cut into wedges
Remove most of the fat from the stock and heat until boiling. Warm the chicken separately in the microwave or oven. It’s important not to mix them or the chicken goes stringy. Soak the noodles in boiling water until al dente, about 5 minutes. Drain and if you are using them later on, rinse in cold water to stop the cooking. Drizzle with a bit of oil to keep untangled. Arrange the limes, chilis, onions and herbs in bowls. Set on the table along with the fish and chili sauces. When everyone is sitting down and ready to eat, start making your first bowl. Take a handful of the noodles and gently heat in the stock. Place some warm chicken in the bowl, followed by noodles and a big ladle of stock. Repeat with the others. Each person garnishs their own bowl with a couple sprinkles of fish sauce (about a tsp), a good squeeze of lime, some spring onions, chilis, herbs and a squirt of the chili sauce. Eat quickly with chopsticks and a spoon. Makes 6 good-sized bowls of soup.