Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Daring Cooks October: Vietnamese Pho Ga

It was our first assignment from the Daring Cooks, and we were pretty stoked. I'd always wanted to make Pho, but had never managed to get around to it. Not only that, there was a great little Vietnamese grocery story down the block from us that we'd been meaning to check out. So, it was the perfect "assignment" for us. Heck -- we even screwed it up (go ahead, laugh... ). How's that for starting things off with a bang??!!

Originally, our intent was to make beef pho -- but, when we found the perfect pasture-raised chicken at the market, we changed our tune. Neither of us had ever experienced the chicken rendition of this dish -- so it would be something completely new to us.

We sped off to Viet Ho (on 49th and North) and took our time perusing the aisles. We found a (huge) bag of mung bean sprouts, a bottle of high quality nam pla (fish sauce), and a package of rice noodles... among other things. We're planning a return trip one of these weeks to delve a bit more deeply into all the great Asian ingredients.

When we got home, the first thing we did was to char the onions and ginger root. The onions blackened up gorgeously -- and we were excited about the rich flavor they would impart to the broth. In retrospect, the ginger could have used a few more minutes of heat to really intensify its flavor, and the next time I try this I'll chop the root roughly to give it a bit more surface area for browning, but it wasn't a mistake I'd lose much sleep over.
While the onions were under the broiler, we chopped up our chicken (exposing plenty of delicious, nutritious, bone marrow) and put our chicken on to par-boil. This step is meant to allow many of the impurities to be flushed out of the chicken and ensure a broth with infinitely more clarity. It made sense, but we were eager to see how effective it would really be. The chicken boiled, and the foam rose. When it had boiled for 5 minutes on high, we drained the pot, rinsed the chicken, and started all over again with a clean pot and a fresh batch of water.
This time around, we added the power-packed flavor components -- the charred onion & ginger, 2 T coriander seeds, a couple of star anise, 4 cloves, and a healthy little bunch of cilantro stems. Based on what I read on the Daring Cooks' forum, I expected to have to toast the spices (a great idea, really)... but no such directions seemed to exist in the recipe. So, I threw everything in "as is". Big Mistake. As you'll find out, our soup turned out just fine -- but the depth of flavor was definitely missing.

Of course, this mistake simply served to confirm something I've always known, deep down. ALWAYS trust your instincts. Never follow directions exactly. Even when you're completing your first Daring Cooks Challenge :)
We brought everything back to a boil and began skimming the foam that rose to the top of the pot. The recipe suggests skimming every 20 minutes for the best clarity. Despite the recipe's instructions, I really only had to skim the broth once (albeit very thoroughly) in the beginning, but we kept watch for the full 1 1/2 hours just in case.
We had to admit it. The clarity of the broth was impressive -- so, I'm definitely tucking the par-boiled chicken trick into my pocket for future use. It came out perfectly -- gorgeous and golden, with only the slightest traces of debris in the final product (something that could have been easily remedied had I used cheesecloth to strain the broth a final time).

The process wasn't at all harrowing - although I did become a bit annoyed with the coriander and star anise. Originally, it floated freely in the broth -- but what that meant is that I was constantly fighting not to skim it out along with the foam. Fortunately, we happened upon a fairly easy solution -- a spice tea bag, tied with a bit of kitchen twine. Perfect.
Enhanced by bits of shaved red onion, sliced jalapeno pepper, cilantro, and bean sprouts, the soup really was quite lovely. We used a relatively light hand with the Siracha and hoisin sauce -- just to let the flavors of the broth shine through. The final product was definitely prettier than the simple golden chicken noodle soup of my youth. Everything tasted so... fresh. And the textural elements of the add-ins brought something truly special to this soup.That said, the flavor of the broth (the real measure of Pho, according to all I've read) simply wasn't quite up to the level I expected. Despite the fact that the spiciness of the star anise and coriander were fairly evident, the flavor was almost *too* delicate. I missed the flavor of the clove and cilantro almost entirely, and (even after adding additional fish sauce and a touch of sugar) I still wanted a little bit of something more. Adding a touch of salt helped -- but the next time I make this, I'll definitely be toasting those spices (heh -- I can't believe the recipe didn't mention anything about that step!). Heck, I might even add MORE of them. And yeah, I'll be adding an extra charred onion to the mix. I'm even thinking that the chicken could use a bit of roasting -- just to give it a little bit more oomph.
That said, we enjoyed ourselves a great deal. The soup was a nice departure from all the heavier foods we've been eating now that the weather has started to cool down. Enhanced with a more liberal dose of Siracha, I'm betting this soup would be an awesome antidote for a winter cold. Or a pleasant addition to a light spring spread. Would also be fun to make for guests. I'm already contemplating the myriad options for fresh veggie add-ins... thin, crisp French green beans, julienned radishes, shredded carrots... the possibilities are endless.

Pho Ga: Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup

The October 2009 Daring Cooks’ challenge was brought to us by Jaden of the blog Steamy Kitchen. The recipes are from her new cookbook, The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook.

Also submitted as part of Real Food Wednesdays -- where great people post about real nourishing grub.

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©BURP! Where Food Happens

31 comments:

  1. But did you end up toasting the spices or not? Because that was the essential thing to do to release all the flavors of the spices if I understand it correctly, but when reading through your story that wasn't evident. I don't know; just thought I mention it! Other then that I do think your Pho looks gorgeous! I totally loved this recipe!

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  2. Simone - No! That was the tragic thing about the whole process. I recall reading that we should toast the spices (on the DC forum)... but the recipe didn't mention it AT ALL, so we neglected that step when we actually made the recipe! Yikes!

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  3. My friend Melissa has been raving about Pho FOREVER. I've never had it in a restaurant, and certainly have never made it (much too ambitious for me), but I must taste this soon. Sounds like it's amazing.

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  4. Beautiful pics. The go-to way to eat Pho is with a big spoon-rest-looking spoon filled half with sriracha and half with hoisin sauce; for dipping noodles and chicken into.

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  5. You must have someone missed some lines from the recipe... Mine did mention it... But the funny thing is I have seen a couple of people, like you, grill their onions and ginger and I didn't have that in the recipe!! Now how weird is that!

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  6. Tony - You've got the right idea, IMHO! The more siracha the better.

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  7. I LOVE pho - we had some yesterday though it wasn't the best I've tasted. You did beautifully, really.

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  8. Your broth looks fantastic! I want to make chicken pho now. Just delicious.

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  9. Yay more birthdays!!! Hope you have a great one tomorrow. Gotta love October. Surely you're having a delicious meal to celebrate. Maybe more yummy pho?

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  10. What a nice broth. I love Pho. That must had been delicious.

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  11. Nice to have you back! And your Pho looks amazing. Bummer about the spice intensity, but I'm glad that you were able to discern how to punch-up the flavor next time. I do hope there is a next time because I'm a huge fan of Pho and yours looks utterly delicious! I'm going to pay attention next time I order Pho to see if I can pick out those flavors in the broth. I usually just start adding the cilantro, sprouts, etc. as soon as the bowl hits the table. Love that sliced chili you put in that bottom photo! YUM!

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  12. I am making Pho...It looks awesome on everyones site.
    I have signed up for DB, but I am not sure how to find out what the new task is....Can you help?

    By the way, your pics are beautiful.

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  13. Paula - Yeah, I was a total space-case with the spices. Didn't help that the "more daring" recipe didn't include directions for toasting the spices. But, you live and learn.

    Miranda - Daring Bakers' challenges are announced on the 1st of each month. You simply need to log on to the Daring Kitchen site and go to the forums to find the new assignment. (Couldn't find your email on your blog -- or I would've emailed you directly).

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  14. Great photos and great advice... to trust your instincts in the kitchen. I've learned that lesson more than once I'm afraid. I'm envious of your proximity to a Vietnamese grocery.

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  15. Your pho looks gorgeous. It's too bad the directions about toasting spices were missing, but I'm sure it was still very nice!

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  16. I agree with 5starfoodie!! It still looks delicious though!!

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  17. I LOVE Pho! I was taught by to make Pho by Jet Tila, whose family owns the best Asian supermarkets in Los Angeles. He roasts the bones, have you tried that? Your recipe sounds very good. I would love to taste to differnet versions side by side. I am sure both would be delicious!

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  18. oh wow!! this is totally something I would be scared to try!!

    In response to your the seafood cakes... if you don't use the sauce they are a bit bland, but with the sauce it's perfect! Otherwise I'd say to add a dash of oldbay yum!

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  19. These look beautiful... Thanks for dropping by my site, hope to see you back.. and back posting

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  20. I am not talented enough to attempt that...

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  21. It looks delicious. Now that you've made it, perhaps you can tweak the original recipe and share your new and improved version. Thanks for stopping by FLB.

    Best,

    Christine

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  22. Oh! Nice step-by-step pictures...your pho looks delicious, great for the cold weather...yummie!

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  23. The Pho may have been a bit too delicate in flavor but, my hat is off to you for taking the leap and preparing this beautiful soup.

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  24. This soup does look warm and flavorful without being too heavy. Perfect!

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  25. Wonderful! This is my favorite version so far (many have been posted on FoodBuzz for this challenge). I really like the roasting of the onion and ginger and the toasting of the spices. The Pho I have had was beef and very delicately seasoned and I was disappointed because I had expected something "beefier" with more depth of flavor so I really like the thought process here.

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  26. i recommend a single cardamom pod (cracked open) and half a cinnamon stick... removing the cin stick when you achieve an aroma that suits you.
    cheers!

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  27. Sounds intriguing. And I hear you on the trust your instincts mantra. Definitely have been on both ends of that recently.

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  28. Well, you know for the next time about the spice-toasting. Perhaps whoever wrote the recipe you used didn't like strong flavors of toasted spices?

    either way, it looks like a lovely soup and I don't think you messed it up. Messing up would have meant it was inedible, which was far from the case. You just learned a lesson on how to make it better the next time.

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