Monday, July 16, 2012

phở ga lesson 101

let me speak quite briefly, if i may, about the city where I live

a lot has been said and satirized about portland – the whimsical life of unemployed young people, the sense of urgency for a morning latte from the coffee shop down the street, the trendy cigarette smoking hipsters on fixy bicycles.

i’ll stop there.

there are characters everywhere, this place is full of them.

yet what strikes me most about this city is all that is not spoken of, all that is not seen upon first glance.  amidst the strange and complicated truths of this state’s haunting history, and the modern image of a gentrified-trendy-gardening-commune of a city, it is the immensely diverse undertones of this place that give it it’s complexity, it’s mysticism, it’s richness, it’s beauty.

and that is why i love it here.

of the places where this beauty has been most starkly manifested, food, of course, is my favourite.
one of the best, by far, is phở - vietnamese beef noodle soup served with a plate of fresh herbs. cuts of beef can range from raw beef round, to chewy tendon, and well cooked flank. it is aromatic and fresh and warming.  not to mention, it’s traditionally served for breakfast.

anh luu, a dear friend of mine, taught me how to make phở ga, vietnamese chicken noodle soup. she is quite the lady – vivacious, intelligent, honest, loving.  anh is first generation vietnamese, raised in new orleans, and let me tell you, she’s one hell of a cook.

most of the ingredients that follow can be found at any asian grocery store. here in portland, we are lucky to have a seemingly infinite amount of hidden stores filled with essentials for any asian meal – including the infamous fubonn, self-proclaimed as “oregon’s largest asian mall.” this place is explosive – the tall ceilings, the long aisles and florescent lights, the children zipping to hide behind rice bags, the grocery carts filled with dried plums and tamarind candies, fresh lychee and yuka and lemon grass. it’s an easy place to spend a few hours getting lost with premonitions of weekday dinner projects and people watching and deciphering labels. it’s a favourite place of mine because it’s wild – wild with colour, wild with aroma, wild with faces and sounds. it’s certainly a non-traditional exposure to this city’s culinary brilliance. 

before i even begin to write a grocery list, it is important to note that as with any cook, anh’s proportions are scant –  give or take this or that, depending on what you like.  i like to look at it as a beginning point to cultivating kitchen creativity.

so without further ado, here’s what you’ll need

for the stock, and soup itself

one whole chicken, bone in plus two drumsticks and thighs
two yellow onions
ginger root, about five inches long
pho spice packet – these vary, but they usually consisting of whole coriander, star anise, cinnamon stick, cloves, and cumin
fresh rice noodles
fish sauce

for the garnish

one bunch green onions
one bunch fresh cilantro
one bunch fresh thai basil
a few handfuls of fresh bean sprouts
one lime

. . .

to begin, position a rack in your oven to the highest level  

turn your oven on HI broil

cut your onions in half, leaving the skin on.
drizzle a little bit of vegetable oil on a pan.  place the onions – skin side up –  as well as the whole ginger root, on the pan. place in the broiler, and set your timer for ten minutes.

the reason we are doing this is to char the onion and ginger skins.  anh says that the skin is what has the most flavour on both the root and the vegetable.  we roast both in order to deepen their flavour before adding them to the stock. when the skins are charred enough, they will be removed, but their essence remains in the remaining portions of the onion.

while your timer is going, fill a large stock pot with water. while water is heating, rinse your meat off in the sink under cold water, set aside in a bowl. once water is boiling, carefully place the chicken inside.

in the mean time, pull out your onions and ginger from the oven. remove charred skins from both. chop ginger into big pieces. set onions and ginger aside.

in your stock pot, once the boil returns, remove chicken from water and set aside. drain all the water in your sink.  

fill your pot back up with cold water and place the chicken back in the pot along with your chopped ginger, onions, and pho spice sachet.

bring your stock to a boil, then down to a simmer.

simmer for about an hour and a half

this is the time when you sit on the porch, have a cup of tea, read the paper. by the time you flip the page, the star anise will have made it’s way out to you. mmm..

remove chicken from stock pot. using a cleaver (if you don’t have one, it’s okay, a sharp knife will do the trick) remove the chicken from the bone – literally, cut the bones, this way you’ll expose the marrow and that’ll make the stock very rich.  Place the chicken on a cutting board, and the bones back into the pot. continue to simmer the stock for another thirty minutes to bring out the flavours of the marrow. at this point, you can add fish sauce (this is your salt) and sugar to the stock, the proportions are dependent on your personal taste.

as far as fish sauce goes, here is what anh has to say: the lighter the sauce, the better. the reason for this is that the darker sauces tend to have more impurities in them, having been strained with less attention, and are often times more “fishy.” on the other hand, the lighter sauces are strained more carefully, and usually capture the “saltiness” desired.

while your stock is finishing up, you can prepare your rice noodles and garnish.

bring water to a boil over high heat, and prepare rice noodles depending on the directions on the package. these, of course, vary from brand to brand. once they are cooked, cool them under running cold water and set aside.

for the garnish, coarsely chop cilantro; leave bean sprouts whole; leave thai basil on it’s purple stock; cut lime in wedges; thinly slice tops of green onions, take the bottom white and light green portion and cut it down the middle –  this way it will just barely cook in the hot broth and become soft and sweet. 

pull out a bowl and fill it in this order:
rice noodles
all of the garnish that you want – wait a second for the lime!
squeeze lime over soup, add more fish sauce is necessary


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