What started out as a fun idea to share my mom's recipe for pho with City of Aters turned into something more nerve racking. My mom isn't exactly Martha Stewart, fastidiously measuring out every tablespoon or gram needed for an exact recipe. She, like many Asian cooks, measures sauces and soups by tasting and through experience, or as she likes to call it, "measuring with my eye."
My worries were alleviated, however, when I stepped into the kitchen with mom. We ended up bonding over the pho, and the result is the best translation I can give for my mother's healthy and "quicker" Pho Ga.
A clever commenter to last week's Pho-preparation post mentioned mom's recipe should be trademarked as "Faux pho." However witty, he who tries this recipe should know that prep and cooking time was about 3-4 hours.
My mom is health conscious, and her methods reflect it. Take the 6-7 pound chicken hen, take out its neck bone and set it aside. You will be using that. Quarter the chicken, cutting off the bird's wings and setting those aside with the neck bone. The next part is optional, but my mother cuts off excess skin and fat, save only layers on the breast and thighs. Rinse with cold water the quartered chicken parts, wings, and neck bone.
We used a 12-quart pot to cook our pho broth. Place all the chicken into the pot and cover with cold water--just enough to cover the chicken. This water is not the broth base and will be discarded. Bring the water to a rolling boil, let it boil for two minutes. Then discard the water, allowing the chicken to be caught by a colander. This "first water" cleans off debris or excess fat from the chicken.
Rinse out the pot and refill it with eight quarts of cold water. Cut one of your large onions in half and score the onion. Scoring means cutting lines in the onion, but not all the way through, so that the onion remains intact. Next, cut off one three-inch segment from the ginger. Slice these, with skin still on, into thin pieces. Then...
Then my mom admonished me, "How can they make pho with no shallots?!" I left off the shallots off the recipe list last week, and I am sorry. Technically, you do not need them, but my mom insists that it makes a better pho. So if you haven't bought your ingredients yet, please buy a bag of shallots. Peel four small shallots and slice them into thin slivers. Take the onion, the ginger, and the shallots and throw those into the pot of water. Along with these ingredients, throw in four pieces of small lump sugar and a tablespoon of black pepper. Place the pot back on the burner on high heat.
When the water comes to a rolling boil, add two tablespoons of salt to the water. Add all the chicken, piece by piece, into the water. Keep the burner on high. You want the water to return to a boil, but keep an empty bowl, ladle, and glass of cold water nearby the pot. The empty bowl and ladle are for skimming out any debris from the chicken that floats to the top of the broth. The glass of water is for you to add to the broth when it's threatening to boil over. This is tedious, but necessary. You must keep doing this until all the chicken has floated to the top, signaling that the chicken is cooked completely through. Also, you don't want any debris in your soup. Once the chicken has floated its way to the top of the broth, turn the burner temperature to medium. Take one teabag of seasonings from the Pho Hoa box, and place it in the broth. Cover the broth with a lid and leave it alone.
THE LITTLE THINGS
Now's the perfect time for you to prepare your garnishes and little things about which you've probably never given a second thought. Wash and dry all of your greens and herbs, such as the basil, scallions, ngo gai, bean sprouts (about which I also forgot to tell you...sorry), and cilantro. Take your second onion, cut it in half and slice one of the halves it into thin slivers. Save the other half for an omelet on another day. Toss the thin slivers of onion into a medium sized bowl. Take five to six scallions and dice them into little pieces. Add those to the bowl with the onions. Take half of your bunch of cilantro, and chop those up, adding them to your onion and scallion mixture. Set this bowl aside.
Take the rest of your uncut cilantro, the basil, ngo gai, and bean sprouts (again, sorry) and arrange them nicely on a platter. Prepare the eating area, arranging the platter of garnishes, your bottle of Hoisin sauce, chopsticks, spoons, and bottle of Sriracha nicely on the dining table.
Back in the kitchen, this is the perfect time to prepare your beef, if you opted for some beef. Open your package of meatballs, and place them by your pot. Cut the meatballs into halves, place them in a bowl, and set the bowl next to your pot of broth. As for the eye round beef, if you are smart, you had the butcher slice up the meat for you. If not, do your best to slice the meat up, against the grain, into the thinnest slices possible. Set this eye round aside.
Open up however many bags of noodles you think you will be using. Depending on sizes of appetites, one bag customarily feeds up to four people. Fill a large bowl with cold water, and soak the dry noodles in the water for at least 10-15 minutes. This helps loosen the noodles up.
THE FINISHING TOUCHES
After cooking the broth on medium and covered for an hour, lift the lid and taste your broth. You should be able to taste a bit of sweet, and you should taste the spices. You will tell yourself it isn't salty enough, but that is where the fish sauce comes to play. Add a half a cup of Three Crabs brand fish sauce to the broth. Stir the broth slightly and cover the pot. Allow the broth to cook for 15 more minutes on medium. After 15 minutes, taste the broth once more. Cooking pho is not an exact science and varies depending to everyone's tastes, so if you feel the need to add more fish sauce, do so. But only add a tablespoon at a time, and wait some time between adding because the longer a broth cooks, the saltier it becomes. If you've over fish-sauced it, you only need to add more water to your broth. It is all about trial and error.
With your tongs, take out the chicken thighs and breasts from your broth. Leave the wings and various other parts. Let the chicken cool for 10 minutes on your cutting board. Slice up the chicken into bite size pieces and set it aside. Take the meatballs that have been halved and throw them into your broth. They are fully cooked and just need to be heated by the broth.Turn the broth's burner to low heat.
This is the most frenetic part of making pho.
Fill a medium sized saucepan halfway with water. Put the saucepan on high heat. Prepare four bowls of noodles (or for however many people you're serving) while waiting for the water to boil. Do not cook all the noodles at once. These noodles are feisty and need to be cooked for one serving at a time or they will be ruined. Once the water comes to a boil, place one serving of noodles in the boiling water, making sure all the noodles are being cooked. Count to five, one Mississippi, etc. Immediately remove the noodles with your tongs and replace them back in the serving bowl. Repeat with all the other servings of noodles. Although the water will appear murky, you can use the same water for all of the noodles.
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SHOW ME HOW
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To each bowl of cooked noodles, place a thin layer of beef (if you have it) on top of the noodles. Add the sliced chicken meat on top of the noodles. Take the bowl of chopped-up and sliced onions, cilantro, and scallions, sprinkling however much of the mixture you want atop the noodles and meat. Ladle the hot broth over your noodles and meat, making sure to add more broth than you actually think you need. The key to a good pho is the soup-to-dry ingredients ratio; the more broth in the bowl, the better. Garnish as you like.
Again, pho isn't an exact science. That is why all pho restaurants have fish sauce on the tables, because some people may prefer a saltier noodle soup. You can always provide your diners with a small bowl of fish sauce, along with the hoisin and Sriracha. Throughout the cooking process, if you taste your broth and like it sweeter, add a couple more pieces of lump sugar. Or if you actually do want more spice seasoning, open up the tea bag, and add a bit at a time. Experiment, play, and have fun. At the end of the day, you just might have a great bowl of soup. Flavors and relationships are enhanced by cooking with someone you love. That goes for all recipes.