Monday, June 13, 2005

Faux Pho*

I am sure that bad chicken soup happens, but it has never happened to me. Really, it is an awfully easy thing to get right. I am not often an easy-to-please critic of my own cooking. I will sit and fret about the vegetables not being done to the exact right degree of tenderness or regret that I did not add another clove or forty of garlic. I will not voice these insecurities aloud, as that would be inconsiderate of my guests, but I am, nonetheless, a seething cauldron of self-doubt almost any time I serve a meal.

But when I make chicken soup, none of that seems to matter. A good chicken soup will suffuse the eater with such a feeling of well-being that such things as overcooked noodles, a surfeit of dill, or even, heaven forefend, a cloudy broth (this last will, no doubt, put you in mind of a scene in Tampopo, almost certainly the best movie about food ever made, where the exhausted heroine has fallen asleep at her stock pot, allowing it to boil and, according to her mentors, ruining the soup; screw that, I'd have eaten it anyway) are not nearly enough to overcome the general feeling of happy, happy, joy, joy.

I enjoy chicken soups of all sorts, and my standard variety involves simmering a whole chicken with onion, celery, carrots, and pepper; removing the chicken and vegetables and putting the entire pot of broth in the refrigerator; removing the solidified fat and the whole peppercorns; bringing the stock back to the boil; removing the cooked chicken from the bones and chopping it roughly; chopping uncooked vegetables and adding them to the pot along with whatever carbs I'm using and the diced chicken; and adding salt** and chopped dill until the soup is to my liking.

Everyone, including me, loves my chicken soup, and there is really no need to change the recipe. But I am a big fan of Pho Ga (Vietnamese chicken noodle soup), and I have been wanting to try it for some time. So I set out to make a pot this weekend, but it soon became clear that I wasn't going to get all the way there. For starters, the girls were over this weekend, and they're not going to put up with chiles or basil or lime or bean sprouts in their soup, so I didn't even try. In any case, what I like best about pho is the broth, and from tasting and reading, it was clear to me that what's different about the broth is the palette of seasonings that one uses. So I left out the carrots and the dill, and went with other flavors. An approximate recipe follows.

Wash and dry a whole chicken. Using your kitchen shears, cut it in half through the breast bone and around the back bone. Put the chicken into a pot and cover it with cold water.

Add an onion and two ribs of celery, all cut in half.
Slice about a two-inch piece of ginger thinly, and add.
Add five cloves, half a teaspoon of peppercorns, and two star anise. (Without the Vietnamese, I would certainly have never thought of putting anise in chicken soup, but it is a revelation. It is even more of a revelation if you don't remove it from the soup and the leftover soup sits in the refrigerator for a day or two, patiently waiting for you to get to it.) If you are feeling ambitious, bruise the spices lightly before you add them.

Bring the water to a boil, then turn it down to a simmer, and let it cook, covered, for a couple of hours. Yes, yes, I know. Serious chicken soup cooks will tell you to only partially cover the pot and don't want you to cook the chicken for that long. I think you need to cook it a long time to get all the flavor out. People (maybe the same people who said to cover the pot, but maybe not) will also tell you that cooking the chicken for too long toughens it. I don't believe it. My chicken is always tender.

Remove the chicken and vegetables from the broth. You can fish out the spices if you like, but I don't mind eating around them. For that matter, I don't mind biting into them, but I'm perhaps a bit weird, so take them out if it makes you feel better.

Remove as much of the fat as possible from the broth, by whichever method you prefer. If you have time, the easiest way is to refrigerate the broth so that the fat solidifies and can be removed with no trouble at all.

When the chicken has cooled, remove and discard the skin, and pull the meat from the bones. Chop the meat and return it to the pot. Bring the pot back to the boil, and add salt** until it tastes right. When the soup is at or near the boil, add your noodles. Rice noodles make sense here. If you want to add the traditional pho accoutrements, then by all means do so. I will endeavor not to be jealous.

I will also try (but fail) not to envy you if you serve the soup in some large, beautiful white and blue bowls with pictures of swimming carp on the bottom of the inside. I have no such bowls, and when I made the soup this weekend, I had little chance of getting the kids to the table, so I served the soup in heavy, oversized coffee mugs, the sort which one gets from one's child for Christmas if one asks, and which one otherwise procures from Trader Joe's for two bucks apiece.

*I am, of course, aware that "faux" and "pho" have entirely different pronunciations.

**For heaven's sake, don't be afraid of salting your soup. The single most important step in making any soup is adding the salt. If you don't believe me, ask the Hungry Tiger. Soup without enough salt is flat and lifeless. The large pot of soup I made took about two-and-one-half tablespoons of salt to fully bring out the flavor of the chicken and the anise.


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