I think some of the most difficult dilemmas in my life take place in a Vietnamese restaurant. Why does everything on the menu have to be so freaking tasty. I have tried a lot of things, but always stick to the standard pho. Just when I tell the server that I want something tasty like charbroiled pork over noodles (bun thit nuong), I end up retracting my order and getting the eye from the server. I'm just not able to shy away from it, like a needy little kid. And like most cooks with a passion for noodles, I've attempted to make my own beef pho for pride and merit. $40 and 6-8 hours later, I finally made my first soup. It tasted fine, but there was something missing, as there always seems to be with home-cooked food. Is it the boatload of MSG that goes into it? Is it the pair of chopsticks and soup spoon that need a pre-rinse with tea? Maybe the server's thumb that always seems to penetrate the scalding hot soup? Whether or not any of these factors actually affect the taste of a soup, it's just not the same. After that last time, I decided it would be less of a headache if I just coughed up a whopping $5.25 for a solid bowl of pho at Pho Filet in South El Monte or Pho Thanh Lich in Little Saigon – two places that I love at the moment.
But all of a sudden, I missed making soup from scratch. Something fast and something cheap. Something that doesn't hog up all the space in my Le Creuset. And Vietnamese chicken noodle soup (pho ga) comes to mind. How expensive was it to make 6-8 bowls? $10, if you already have the spices! Everyone has found their ideal beef pho, as the best ones seem to be very consistent. The slightest decrease in the amount of MSG and spices used can trigger off the food snobbiness. But with pho ga, as I've learned, there really isn't a standard, consistent taste – it's comfort food . With that in mind, you'll be happy to know that pho ga is not difficult to cook and you're free to get creative with it.
There is nothing more boring than chicken breast – dark meat for president. Instead of using chicken breast, I bought leg meat because it has more flavor. If you have to have breast meat, cut that thing in half, cross-section style – you'll be a much happier eater. Let's do this.
(1) Place all the chicken bones in a large pot filled with cold water. Bring to a boil, and let it roll vigorously for 10 minutes to really force out the impurities. Dump bones out into sink and make sure you rinse all the chicken bones. Set aside.
(2) If you skip this next step, you're missing the whole point of Vietnamese noodle soup. If you want your pho to compete with places on the Westside and Chinatown, then don't toast your spices – because they seriously can't seem to do things right. For this recipe, I used the following spice measurement, add more as needed:
10-12 star anise
2-2.5 tbsp. coriander seeds
1 tbsp. fennel seeds
1 whole cinnamon stick
This will yield a very strong anise and clove aroma. So cut down to half or completely omit ingredients if you're not fond of those flavors – I love it. Toast these in a dry pan on low heat for 2-3 minutes, careful not to burn the spices. When the aroma is apparent, turn off the heat and remove the spices from the pan. Tie up the spices in some cheesecloth and string.
(3) You'll be toasting the ginger and onions now, to wake up the flavors. Over the stove burner, turn it on high. Using tongs, set the onions and ginger on the burners. For the onions, I usually peel away the outer skin because I really want to punish those onions and make them sweat. Same applies to the ginger. You don't have to evenly char them, 60-75% is fine. Over cold water, remove any of the blackened parts.
(4) Add the bones, spices, onions, ginger, whole bulb of garlic (cross-sectioned to reveal the cloves of garlic) into the pot and fill it up with cold water. Bring to a boil and add some fish sauce to taste. The fish sauce is used to flavor the soup, not be the sole source of salinity. You should have a delicate hint of fish sauce. Once you've brought it to a boil, turn down the heat to a simmer. Add a 1"-1.5" piece of rock sugar. This is crucial in giving pho that gentle sweetness. Regular sugar would be too harsh.
(5) After about 2 hours, you should test out your soup once more to dot the i's and cross the t's. After simmering for so long, you may need to add more water incase it becomes salty. Scoop out any impurities and get your scallions, green onions, white onions and herbs ready. Banh pho noodles are typically used (I like the Kim Tar brand but this one is good as well.) and I've had versions with thicker rice noodles used in hu tieu. To cook the noodles, bring some water to a boil and drop the noodles in for no more than FIVE SECONDS for al dente noodles. Serve with piping hot soup and a headband if you get worked up like I do when I eat noodles.
Jeni and I were really happy that this turned out well. It was very simple and to tell you the truth, I don't think you can really F this up. What I might do differently is reduce the amount of cloves – too strong. And I may actually use chicken breast versus leg meat because you need to have some texture – my leg meat was tasty, but obliterated from the simmering of course. And also, pho ga is best eaten the day you make it. The refridgeration process sucks the life out of the herbs. I left the spice bag in the soup and that made the clove aroma even stronger. Bleh. Enjoy and thanks for reading.