If I had to pick just one of the international varieties of chicken soup to eat for the rest of my life, I’d probably pick phở (pronounced “fuh”). Phở doesn’t always involve chicken; in fact, phở bò, with beef, is probably the most popular version. But phở gà is the one I crave when I’m feeling sick or sad or anxious. I think the reason I like phở better than all the other cure-for-what-ails-you chicken soups out there is its tangy, spicy edge. It has all the familiar comforts of chicken noodle soup plus the sweet heat of charred ginger and bite of lime and freshness of basil and kick from hot chilis and crunch of bean sprouts, all in perfect balance.
I’m sure dissertation stress is probably the main reason I’m on such a chicken stock kick lately. But another part of it is that although stock is time-consuming, it’s not too labor intensive. With just five minutes of work here and ten minutes of work there, I end up with the something that feels like really nourishing homemade food.
Plus, once you’ve got the stock made, phở is an almost-instant meal. All you have to do is soften some rice noodles in hot water and put them in a bowl with some cooked meat (or a substitute) and greens. Heat the stock to a simmer and pour it on top. Garnish with bean sprouts, lime, basil or cilantro, green onions, and as much rooster sauce as you like. If you combine the garnishes into a little salad, you can keep it in the fridge along with separate containers of chopped, cooked meat and greens, and then each serving of phở takes less time to prepare than a bowl of instant ramen.
Do the prep on a weekend and you can feast on rich, spicy, tangy, steamy phở at a moment’s notice anytime that week. If you make two batches of stock at once, which only takes a tiny bit more effort than making one batch, you can freeze anything you won’t eat immediately in pint jars or 2-cup tupperware containers, which are perfect single-serving sizes for any future phở needs.
Another fun thing you can do if you make two versions of the stock at once is play with the flavor profiles. Last weekend, I made one batch with cilantro and coriander and one with anise, cloves, and cinnamon. Both were great. The cilantro version was grassy and bright, and the anise one had rich, elusive layers of spice. In addition to using a whole chicken for each batch of stock, I also used turkey necks and chicken feet—about a pound of each in each batch. That dramatically increases the collagen content, so after 8 hours of simmering, it was rich enough to become a solid gel in the refrigerator.
If you’re not quite up to making the stock from scratch, you can improve a canned stock or even diluted bouillon by simmering it for an hour or so with a big piece of smashed ginger and the same spices or herbs (anise/cloves/cinnamon or coriander/cilantro).
Pro tip: A friend of mine tells me that Tsingtao is an excellent pairing for pho. Although he was talking about phở bò, the chicken version has same kind of spicy, savory, multi-layered flavor thing going on, which I think would certainly complement a pilsner in that addictive refreshing light beer + spicy food way.
Also, I am totally proud of myself that I refrained from making in any stupid phonetic jokes (okay, groan, but even that’s a homonym not homophone!). Recipe below.
Recipe: Phở Gà (adapted from Viet World Kitchen)
- One batch whole chicken stock (either the traditional pho or lighter pho variations) or 3-4 quarts canned stock or bouillon, simmered with ginger and either 2 T. toasted coriander and a bunch of cilantro or 5-7 star anise, a cinnamon stick, and 1 t. whole cloves for an hour
- 4-5 cups cooked chicken meat
- 2 lbs rice stick noodles
- 4 cups baby bok choy, or other greens
- 1 yellow onion
- 3 cups mung bean sprouts
- 2 limes
- 2 serrano chilis
- 1 bunch green onions, green part only
- 1/4 cup basil or cilantro
- 1 Tablespoon sesame oil
- rooster sauce (optional)
1. Slice the onion paper thin and soak in warm water for 10-15 minutes (to take away the bite).
2. Roughly chop the bok choy (I used a mandoline for this, too, to get thin slices of the tough parts & shred the green tops)
3. Juice the limes, dice the chilis, dice the green part of the green onions (reserve the whites for another use or poach gently in the stock and serve with the soup), and roughly chop the basil or cilantro. Combine with the bean sprouts and sesame oil and toss to combine. Alternatively, quarter the limes and put all the garnishes out in separate bowls for people to add as desired.
4. Boil a few cups of water and submerge the rice stick noodles for 15 seconds to a minute—just until softened.
5. Heat 2 cups of stock per serving until it’s steaming and prepare the bowls: place individual portions of noodles, chicken, and bok choy in each bowl. Rinse the onion and add just a few thin slices to each bowl.
6. Pour the steaming stock into the bowl, and garnish with the bean sprout salad and rooster sauce.