Cookin' with Oh, For God's Sake!
This week, we're in the Oh, For God's Sake! kitchen, where we're going to prepare a delicious noodle soup. This dish is a variation on the Vietnamese noodle soup known as "pho." Pho is an extremely versatile dish consisting of a rich broth, rice noodles, and whatever the hell else you want to toss in. Authentic pho calls for oxtail broth but the very idea of oxen wandering around without their tails is too gruesome to contemplate, so I always use fish or vegetable broth. The recipe below calls for fish, but it's easy to make a vegetarian version or one containing meat. In fact, pho is so versatile that you can modify this recipe by ignoring it altogether and going out for chicken fangos and fraz.
To pronounce pho, say the word "fun" but without the N: Fuh. But don't worry too much about the pronunciation. Vietnamese restaurants make it easy to avoid pronouncing the word by conveniently numbering the items on the menu so you can say, "I'll have number 21, please." It's the food equivalent of preemptively saying, "How are you?" to someone whose name you're not sure of or don't want to say (a trick I've used to avoid calling my mother in law "Mom" for years).
In Vietnam, pho is actually a breakfast dish, which doesn't make much sense to me. I am more of a cereal-and-berries man at breakfast. Pho is full of flavor and fiery hot, so you'll probably want to prepare it for lunch or dinner. On the other hand, the Vietnamese beat us in a war, so maybe they know best.
You can make pho as basic or as complex as you like. Here's a very basic recipe, suitable for college students:
College Dorm Pho
Prepare noodles and drain, reserving some of the water, and pour them into a bowl. Stir in some ketchup. Sprinkle with black pepper and serve.
That recipe is probably a bit too basic for most non-students, so let's make a more full-bodied, fish-and-vegetable pho -- a tasty little pho I call Pho kin' a.
Pho kin' a
Whatever vegetables you like, but you can't go wrong with:
4 green onions
a coupla handfuls of snow peas
a buncha fresh spinach
1 quart vegetable, fish or shrimp broth
3 pcs. star anise
1 cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon fish sauce
2 filets Kentucky-raised catfish
5 Kentucky-raised freshwater prawns
8 oz. rice noodles
Sambal Oelek brand chili paste (Not to be too anal, but I've tasted just about every chili paste and this one packs hand's down the best flavor, plus it's hotter than Ashley Judd driving through the desert in August with the seat heater on.)
fresh mint (or basil or cilantro; just a pinch of something green and groovy)
Turn on some cooking music, like Los Lonely Boys or Patti Smith. Get out a very large bowl or pot, fill it with warm water, and put in the rice noodles. Rice noodles don't need to cook, they just need to wake up. The only rule with noodles is never, ever break them. Asians believe it is bad luck to break noodles and I personally defer to their judgment on this. They don't flout transubstantiation or compound interest; who am I to disrespect their noodle rituals? Let the noodles soak.
In a large pot, prepare your broth. The best broth is homemade, simmered up out of some fish heads and some shrimp offal or some vegetable scraps (especially if you tossed in some groovy root vegetables like parsnips or fennel). Some Asian groceries stock fish bouillon and shrimp bouillon and they're pretty good if you train your mind not to think about what might have gone into their creation. But any broth works well as a base for pho so just use whatever you've got. Tump about a quart of it into a non-denominational soup pot (this is no time for sanctimony) and set it on steamylicious.
While the broth is slouching toward brothdom, wash the vegetables and chop them up except the spinach. A good mix is two carrots and some snow peas and one small onion or a handful of green onions. Can you make up the amounts and ingredients as you go? Pho kin a! (Tip: If you shave the carrots into ribbons with a peeling knife instead of dicing them, they will thicken the broth a little. Plus, it looks cooler. Also, if somebody says, "hey, whatcha doin'?" you can reply, "Leave me alone - I'm shaving my carrot.")
Spinach is very vulnerable and more than a tad emotional and easily bruised and quite frankly given to histrionics if not handled very carefully, so just set that aside for now with maybe a kind word and a promise for later greatness.
When the broth is bubbling, add your star anise and your fish sauce and your cinnamon stick and let them form a subcommittee. Star anise is not only fun to stare at and will make you think about the universe and become tempted to believe in God, but it's also got a wonderful licorice flavor without which pho wouldn't be pho (unless you're in college). You'll find it and the fish sauce (Squid brand is my favorite) and the rice noodles in Asian markets. Fish sauce is not something to mess around with if you have sodium issues. One tablespoon has approximately five zillion milligrams of sodium, so go easy if you're going to be driving later and you're prone to road rage. Allow yourself an extra dash if you used homemade broth instead of bouillon.
Thank the onions, carrots, and snow peas for sharing their magical properties and tump them into the pot. Cook them at a slow simmer until they are overcooked and mushy and then travel back in time to when they weren't yet, because in pho, just as in life, you want your vegetables to have some texture. Don't cook your spinach yet. You'll just barely cook it a little at the end. (So in case I forget to mention it later, tump it in at the very end and let it cook just a little bit until it turns that shade of green that makes you think: Hey, who needs drugs when there's color like that in the world?)
While all of those ingredients are tea-baggin,' go outside and fire up your grill and cook the catfish and the prawns. Because they were raised in Kentucky, the fish and prawns are perfect and need no seasoning and already contain just the right amount of mojo and juju and will make your eyes sparkle and your hair shine and your tongue go Kee-ryst, that's a buncha yummy. Simply plop them on the grill and cook them until they are done: a few minutes on each side. Let them get nice and sizzly and a little crispy but don't overcook them.
When the fish and shrimp are ready, bring them back inside, eat one of the prawns (you made one extra), and marvel at its texture and flavor. Say, "Damn, that's fine." Mean it. Briefly wonder why you eat fish and shrimp, when you never eat beef or pork. Speculate that it's because fish and shrimp are healthier for you and better for the environment and that it seems less cruel to kill them because they're littler and somehow less real and less evolved and don't go "moo" or "oink" when you butcher them. Dismiss this reasoning as disingenuous. Forgive yourself for the double standard.
Oh my god, we are getting close now. Fish the cinnamon stick and the star anise out of the broth and discard them. Tump the spinach into the simmering pho (See? I remembered). Turn off the burner, remembering to appreciate the shades of green. Rinse the noodles and tump them into the pho to warm them up. Bite your lower lip, squint your eyes, nod your head slowly and think to yourself: hell yeah, damn straight, pho kin' a.
Get out two of your most spiritual bowls, the bigger the better. Other than the sodium, this dish is good for you, so now's the time to supersize. In the bottom of each bowl, put a dollop of the Sambal Oelek chili paste. How big a dollop? Only you can say. But this chili paste is hot and joyous and will make you feel alive, so don't overdo it unless you're into that kinda stuff. (You can always add more later but you can't take it out once you've put it in.) Next, put a coupla-seven tablespoons of the broth from the soup pot into the bowls with the chili paste and stir them around with a flourish, while humming and dancing sensuously. This step helps evenly distribute the chili paste in the broth, so you don't end up with more hot spots than a kiddie pool.
Divide the noodles evenly into each bowl, placing them on top of the chili/broth mixture, Place a catfish filet and two prawns in each bowl to be playfully found later, like Easter Eggs or WMD. Ladle the vegetables and broth on top. Now you have two big ol' bowls of paradise. Sprinkle some sprouts on top and a few sprigs of mint and squeeze some lime and serve with laughter and veneration and a spoon and chopsticks and more of the hot chili paste, which you can stir into the broth if need be.
Eat. Your stomach will be happier than a puppy chasing a flock of birds.
Serves two (or one really large, hungry person or a half dozen supermodels or you and you again tomorrow).
(Remember that pho is perfect for experimenting. Make the broth, spices, noodles and garnish the same, but tinker with whatever ingredients blow sunshine down your windpipe. Instead of fish and peas, try one of these delicious variations: chicken and roasted red pepper, crab and asparagus, tofu and turnips, corned beef and cabbage, White Castles and onion rings, Mary Kate and Ashley, or chocolate chip and peanut butter. )