I’m not a great shopper. In all the New Year sales, there was little that I was focussed on buying, other than a set of very large bowls. Dull!
Or is it? Like millions of others, New Year for me (aside for sparklers, streamers and champagne at midnight) means that it’s time to try being a little healthier, and so I figured that I could use these larger bowls to start making healthy noodle soups, something that would be filling without meaning lots of oil or lots of pasta. With that in mind, here is one of my first attempts. I am calling this phở chay (Vietnamese vegetable soup). Or maybe faux-chay? OK, bad joke…
Now, I use the term calling quite on purpose. I cannot make any promises about how authentic this recipe, but I can at least say that it is made from things that you stand a sporting chance of finding in a well-stocked kitchen and it is pretty darn tasty. Perhaps the only thing I don’t usually have in the house is lemongrass, which I just added as I found it skulking in the back of the fridge, the victim of a well-intentioned but never-attempted citrus and lemongrass posset.
To bulk up the broth, I have also used the ingredients that I like in this sort of soup – marinated tofu chunks and green beans, and soba noodles as I much prefer them to rice noodles. Soba has the rich, earthyness of buckwheat, and I very much appreciate that it is more substantial and chewy than rice noodles.
Now, when you look at making a phở, it can look like one of those “bit of a faff” recipes, but in fact I have managed to do the whole thing in just over an hour. Just think of it as a simple two-step process:
Part the First: make the broth. I have omitted any attempts at frying anything to start with, and just throw it all in a large pot with lots of water. Onions and other vegetables, plus stock, soy sauce and rice wine vinegar, to serve as the basis, and then a range of aromatics and spices. Star anise and cinnamon seem pretty much essential, and ginger is very much a “nice to have” (I’ve made it without ginger; it’s good, but with ginger it’s better). A teaspoon of sambal olek provides a little more heat, and a heroic amount of garlic tops the whole thing off. But I digress: put everything in a pot, boil then leave to simmer for an hour. One of the very useful things about this soup is that the broth will be strained to remove the vegetables and spices, so there is no need to waste time trimming things so that they look pretty on the table, unless that is your bag. But when you do come to strain the broth, keep the garlic cloves: they are transformed into soft lumps of sheer deliciousness, which are absolutely sublime added to mash or spread onto slices of very crisp bread.
Part the Second: adding “stuff” to the broth. I just go with whatever is to hand. Some sort of noodle is clearly essential, and while rice noodles are traditional, soba noodles really do work a treat here and I much prefer them. Visually not as much of an impact as white rice noodles, but the taste and texture really is great. I also like to add tofu, which I bake, then add to the broth to boil for 10 minutes before serving. This means that it has the chance to soften in the broth and the flavours mix. Then…top it all off with vegetables of your choice. Quick-cooking items such as mushrooms can be sliced and left raw, beansprouts can be thrown in as they are, while string beans or asparagus can be quickly boiled before serving.
Then, assemble it all! Put noodles and vegetables into your serving dishes, then ladle over the broth. Top with spring onions and a sprig of basil, and you’re done! Nothing more to do than get chopsticks and say: Chúc ngon miệng! (*)
For the stock:
• 10 cups water
• 1 large onion, peeled and quartered
• 2 stock cubes
• 2 sticks cinnamon
• 2 star anise
• 1 clove
• 1 cardamom pod
• 3 tablespoons low-salt soy sauce
• 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
• 1/2 stick lemongrass
• 1 teaspoon brown sugar
• 6-8 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
• 1 inch piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
• 1/2 teaspoon sambal olek / chilli paste
To put in the soup:
• marinated tofu chunks
• 75g rice noodles / soba noodles per person, cooked, drained and rinsed
• 2 handfuls bean sprouts
• 2 handfuls mushrooms, sliced
• other vegetables (string beans, shredded lettuce, shredded spinach, shredded carrot), briefly boiled if necessary
• Thai or regular basil, mint leaves and/or lime wedges to garnish
To make the broth: Place all the stock ingredients in a large pan. Bring to the boil, cover, and simmer for at least an hour (can easily be made the night before and allowed to sit so the flavours are able to infuse the broth with their aromas and flavours). Once ready, strain to remove the solids and the broth is ready. You may have to add more water at the end, according to taste.
To prepare the soup: measure the “soup stuff” into bowl, and add enough piping hot broth to cover. Top with sprigs of Thai basil, mint and/or a wedge of lime.
Worth making? I was a little daunted by this at first, given that there are a lot of ingredients, but it was actually very simply to make. The only thing you need is time to allow the broth to simmer, so you get the maximum amount of flavour out of the spices – and I am afraid there is no shortcut for that. I would recommend trying to be light handed with the stock and soy sauce – you can always add more later, and we want the flavours of the anise, ginger, garlic et al to shine in this soup.
(*) Google tells me that this means bon appetit in Vietnamese! – I hope it does!