Saturday, 18 January 2014

Vietnamese Comfort Food -- Chicken Pho with Crispy Shallots and Garnishes

January 2014 

SmartCooks here.  

If it's January it must be ... 
polar vortex cold, freezing rain, rain, sitting at airports waiting for delayed or cancelled flights, thaw ... rinse and repeat. 

It's also Comfort Food R Me -- 
Chicken Pho with Crispy Shallots and garnishes.  

My version of it was inspired by a Christmas gift of Vietnamese Home Cooking by Chef Charles Phan and Smitten Kitchen's take on it. 

Perfect winter comfort food.

It's also winter reno time. The bathrooms -- 2 out of 3 of them -- are in major do-overs. The upstairs bathroom has been screaming at us for years with its moaning pipes or ones that freeze in the winter leading no water/no shower and a cold wind on the toes (and other body parts) due to lack of heat. 

The reno has brought unwelcome surprises.  Surprisingly, the old bathtub came out with no problems, exposing old floorboards and ... a live wire and rotten pipes.  A live wire (even capped off) is not what you want under your bathtub... ever.

Then, with the wall tile removed, there was a lovely view of the outside through the hole in the brick.  Explains the cold tootsies.  

To finish it off, the bathroom vent to the outside turned out to be the stove vent too.  Code (not).  

To do a proper bathroom vent means dropping the ceiling.  Kaching $  

Warming up the bathroom means installing heated flooring. Kaching $  

New pipes and floorboards Kaching $ $ $ 

Next up is the tiny bathroom on the main floor.  It's old and tired with a spongy floor that feels like the floorboards are rotting beneath it.  Turns out they are.
Kaching $  

Undoubtedly, there will be more surprises to come when that work starts in the next few weeks.  Old houses, lots of problems.  

New bungalow (not in the burbs) anyone? 

Kaching$ Kaching$ Kaching$ 

Himself is having to do full-time marshalling of the cat kids during the day, locking them up out of harm's way, moving around food and water bowls, much to their disgust.  In fact, someone (guilty party paws up!!!) actually peed in the new tub overnight.  And they say cats can't talk.  Sigh.... bleach r me.  New bungalow anyone? 

The poor weather curtailed travel to Charlottetown this month. Just as well because January is a frenzy of getting ready for the spring parliamentary slug-fest, taking part in a Deputy panel at the annual government Communicators' conference, the obligatory bureaucratic 'talent management session' where I'm given feedback on my faults and not-so-faults, and a Deputy retreat with the Clerk and all my colleagues at Fort Sussex to talk 'medium-term' planning agendas.  Who would ever have thought I would end up in rooms like that? Not me.  And have something to contribute?  Honestly, it's a bit bemusing. 

I'm off to Washington next week for two days of studying at the Canadian Embassy on  'How Washington Works'.  I think I'm one of the chosen 12 for a private tour of the White House.  Fingers crossed.  Shades of West Wing but it has always intrigued me.  

It's too early for cherry blossoms there and it's likely the Capitol is due for polar vortex round 2 ... darn.  Eternal winter be gone!   

With a weekend of gym and grunge ahead of me, I looked about for some appropriate comfort food.  I didn't look far -- Vietnamese Pho Noodle Soups.  Chicken Pho with Crispy Shallots and garnishes  Just the ticket.

A word about the noodles.  The recipes recommend using dried rice noodles, linguine shaped (called bánh phở), but pad thai or rice vermicelli noodles work just fine too.  

It requires some time to make your own chicken broth.  There's always the option of skipping this step and using whatever but, hey, it's the weekend so play around.  It's snowing again anyway.  

Chicken Pho with Crispy Shallots and Garnishes
(Serves 6)

Broth (optional):
2 unpeeled yellow onions, quartered
3 1/2 inch thick slices of unpeeled fresh ginger, smashed
4 quarts cold water
3 lbs chicken bones or chicken wings

Fresh 3.5 lb chicken, quartered
1 T kosher salt2 tsp sugar
Additional spices (optional)
Cinnamon, star anise, black cardamoms, coriander seeds, fennel seeds or cloves
1/4 cup Asian fish sauce

1 lb dried rice noodles, a linguine shape (bánh phở) if you can find them

Garnishes (any or all):  
2 large scallions, thinly sliced
1 lb mung bean sprouts
1/2 cup torn basil leaves, Thai basil if you can find it
1/2 cup cilantro leaves
2 limes, cut into wedges
2 jalapeños, thinly sliced into rings
Hoisin Sauce
Sriracha Sauce 
4 large shallots (for crispy shallots, about 2 cups) 
Canola Oil (for crispy shallots, 2 cups) 

Directions for the Broth: 
Step 1:  Heat oven to 400 degrees F. Put onions and ginger on a lightly oiled baking sheet and roast for 30 minutes, until softened and light brown. 
Step 2:  Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Add the roasted onions and ginger from step 1, then chicken bones/wings, quartered chicken, salt, sugar and any of the optional spices you wish and bring to a boil. Lower heat the medium and simmer until chicken is cooked, about 30 minutes.
Step 3:  Using tongs, transfer the quartered chicken to a plate and let it cool slightly. Remove the meat from the bones and refrigerate. Return the skin and bones to the stockpot and simmer for 2 hours longer. Strain the chicken broth into a large soup pot and cook over high heat until reduced to 12 cups, about 15 minutes. Stir in the fish sauce; adjust to taste.

Directions for Noodles:
Soak the noodles in a large bowl of warm water for about 20 minutes.  Alternatively, follow directions on package.  Transfer the noodles to large bowl and sprinkle with the scallions.  

To finish:
Add the chicken to the broth and simmer until heated.  Ladle the broth and chicken over the noodles.  Serve with any or all of the garnishes, especially crispy fried shallots (below): 

Directions for Crispy Fried Shallots:
In a small saucepan or large heavy skillet, heat the oil over medium-high until it registers 275°F.  Add the shallots and cook, stirring frequently, until light golden brown, about 4-8 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain.  You have the option of stopping here and adding to the pho.  


Follow the Vietnamese way and do the next step.  Increase the heat to high and place a fine-mesh sieve over a heatproof boil. When the oil registers 375°F on the deep-fry thermometer, return the fried shallots to the oil and cook just until they are crispy and well-browned, about 5 seconds, watching carefully so the shallots don’t burn.

Pour the oil and shallots through the sieve to stop the cooking and transfer shallots to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Sprinkle with salt to season and serve!

Sunday, 5 January 2014

The New Year Menu for 2014!

January 2014 

I didn't post in December.  Posting on things I like to do is my way of managing work and life stress but when the writing itself becomes the stressor, it's time to throw in the writing trowel. 

Small whine ... December has become a burden.  I become overwhelmed by 'stuff', whether it's decorating, planning for the holidays, cleaning or whatever. All I want to do is just throw everything away and reduce the days to simple, clean, monastic.  It's not helped by fact that December is always work-crazy as we rush to finish all the big projects that need to be considered for the following year's federal Budget.  

I'm hoping retirement in the future restores more equanimity to the holiday season.  I used to love it. 

So the boost to the season was some of the gifts I received from friends and family -- inspiring cookbooks with photos opening worlds yet to be explored, both literally and through home-based cooking.  Here's two of the half a dozen I received, with reviews of them in subsequent postings.

The first is Vietnamese Home Cooking, written by Charles Phan, who is executive chef at a celebrated group of restaurants that started with The Slanted Door, located in San Francisco.  Check out their cutting-edge website! 

For each item in the book and on the menu, Phan went to the original region, studied traditional ingredients, flavours and techniques, and recreated the recipe using contemporary methods and organic vegetables and meat.

The recipes, photos and the author's experience as a refugee are engrossing.  The restaurant is on the bucket list of places to visit.  Second best is to cook some of the recipes like Lemongrass Pork (or Chicken) cooked in coriander seeds, a brothy rich Coconut Curry with a mix of spices, Grilled Five-Spice Chicken with Tamarind, and Roasted Eggplant and Leek Salad.  There's also a myriad of fish and seafood recipes for those inclined that way.

The next one is written by an author/chef I've profiled in previous posts:  Ottam Ottolenghi, a UK chef and food columnist. The first time I profiled Ottolenghi's book called Jerusalem, as reviewed in this New York Times article.  It's become a well-thumbed book in my household too.  

This time, I pored over the Christmas gift of Plenty, where Ottolengthi takes vibrant vegetables and grains and puts together 120 vegetarian recipes which prove we can get the majority of our calories quite happily and wholesomely this way.

My frig now always has a small bottle of preserved lemons, freekeh grains are in the pantry and sumac is part of my herb supply. I've yet to find pomegranate molasses and my sleuthing in Middle Eastern shops goes on.  

I've marked to try Spiced Moroccan Carrot Salad, Cucumber Salad with smashed ginger and garlic, Ultimate Winter Couscous, and Marinated Mushrooms with Walnut and Tahini Yogurt.  

Next up to profile is The Best of the Best Cookbooks from Food and Wine, 

bad-boy Gordon Ramsay's Chef's Secrets, and 

my new PEI home-boy Michael Smith's Fast Flavours, 110 Simple, Speedy Recipes.  

It's all in aid of chasing away the 2014 winter blahs.  I've got 'em big time.  Hate this wintery year.  Attitude adjustment in store....