Faux pho

Faux pho (which I guess is pronounced “foh – fuh”) is a lot easier to make than true phở. True phở has a bunch of exotic ingredients which, in this house anyway, make it a tall order – especially on a day like crazy Thursday. Saigon cinnamon, star anise, roasted ginger, black cardamom, coriander seed, fennel seed and clove.  Out of those I know I have the coriander, the fennel and the clove. And the star anise. Most people don’t have star anise and I have to admit, mine has been sitting around for awhile. Also the broth has beef bones and chicken parts and a lot of other things that make true phở not for the faint of heart and really not for last minute, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants types. A bummer if you ever crave phở in the middle of the week and it’s not practical to go out.

Faux pho is a different story. I made faux pho last Thursday and although it was a little insane to make it for the first time mid-week, I know that I’ll make it again and that next time it will be MUCH easier.

You might look at the picture and the list of ingredients for this soup and then see that I categorized it as Fast and Easy and come to the conclusion that I’ve either lost my mind or that my chopping hand is bionic (it’s not). I’m not crazy either. The prep for this soup isn’t bad at all. Do all of the knife work up front. If you chop everything before you start a recipe, the process goes a lot faster and there’s a lot less fumbling around as you cook. Also here is a Rule of Thumb (I can’t emphasize this enough):

The first time you make any recipe with a long-ish list of unfamiliar ingredients, don’t make it mid-week. Make it on Sunday afternoon so you can read the directions carefully and leisurely play around with it.

With this recipe it’s especially important because it’s not that hard or time consuming. Trying a recipe with more prep than you are used to mid-week might be so stressful that you’ll never try to make that really great recipe again. In this one there are no difficult techniques. There is some chopping, not too much.  Just the shallots, ginger, the green onion and the chili.  Think about it. How long could it possibly take to chop the ingredients in those small quantities?!

If you’ve never prepared lemongrass before, you’ll want to read the directions about trimming and removing the outer layer a couple of times before you start (since the line of directions has only 17 words – it won’t take that long). And you’ll see very quickly that lemongrass is not a big deal, no more difficult than prepping a scallion.

A couple more things: First, I rewrote the recipe and tried to break it down into essential parts.  It looks longer this way but the scope of work should be crystal clear. Also I adjusted the role of the chilies. In the original recipe they are added with the basil, the lime juice and the soy sauce. Since I had green thai chilies they were nearly indistinguishable from the scallions. It was as if those innocuous little green rings were crazy spicy naval mines in the soup – ambushing unsuspecting children and less seasoned adults. Those bird’s eye chilies are hot! So I specify using the red variety (so you don’t confuse them with the scallions) and using them as a garnish.

Chicken Noodle Soup with Lemongrass

Serves 4

The Soup:

  • 2 1/2 tbsp canola oil
  • 3/4 lb boneless skinless chicken breast
  • kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 3 shallots (4 oz total), peeled and sliced into thin rings
  • 2 stalks lemongrass, ends trimmed, outer layers peeled off and discarded, halved lengthwise, whacked once hard with a mallet
  • 1 tbsp minced ginger
  • 2 tsp packed light brown sugar
  • 5 1/2 cups low-salt chicken broth
  • 3 1/2 oz shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and sliced
  • 12 ounces fresh udon noodles
  • 8 large fresh basil leaves, torn
  • 1 medium lime, half juiced and half cut into 4 wedges
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce

To Garnish:

  • 2 medium scallions, trimmed and sliced
  • 1 medium carrot, cut into matchsticks (or coarsely grated)
  • 1/2 c. fresh cilantro leaves, rinsed and dried
  • 1 red thai bird chili, sliced into thin rings

Preparing the chicken:

  1. Heat 1 1/2 tbsp canola oil in a 6 quart heavy bottomed soup pot until shimmering.
  2. As oil is heating, season chicken breasts with 1/2 tsp kosher salt and 1/2 tsp black pepper.
  3. Cook chicken breasts without disturbing for 2 minutes, or until the chicken easily releases from the pan. Flip and cook until the second side is browned, 1-2 minutes more.
  4. Place chicken on a cutting board to cool.

Bring a pot of salted water to the boil for the udon as you are preparing the broth.

Making the broth:

  1. Add the remaining 1 tbsp canola oil and shallots to the pan.  Sprinkle with 1/4 tsp salt. Reduce heat to medium and cook for 2 minutes or until shallots begin to soften.
  2. Add lemongrass, ginger and brown sugar, cook until ginger and lemongrass become fragrant and the pan starts to sizzle – about 1 minute.
  3. Add the chicken broth, stirring and scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pot.  Raise the heat to medium high.  Bring the broth to a boil, then lower heat and simmer.
  4. Add the mushrooms and continue to simmer for 5 minutes.

Preparing the udon:

  1. In the pot of boiling salted water, cook the noodles, stirring once or twice to ensure they aren’t sticking together.
  2. Simmer for 3 minutes or until just tender.
  3. Drain and run under cold water to stop the cooking.  Drain well.

Assembling the soup:

  1. Shred the chicken with your fingers or the tines of a fork and add it and the noodles to the broth.
  2. Simmer until the chicken is fully cooked and the noodles are tender, about 2 minutes.
  3. Remove and discard the lemongrass.
  4. Add the basil, lime juice and soy sauce, seasoning with more soy to taste.
  5. Divide the noodles and chicken between 4 large bowls, ladle the broth over the top.
  6. Serve with bowls of the garnishes at the table.

*What makes this pho really faux is that the recipe developers at Fine Cooking decided to make it with udon, not rice noodles. Initially I was suspicious. Why substitute udon for rice? They are equally easy to find and prepare. After trying the soup with udon though, it tasted more substantial than with rice noodles.  I might not use the japanese noodles every time, but it was fun to eat the bouncy chewy udon here.

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