vegetable pho

i was not always a fan of soup.

in fact, i found it very difficult to eat, as it made me uncomfortably warm, spoons are always a dribbly mess and it never proved to be very filling. however, one day, a few months ago, i came across a mini-documentary about the diet of a sumo wrestler. sumo wrestlers, it turns out, traditionally eat only soup and rice when they are training, both for restorative and a weight-gaining purposes. as with soup, i am neither a fan of many sporting events (extreme lifestyles, however, are perennially fascinating), but something about watching an enormous man sit down with a bowl of brothy soup, enveloped in billowing steam, made me immediately seek out the ingredients to make my own chankonabe. and it was delicious: bok choy, tofu, carrots, wakame, and other vegetables floating in a crystal-clear, gingery broth. the steam was cleansing, i used chopsticks and slurped straight from the bowl, and it was indeed an enriching bowl. and i found myself hooked on soup.

which is fine for me, as brothy, often japanese or vietnamese inspired soups are rather in vogue currently, and there are plenty of people who have done the legwork establishing a basic, yet traditional, formula for recreating the dish in one’s own home. so, thanks (as is so often the case) to mr. lópez-alt, i was able to make my first pho.

obviously, i did not make the broth for the pho from beef bones. rather, i had been collecting vegetable scraps and peelings in a gallon ziplock bag that i kept in the freezer. once it was completely stuffed, i rinsed the vegetable bits, put them in the pot with about a gallon and a quart of water and set it to boil. it helped, in this instance, as i was making a dark broth, that i had bits of leeks and shiitake mushroom stems to add. i think this approach is a wonderful way to make unique broths, but if you would rather have a more intentional broth, or even use a store-bought (low-sodium, please) broth, please do, as the pho-specific spices and charred vegetables provide quite a bit of flavor.

charming
charming

the philosophy of my toppings is similar: i had a bit of random vegetables and seitan that wound up working well as garnishes. yours might be the same, if you live in baltimore city and go to mill valley general store in remington on fridays to pick up a bag from Gather Baltimore‘s Blue Bag Program. this program gathers produce and other food items from restaurants, markets, and local growers that is unwanted for one reason or another and gathers it all in ikea bags, about 30-40 pounds each, which can be picked up from mill valley every friday for a $6 donation. it is a fantastic program, ensuring no good food goes to waste, and gives a lot of it away to shelters and other kitchens.

i have a feeling this soup-thing is going to be a theme in the deep of winter, so expect more brothiness from me in future posts.

vegetable pho
feeds 4-6, depending on broth-to-noodle ratio

– broth –
1 gallon ziplock bag full of various vegetable scraps
water to cover, about 1 1/4 gallon
– or –
1 1/4 gallon of your favorite stock
1 onion, quartered, with skin intact
1 6 inch piece ginger, unpeeled, halved lengthwise
1 stick cinnamon
3 whole star anis
4 cloves
1 tsp whole coriander seeds
1 tsp whole fennel seeds
1/2 c light soy sauce (not low sodium, you can find this at asian grocery stores)

– garnishes –
1 package rice noodles, about 1 lb prepared
1 lb prepared seitan
2 c snow peas
1/2 bunch cilantro, coarsely chopped
1.5 c sprouts (i had alfalfa)
1 jalapeño, thinly sliced
1 lime, wedged

– if making fresh broth, put vegetables (scraps) and spices into a stockpot and cover with an inch of water, about 1 1/4 gallon and bring to a boil.

– while the pot heats up, char the onion quarters and halved ginger on a screaming-hot cast iron skillet (my chosen method), close up under a broiler, over a gas burner or on the grill until blackened. do not use oil, as the purpose is not to sear, but to incinerate the outer layer and skin to a deep and even black. if you are afraid of smoke, open a nearby window, however, the smoke from charring ginger is exotically appetizing. when sufficiently black, add to the pot, charcoal and all.

– boil stock for about 1 hour over medium heat, strain, then return to pot. add soy sauce and return to boil.

– prepare noodles according to the package instructions, rinse and cool thoroughly, and prepare the other garnishes.

– to serve, put about 1/2 c noodles and seitan in a bowl and ladle over the boiling broth. garnish, and slurp. serve with sriracha and more soy sauce, if guests feel the need to doctor their own bowls.

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