Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Pho Cookbook: Chicken Pho


I've been a fan of Andrea Nguyen's cookbooks for years! Her Asian Dumplings cookbook is one of my favorite cookbooks of all time, and helped inspire my love of dumpling-making. I also love The Banh Mi Handbook, a wonderful look into these beloved Vietnamese sandwiches.

Her most recent release is entitled The Pho Cookbook, featuring another classic Vietnamese dish. Amidst the current craze for Asian noodle soups from all over the region, from Japanese ramen to Vietnamese pho, there's really not better time than the middle of a dreary, frigid winter to whip up some warm noodle-laden comfort in a bowl.

Like all of her books, The Pho Cookbook begins with an in depth introduction discussing everything from the correct pronunciation of "pho" to a detailed review of all the key ingredients, techniques, and tools. This is vital for the pho-making novice, and really helps to explain some key terms and processes.

A chapter on Master Pho ranges from Simple and Satisfying (you'll find 3 quick pho recipes, each serving 2 and taking 40 minutes to prepare), to Fast and Fabulous (these recipes utilize a pressure cooker, taking about 1 1/2 hours, and yield 4 servings), several Meatless Knockouts and of course Old-School Stunners (these are the classics, which require 4 to 5 hours to prepare, and serve 8).

Adventurous Pho is the next chapter, and includes playful twists on the classic, including a Chicken Pho Noodle Salad, Pho Fried Rice, and beyond. Pho Add-Ons offer up recipes for garnishes and more, while Stir-fried, Panfried, and Deep-Fried Pho takes these noodles to a whole other dimension. Finally, Pho Sidekicks include snacks and beverages that pair well with pho, or may even take the flavors of pho in another direction, like the Pho Pot Stickers.

For my first attempt at pho, it seemed only right to make one of the actual pho soup recipes, as opposed to one of the many creative variations. My family tends to lean more toward chicken soups versus beef, so it was easy to narrow down the options to Quick Chicken Pho, Pressure Cooker Chicken Pho, Classic Chicken Pho, and even the Rotisserie Chicken Pho (using leftover rotisserie chicken).

The quick version seemed a bit too quick and easy, and while the classic version is ultimately the best, it does require a bit more time, a few more ingredients, and yields twice as much pho as the pressure cooker version.

Now here's the thing, I don't own a pressure cooker! But luckily, the notes at the and of the pressure cooker recipe explains how to make this in-between-style pho recipe using a stockpot. Yeah, it probably would have been a better use of my time and effort to go full steam ahead with the classic recipe, but as a beginner, this one seemed a bit more approachable, and quite frankly, cooked up in a couple of hours, which isn't too shabby.

I think of this recipe as the Goldilocks of the various pho options in the book. It falls in the middle of effort and time, but it really was just right as far as I'm concerned. You develop a lot of flavor in the broth, and the aroma permeating your kitchen and home throughout the process is just sublime. With mountains of snow outside our windows, there really is no better time to indulge in this comforting and satisfying dish.

I would definitely make this particular recipe again in the future (although I may consider asking a friend to borrow their pressure cooker), and I would happily try many of the others within the book. Perhaps in the future, I will try one of the beef variations, which are probably more classic in Vietnam than chicken. As a dumpling lover, I'm fascinated by the Pho Pot Stickers, and also look forward to trying some of the stir-fried and panfried noodles.

If you love pho, then this book is for you. As I've said before, the recipes range in skill level and time, and I think this is what I love most about the book. You can really inch your way toward becoming a master pho-maker by testing out your skills with some of the easier recipes first (or simply if you are short on time).

*Update 1/27/18* I have since made this chicken pho again using an Instant Pot since it has a pressure cooker feature, and it was phenomenal and soooo much faster than the traditional method I used the first time. Here is a link to the Instant Pot adaptation (almost identical to the recipe below for the pressure cooker, with some Instant Pot specific notes).

Pressure Cooker Chicken Pho (phở gà nấu nồi áp xuất)
Serves 4
Takes about 1 hour, plus 30 minutes to cool
(From The Pho Cookbook)

1 (4 lb | 1.8 kg) whole chicken
1 rounded tablespoon (.2 oz | 5 g) coriander seeds
3 whole cloves
Chubby 2-inch (5 cm) section ginger, peeled, thickly sliced, and bruised
1 large (10 oz | 300 g) yellow onion halved and thickly sliced
8 cups (2 l) water
1 small (4 oz | 115 g) Fuji apple, peeled, cored, and cut into thumbnail-size chunks
3/4 cup (.7 oz | 20 g) coarsely chopped cilantro sprigs
2 1/4 teaspoons fine sea salt
About 1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
About 1 teaspoon organic sugar, or 2 teaspoons maple syrup (optional)

10 ounces (300 g) dried narrow flat rice noodles
About half the cooked chicken from the broth
1/2 small (2 oz | 60 g) yellow or red onion, thinly sliced against the grain and soaked in water for 10 minutes
2 thinly sliced green onions, green parts only
1/4 cup (.2 oz | 5 g ) chopped fresh cilantro, leafy tops only
Pepper (optional)
Optional extras: Lime wedges, bean sprouts, thinly sliced chiles, Thai basil

Make the broth Rinse the chicken and set aside to drain. Put the coriander seeds and cloves in a 6- to 8-quart (6 to 8 l) pressure cooker. Over medium heat, toast for several minutes, shaking or stirring, until fragrant. Add the ginger and onion. Stir until aromatic, 45 to 60 seconds, to coax out a bit of flavor. A little browning is okay.

Add 4 cups (1 l) of the water to arrest the cooking process. Put the chicken in the cooker, breast side up. Add the apple, cilantro, salt, and remaining 4 cups (1 l) water. Lock the lid in place.

Bring to low pressure (8 psi) over high heat on a gas or induction stove, or medium heat on an electric stove. Lower the heat to maintain pressure, signaled by a gentle, steady flow of steam coming out of the cooker’s valve. Cook for 15 minutes, or a few minutes longer if your cooker’s low setting is less than 8 psi. If your cooker only has a high pressure (15 psi) setting, cook for 12 minutes. Regardless, aim to gently poach the bird to yield silky cooked flesh.

When done, slide to a cool burner and let the pressure decrease naturally, about 20 minutes. Remove the lid, tilting it away from you to avoid the hot steam.

Let settle for 5 minutes before using tongs to transfer the chicken to a bowl; if parts fall off in transit, don’t worry. Add water to cover the chicken and soak for 10 minutes to cool and prevent drying. Pour off the water, partially cover, and set the chicken aside to cool.

Skim some fat from the broth before straining it through a muslin-lined mesh strainer positioned over a medium pot. Discard the solids. You should have about 8 cups (2 l).

If using right away, season the broth with the fish sauce, extra salt, and perhaps the sugar (or maple syrup) (you'll want to season a bit generously since this is the only seasoning that the noodles will get). Or, partially cover the unseasoned broth and let cool, then refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 3 months; reheat and season before using.

Use a knife to remove the breast halves and legs from the chicken. Set aside half of the chicken for another use. Reserve the remaining chicken for pho bowl assembly. The chicken can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 3 months; bring to room temperature to use.

Prep and assemble the bowls: While the broth cooks, or about 30 minutes before serving, ready the ingredients for the bowls. Soak the noodles in hot tap water until pliable and opaque. Drain, rinse, and drain well. Divide among 4 soup bowls.

Cut or tear the chicken breast and leg into pieces about 1/4 inch (6 mm) thick. Discard the skin. Place the onion, green onion, and cilantro in separate bowls and line them up with the noodles, chicken, and pepper for a pho assembly line.

Bring the broth to a simmer over medium heat as you are assembling the bowls. At the same time, fill a pot with water and bring to a rolling boil for the noodles.

For each bowl, use a noodle strainer or mesh sieve to dunk a portion of the noodles in the boiling water. When the noodles are soft, 5 to 60 seconds, pull the strainer from the water, shaking it to drain excess water back into the pot. Empty the noodles into a bowl. Top with chicken, then garnish with onion, green onion, cilantro and pepper.

Check the broth flavor once more, raise the heat, and bring it to a boil. Ladle about 2 cups (480 ml) broth into each bowl. Enjoy immediately with any extras, if you like.

Notes: To make this recipe in a 6- to 8-quart (6 to 8 l) stockpot, toast the coriander seeds and cloves over medium heat, then lightly cook the onion and ginger in the pot. Add 10 cups (2.5 l) water along with the chicken, apples, cilantro, and salt. Partially cover, then bring to a boil over high heat. Uncover, skim the scum, then lower the heat to gently simmer the broth, uncovered, for 2 hours. At the 45-minute mark, if you fear the chicken is not cooking through, use tongs to rotate it. The chicken should be cooked after simmering for 1 to 1 1/4 hours. Transfer it to a large bowl, leaving any parts that fall off in the pot to add flavor. Flush it with cold water, drain well, then set aside for 15 to 20 minutes to cool. When the broth is done, let rest for 15 minutes, then defat, strain, and season. The rest of the recipe is the same.

*Disclaimer* I received no compensation to write this review other than a free copy of the book. My opinions are always my own.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Mushroom Tacos and Avocado-Tomatillo Salsa


Mexican food ranks high on my list of favorite international cuisines, whether it's traditional or more Tex-Mex in style. Tomorrow is also Taco Tuesday, so there's no better time to plan on making and eating some tacos! I recently featured a taco bar and fresh pineapple margaritas on my Super Bowl menu. I had initially planned on making my own corn tortillas, as I have in the past, but took a short cut since I was already making several fillings and salsas.

I wanted to create a nice variety of fillings so I selected one vegetable, one seafood, and one meat filling. All of them were quick-cooking, so our meal came together in a pinch when it was time to eat.

Years ago when I sampled a variety of traditional tacos at Loteria in Los Angeles, I was surprised to find that my favorite fillings were actually the vegetable-based ones. I decided to make mushroom tacos for this occasion, since not only do I love mushrooms, but their umami quality is perfect for taking the place of meat in a taco filling.

The mushroom tacos were probably the most popular on the Super Bowl menu, and I can't say I'm surprised. They are easy to make, full of flavor, and complimented well by nearly any type of salsa and toppings.

I also made some garlicky shrimp tacos, which also cooked up very quickly. They were delicious, but not my favorites on the menu. The other two fillings were simply superior.

Our final taco filling came in the form of carne asada, or grilled marinated steak. Traditionally the cut of beef is skirt or flank steak, and the marinade in this case was incredibly fragrant and delicious, a combination of cilantro, onion, jalapeño, garlic, lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, Dijon mustard, and seasonings.

Marinating the carne asada

Cooked medium-rare and cubed up into small pieces, this was another very popular taco filling at our meal.

I decided to make a couple different salsas to accompany our three taco fillings.

The first is non-traditional, and features roasted red bell pepper, blackened tomato, and a charred habanero chile, cooked together with onions, garlic, allspice, and heavy cream, and then pureed into a smooth, velvety, bright-orange concoction.

This salsa has a bit of heat, but the bell pepper and cream help balance it out quite well. The color of this salsa is incredible, and really helps the less colorful taco fillings pop.

Of the two salsas, perhaps my overall favorite would have to be the avocado-tomatillo salsa. It's a play on a traditional salsa verde, and is meant to be somewhat chunky and quite spicy. I pureed the boiled tomatillos and jalapeños until smooth, but stirred in hand-chopped onion, cilantro, and avocado, so it still had a relatively chunky texture.

This salsa definitely has a kick, so if you're sensitive to spice you may want to scale back the number of chiles.

I also offered up some cool sour cream, diced fresh tomato, and thinly sliced crisp romaine lettuce to finish out our taco bar. There's so much more you can do, but this is a great start!

If you're interested in making your own taco bar, you really don't need any occasion other than hunger and a love of Mexican food to validate this culinary adventure. Just pick two or more filling options, offer up some corn or small flour tortillas or even crispy taco shells if that's what you prefer.

You can certainly use jarred salsa and store-bought guacamole if you are taking short-cuts, but I really recommend trying to make some homemade salsa instead. They are quite easy and there are SO many wonderful recipes to choose from, such as these for salsa quemada (roasted tomato and tomatillo salsa), restaurant-style salsa and guacamole, and roasted corn and black bean salsa.

Mushroom Tacos (Tacos de Hongos)
(Adapted from Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales)
Makes 10 tacos

2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil (or more as needed)
Generous 1 cup diced white onions
3 fresh serrano or jalapeño chiles, finely chopped (including seeds) (I used 2 1/2 jalapeños and omitted the seeds to scale down the spiciness a bit)
3 medium garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 1/4 pounds fresh mushrooms, stems trimmed, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh epazote leaves, or 1/4 cup chopped cilantro

Heat the oil in a large heavy pan over high heat. When it shimmers, add the onions, chiles, and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are translucent, about 2 minutes.

Add the mushrooms, toss very well to coat in the oil, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are cooked through and lightly browned, 12 to 15 minutes. Add the salt and cook for 2 minutes more, then stir in the butter and epazote until the butter has melted. Season to taste with salt. Serve alongside 10 warm corn tortillas and top with crumbled queso fresco and sliced pickled jalapeño chiles, Avocado-Tomatillo Salsa (recipe follows) or other salsa of your choice.

Avocado-Tomatillo Salsa (Salsa de Aguacate y Tomatillo)
(From Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales)
Makes about 2 cups

1/2 pound tomatillos (5 or 6), husked and rinsed
3 fresh serrano or jalapeño chiles, stemmed (this salsa is quite hot--if you want it a bit milder, reduce the number of chiles)
1 small garlic clove, peeled
1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 cup finely chopped white onion
1 small, ripe Mexican Hass avocado, pitted, peeled, and chopped into 1-inch chunks
1/2 cup chopped cilantro

Combine the tomatillos and chiles in a small pot and add enough water to cover (they’ll float; that’s fine). Bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatillos are a khaki color and soft to the core, about 5 minutes.

Gently drain and discard the water. Combine the tomatillos, chiles, garlic and salt in a blender and pulse until you have a coarse puree (I pureed mine until smooth instead). Pour the mixture into a serving bowl, let cool slightly, then stir in the onion, avocado, and cilantro. Season to taste with salt.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Fresh Pineapple Margaritas


Anyone who isn't living under a rock should know that the Super Bowl was this past weekend, whether you're a football fan or not. It's a hugely popular event for getting together with friends, imbibing on delicious drinks, snacking on excellent foods, and watching football/commercials/the half time show--whatever floats your boat.

I love all of the above. I don't really need an excuse to have a yummy meal while watching football, but it certainly doesn't hurt when it's your home team playing, and somehow, against all odds, they manage to win in the most unprecedented way, achieving the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. 

Kind of a big deal, people. You can love or hate the Patriots all you want, but you gotta admit, they put on quite a show on Sunday, and it is likely one of the best Super Bowl performances in history. My heart was pretty much beating right out of my chest throughout the fourth quarter (and overtime), and I still need to pinch myself sometimes to confirm that it really turned out the way it did. It was pretty scary towards the beginning, but man oh man, we pulled off quite the victory!

I'd like to point out the lovely sugar cane swizzle sticks from Hawaii. They were perfect for these cocktails. Thanks, twin!

But this is a food blog, so let's get back to the Super Bowl menu. I decided to do a taco bar for our small and intimate Patriots-loving group. I created three different taco fillings as well as a couple homemade salsas, which I plan on discussing in an upcoming post. Today I would like to start by sharing the official cocktail of the evening: fresh pineapple margaritas.

I knew that margaritas would be included in our festivities, but played around with a few different flavor options including hibiscus and tamarind, before decided to go with one of my tropical favorites: pineapple. 

I was a little torn between taking the easier route of using store-bought pineapple juice (both honorable and delicious) and using fresh pineapple instead. I opted to go for the fresh pineapple since it felt a bit more special, but you can use an equivalent amount of juice if you'd prefer. Using fresh pineapple results in a slightly pulpy texture, but it definitely hits home with its freshness, and is worth it in my opinion.

We absolutely loved these margaritas, and went back for seconds and thirds. I had actually whipped up a double batch, which pretty much reached the capacity of my blender (I'd recommend sticking with a single batch at a time, and just blend up more as needed), and we drank every last drop.

Whether you are noshing on homemade Mexican food, watching your favorite sporting event, or just kicking back and dreaming of warmer days, these fresh pineapple margaritas are the perfect escape. Stay tuned for more from my Super Bowl menu soon!

Fresh Pineapple Margaritas
Makes about 4 servings

1 pound (about 3 cups) fresh pineapple chunks*
1 cup fresh lime juice
1 cup tequila
1/2 cup triple sec, cointreau, or other orange liqueur
Kosher salt, for rimming glasses (optional)
Lime and/or pineapple wedges, for garnish (optional)

Place pineapple, lime juice, tequila, and triple sec in a blender and puree until smooth. Serve immediately in salt-rimmed glasses over ice, garnished with lime or pineapple wedges.

*Note* You can substitute 3 cups pineapple juice for the fresh pineapple, but it won't have the same freshness, and it won't have a pulpy texture (don't knock it till you've tried it). You also wouldn't actually need a blender in that case, and can simply stir the ingredients together in a pitcher.


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