Home Cooking the Hard Way: Phở Gà
I love to cook. I’m pretty good at it. I have my grandma — my father’s mother — to thank for this. When I was very young I lived with her for over a year, and still have crystalline memories of the sights, smells, and sounds of her kitchen. Grandma spent much of her day, every day, in her kitchen in a quiet neighborhood in North Hollywood, cooking breakfast and dinner for my banker grandad. At an early age I absorbed that commitment to domestic cookery is an ordinary adult pursuit.
Thinking of my grandma cooking reminds me of Michael Pollan’s advice from In Defense of Food: “don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” I never met any of my great-grandmothers. Pollan and I are about the same age, which makes me wonder if he ever knew his. I do know that two of my four great-grandmothers crossed the US in covered wagons on the Oregon Trail to settle in Corvallis. Another one raised 15 kids outside Ottawa. I wonder if what these tough pioneer women recognized as food is quite what Pollan had in mind when he coined his aphorism.
By contrast, my father’s mother’s mother was the wife of a plantation owner near Dallas. Perhaps she had the opportunity to eat the sort of things that Pollan suggests great-grandmothers would recognize as food, maybe the kind of food romanticized in Fannie’s Last Supper: Re-creating One Amazing Meal from Fannie Farmer’s 1896 Cookbook (which was produced as a documentary, available on Netflix, that I thoroughly enjoyed watching). Given her social status I think it unlikely that this great-grandmama of mine did any of the actual cooking.
Her daughter didn’t have others to cook for her, but she did have all the modern conveniences of her time: an electric refrigerator and a gas stove in her kitchen, daily deliveries of pasteurized milk, and a grocery store in walking distance where she could buy such things as inspected and certified cuts of meat (even during the Depression, when it was available), and canned fruits and vegetables when fresh was out of season.
What I learned from my grandmother was: what’s important is the act of cooking itself, more so than what one has to cook with.
My mother encouraged me to cook for myself when I (and my three siblings) hit puberty. Mom fixed breakfasts and sit-down dinners seven days a week, and if us ravenous teen monsters wanted more food than that by gosh we could cook it ourselves. Consequently all four of us ended up good in the kitchen. I especially enjoyed cooking, sought out jobs in restaurant kitchens, and worked my way up to line cook in what passed for fine dining establishments in Houston in the mid-70s.
I moved on to other career paths when I recognized the Kitchen Confidential lifestyle was likely to kill me. But the desire to cook has never left me. I’ve prepared something fresh in the kitchen nearly every day of my life. I’ve read and learned from Erma Rombauer, Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Elizabeth David, Escoffier, Brillat-Savarin, Rosso & Lukins, Alice Waters, Judy Rodgers, Thomas Keller, Marcella Hazan, Shirley Corriher, and a host of others — including a bunch of obscure French, Italian, Middle Eastern/North African, Japanese, Chinese, and Indian cookbooks. At one time or another I’ve subscribed to every fine cooking magazine published in my lifetime. I’ve been attentive to food trends and dietary ideologies as they have risen and fallen. I’ve traveled long distances with the sole purpose of visiting particular restaurants, and have at times spent exorbitant sums on meals worth experiencing and remembering.
Today I live in a small, largely agricultural town in the wine country north of San Francisco. For three decades I’ve made my living as a winemaker and grape grower. Any reader still with me is probably thinking “this dude’s a hipster foodie” and by some lights that’s exactly what I am. I shop and cook nearly every day. I’m blessed to live in a place where I can indulge in nearly every culinary whim. I generally agree with Pollan that “nutritionism” is a bad thing, and that some people worry way too much about their food.
Yet I don’t remotely support Pollan, or Bittman, or Colicchio, or any of the cadre of rather entitled celebrity food pundits in their hyperbolic opinions critical of a “broken food system” — a food system which in fact manages to deliver the most remarkable variety and quantity of relatively inexpensive, nutritious, and safe, sanitary food in all of human history. I deplore their condescending infantilization of farmers, especially commodity crop farmers, and their rhetorical nostalgia for a “more natural” way of farming that, in reality, people living in poverty are desperate to get away from, a farming fantasy that never will exist in the developed world beyond the ideological margins of a synthetic, nearly fictional “food movement.” I especially have no patience whatsoever for their frequent poorly-informed demonization of biotechnology as applied to agriculture.
I refuse to buy any foods marketed as “non-GMO verified” or “GMO-free” (especially when there isn’t a biotech-improved option available) because these labels provide zero value to me. I also won’t buy any packaged food marketed as USDA Organic. I will sometimes buy fresh organic when it’s the only thing available, local, and/or an heirloom or heritage variety that tastes better to me than a comparable modified-for-yield variety.
To further distance myself from the orthodoxy of the “food movement” and destroy my foodie cred (though maybe to reinforce the hipster label) I profess that I’m a big fan of Soylent — a highly-processed foodlike substance that my great-grandmothers would not recognize at all.
First of all, I like and respect the Soylent company’s story and mission. It appeals to my current sensibilities that the product is entirely plant- and algae-based, and that they make no bones about using biotech-derived ingredients. Founder/CEO Rob Rhinehart is engagingly thoughtful about the future of food and technology (I was especially intrigued by his post How I Gave Up Alternating Current).
Second, Soylent saves me time and money. Along with my morning cup of black coffee (from Thrive or Vega) I blend a serving of Soylent with 1/4 cup of frozen blueberries and a tablespoon of chia seeds. I get about a quarter to a third of my daily calorie needs from this meal, and it’s sufficiently filling that I usually skip lunch. Total cost of my entire breakfast is about $3.50, the time needed to prepare, consume, and clean up is about 15 minutes, and I’m supporting three companies whose ideals I share. I have subscriptions to Soylent, Thrive, and Vega so I don’t need to shop. I can use the time and money I save to do other things — like cook.
Anyway… This long preamble is intended to preface my thinking behind the sort of cooking I describe here:
The privilege of cooking with intention.
As a privilege it comes with responsibilities, especially the responsibility to respect the ingredients and the people who raise them and make them available. With that said let me tell you how I make phở the hard way at home, and maybe a little bit more of why.
This is not a simple or fast process, but it is a make-ahead thing that freezes really well. Regardless of the time demand, the results are totally worth the effort put into the production. My top priority is to develop such a richness of flavor that even in the simplest presentation makes for a deeply satisfying bite. Be ready to put a couple of days of slow, patient love into this preparation.
I rely on nine pieces of kitchen equipment to do this work. The first is a very sharp knife. I generally rely on an 8" chef knife (these MAC carbon-steel knives are awesome). I have the stones and steels to sharpen them, but I’m fortunate that my local grocery has a fully-staffed meat counter where the butchers will sharpen my knives while I wait, for a pittance. The second is a food processor (I’ve been using the same Cuisinart for over three decades). The third is a large pressure cooker. I use and like the 8-quart Fagor Duo pictured here. The fourth item is a large, heavy-bottomed stock pot. The fifth piece is the Sous Vide Supreme water bath cooker (pictured). I use this simple and effective unit constantly, for example to make two quarts of fresh yogurt a couple times a month. Lastly, I use a large mixing bowl, a roasting pan, a fine-mesh strainer, and a ladle. You can in fact make this dish without the pressure cooker or water bath cooker, but both make the end product faster to achieve.
I use chicken legs & thighs, because I could go the rest of my life without ever eating any more white-meat chicken. I wish someone would develop a breed of chicken that yields more, and more flavorful, thigh and leg. This recipe will make 8 very large servings. Here’s the ingredient list:
5 lb chicken legs/thighs, skin on & bone in
1/2 lb fresh bulk pork sausage or ground pork
2 large eggs, cracked
8 tablespoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon lime juice
1 teaspoon hot sesame oil
1 teaspoon hoisin sauce
1 cup of panko or stale bread crumbs
2 (+) teaspoons of sugar (doesn’t matter what kind)
2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder
1(+) teaspoon ground white pepper
2 whole scallions, roughly chopped
8–10 cloves of garlic, peeled
chunk of fresh ginger 2x thumb-size, peeled & roughly chopped
one medium carrot, peeled & roughly chopped
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1/4 cup chopped basil
3–4 piquillo peppers, drained & finely diced
3–4 quarts of canned chicken stock or broth
4–8 lb chicken bones, backs, necks
a large onion, chopped
a leek, halved & washed
a handful of peeled garlic cloves
a carrot, chopped, and carrot peelings
sprigs of fresh rosemary
several bay leaves
2 whole cloves
3 whole cardamom pods, crushed
1 whole star anise
1 inch of a cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon whole coriander seed
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 small dried hot red chile pepper
First of all, I’m not a food blogger, meaning I don’t take in-process photos — I just describe what I do.
So start off by rinsing and drying the chicken thighs or legs. Skin them and reserve the skin. Grease a shallow roasting pan, spread the skins in it, sprinkle salt on them, and then roast at 425°F until crisp and golden brown. Remove from oven and set aside to cool. Reserve all the rendered fat.
Meanwhile carve the meat off the bones, discard as much tendon as you can easily remove. Sprinkle the chunks of meat with salt and transfer to a gallon ZipLoc bag, spread the meat out and put the bag in the freezer. Partial freezing will make the meat easier to work with later. Reserve the bones.
While the meat is freezing put the thigh/leg bones in the pressure cooker with 4–6 cups of water (to cover) and cook for at least one hour at high pressure according to cooker instructions. Remove cooker from heat and allow pressure to reduce naturally. Remove broth from cooker, strain, skim and save any fat and combine with the fat from the skin.
Remove the frozen chicken from the ZipLoc and use a sharp knife to cut into medium dice. Working in batches, transfer the chicken to the food processor bowl fitted with a chopping blade and grind smooth. Add a little of the reserved chicken fat and broth as needed to each batch to help keep the grind uniform. Transfer the ground chicken to a large mixing bowl, along with the fresh pork sausage or ground pork (the pork adds extra fat and texture).
Whisk together the eggs, fish sauce, lime juice, sesame oil, and hoisin sauce. Transfer all the liquid to the mixing bowl with the meat.
Finely chop the reserved crisp chicken skin. Mix together with the panko or bread crumbs, sugar, baking powder, and white pepper. Transfer mixture of dry ingredients to the bowl.
Put the scallions, garlic, fresh ginger, carrot, basil and cilantro in the food processor and chop until fine. Transfer the vegetables to the mixing bowl, along with the diced piquillo peppers.
Use your hands to thoroughly mix the meatball components into a workable paste. Add more panko or bread crumbs if the mixture is too wet, or more stock if too dry.
Bring 10–12 cups of water to a rolling boil in a large stockpot. I use a 1/8th-cup measure to portion out the meat mix, then roll into meatballs, and drop into the boiling water about 20 at a time. The meatballs will sink at first and then float when they start to cook. Don’t worry if the meatballs aren’t all uniformly cooked through — the purpose here is just to solidify the outsides to help them keep their shape during the sous vide step. Skim the floating meatballs and set them aside to dry and cool. Repeat until all the meat is used up. You should end up with 60–70 meatballs. Reserve the cooking liquid.
Meanwhile fill the sous vide bath with water and set the cooking temperature to 155°F. Sprinkle the pre-finished meatballs with salt, portion them into large sous vide bags, and vacuum-seal them according to instructions. Be sure to use the large bags, otherwise liquid vacuumed from the meatballs will spoil the seal. Transfer the bags to the water bath and cook for at least two hours once the temperature returns to the 155°F setpoint — the longer cook time breaks down the collagen in the chicken. Once the meatballs are cooked, you can store the sealed bags in the refrigerator or freezer for months.
While the meatballs are cooking, chop the chicken backs and necks and arrange in a shallow layer in a large roasting pan with the onion, scallion, leek, garlic, carrot, and rosemary. Roast at 425°F for an hour, until golden. Transfer the solids to the pressure cooker. Deglaze the roasting pan with the reserved bone broth, meatball cooking broth, and the canned chicken stock. It’s generally recommended that you never fill the pressure cooker more than 2/3-full, so work in batches if necessary. Transfer the liquid to the pressure cooker to cover the solids, and bring to pressure for at least an hour. Release pressure naturally, and strain the stock from the solids. You can be simmering a batch while pressure cooking the next.
Eventually combine all the batches of stock in a large pot and continue to simmer, uncovered, to reduce to 6–8 quarts. Use a ladle to de-fat the stock thoroughly as the broth reduces. The goal here isn’t to yield a “low-fat” broth (save the delicious schmaltz for other uses) but to decrease the amount of fat that would otherwise soak up much of the aromatics that flavor the final broth.
When you have reduced and de-fatted the broth, throw in the aromatics: bay leaf, cardamom, clove, star anise, cinnamon, coriander seed, peppercorns, and dried red chile. Let simmer, covered, for at least an hour. Strain to remove solids. For an extra bit of flavor stir in a couple of packets of phở concentrate — totally optional but I like how it deepens the character of the resulting broth. At this point you can eat, or you can portion and refrigerate (or freeze) the broth. If you want to enjoy this phở to the fullest, wait a day before you prep a meal to allow your senses to recover from being saturated with cooking smells and flavors.
When you’re ready to eat, boil water and cook some rice noodles until they’re soft. Drain the noodles and portion into serving bowls. Meanwhile reheat a bag of meatballs in a hot water bath or microwave When the noodles are done, portion the meatballs on top of them in the serving bowls. Top with desired garnishes (more about this below) and then ladle in hot broth to cover. Serve with sriracha, fish sauce, and/or hoisin sauce.
Garnishes. Honestly, the complexity and intensity of flavor of the broth and meatballs is so good that a bit of chopped cilantro and/or basil is enough to finish this dish. But if you are super hungry, or just want to increase the ratio of plant to meat, top with bean sprouts, thin-sliced or matchstick radishes, scallions, jalapeños, piquillos, carrots, and chiffonade of basil, and/or cilantro. For extra decadence, slip a poached egg yolk into each bowl.
I’ve used this same preparation to make Phở Bò Viên (phở with beef meatballs). I cut the meat off of less expensive and more flavorful cuts of beef like short ribs and oxtails for the base of the meatballs. There’s no need to freeze the meat to make it easier to dice before processing. I roast the bones along with marrow bones (omitting the vegetables I roasted with the chicken bones) for the stock. I start roasting the marrow bones first, so I can collect the rendered fat in order to incorporate some into the meatballs. I save the rest of the delicious, fragrant tallow for other uses.
That’s it. It humbles me to intentionally put this much work into food. I realize that I have the privilege to do this by choice, and recognize that there are billions living on this Earth with me who have no choice but to devote this kind of time and energy to feeding themselves and their families every day — people who have the right to aspire to the privilege I enjoy. That’s going to be hard on the environment. I can’t fix this alone. But I can do some things, like eating more plant-based foods and committing to the principles behind cooking like this:
Eat with intention, don’t snack. Enjoy what you make and eat, don’t overthink your food. Cook one real meal a day. Eat more soup. Eat lower on the animal. Eat lower on the food chain. Don’t waste anything.