Andrea Nguyen cracks the code of pho for the home cook
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Every Saturday, when Andrea Nguyen was a little girl in Vietnam, her mother cooked up a pot of the flavorful noodle soup known as pho, charring onions and ginger, then simmering meat and spices for hours. “We all have those smells that remind us of who we are, and pho is that for me,” she says. These days, you can get pho in practically any town in the West, but a great home-cooked version is a world away. In Nguyen’s The Pho Cookbook (Ten Speed Press; $20), the James Beard Award–nominated author explores the history of Vietnam’s national soup and offers scrupulous recipes for beef, chicken, vegetarian, and vegan pho, along with regional twists and ways to use leftover broth and meat (pho fried rice!). For her Fast and Fabulous pho, she hit on a brilliant shortcut: Use a pressure cooker to get authentic flavor in about a third of the time. Home-cooked or not, says Nguyen, pho has the same irresistible appeal: “It’s brothy, spicy, restorative, gluten-free … It’s comfort food, yet it’s light. And it’s great for hangovers.” What better food for the cool season?
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You can use tools you already have, but these items are so useful they’re worth buying. Find the skimmer, ladle, and strainer at Asian markets, and the muslin at fabric stores.
A flat, fine-mesh skimmer easily and quickly whisks the scum from the top of the broth as it simmers.
A simple metal soup ladle with a thin rim scoops fat from the top of the broth to keep it light (though you’ll want to leave a little bit of fat for flavor).
For straining, lining a colander with unbleached muslin ensures a clear broth. The material is much sturdier and cheaper than cheesecloth, and can be washed and reused many times.
With its vertical handle, a noodle strainer holds noodles more efficiently than a regular strainer as you dunk them into boiling water. The bowl is just big enough to contain one serving.
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Pressure Cooker Chicken Pho
Pho master Andrea Nguyen loves her 6-qt. Fagor Duo pressure cooker ($67; amazon.com). “It’s not too expensive, and it’s easy to use—no jiggling valves or dials.” That said, you can also make this recipe in a stockpot; just allow more time. If you’re serving more than four people, recruit some helpers to put together the bowls, assembly-line style, so the soup doesn’t get cold.
You can go super-simple with this garnish plate and stick to just mint and slices of chile, or add more herbs if you like. If there’s a Vietnamese market near you, it’s worth heading there for spicy Thai mint (hung cay); culantro (ngo gai), an herb with a strong, slightly sweet cilantro flavor; and rice-paddy herb (ngo om), which tastes of citrus and cumin. Thai basil is available at farmers’ markets, Asian grocers, and well-stocked grocery stores.
This zippy sauce is intended for dipping pieces of chicken from the pho—a seasoning station between bowl and mouth. “You can drizzle the sauce into the soup if you like, but it will change the flavor of the broth,” says Nguyen.