Vitamin Water, aka Soup du Jour

In food on 01/09/2009 at 2:15 pm

Everyone on Serious Eats goes ga-ga over Banh Mi, the pickled pork-hammy Vietnamese sandwich, but no one seems to talk about the cornerstone of the cuisine, the soups. Our spot in Chinatown, A Chau Deli, is a tiny Ma and Pa shop with three Ikea Franklin high chairs for ‘seating’ while you wait for your take out order. The menu is individually ink-jet printed and taped on the wall behind the counter.

Most people order one of the 10 variations of banh mi, but I go for ‘D’ soup, a tomato-based concoction I’ve never seen on the menu at any other Vietnamese restaurant. It has an awesomely heady rich taste of seafood with these crab cakes we savor every morsel of; they resemble tiny gray Swiss cheese slices more than the round, battered and fried New England variety. It is the most satisfying broth I’ve ever tasted. Nowadays, they let me substitute the rice spaghetti instead of the usual vermicelli. I like my noodles round or wide. More QQ, of course.

I never used to like soups, but after living with people who did, I became adept at making them. Naturally, I’ve come up with a broth base that gives you the most bang for the buck. You can layer other flavors on top, or freeze for later. The easiest meal is to drop in fish balls, bok choy or other meats and veggies until just blanched, scoop out the goodies, then cook whatever pasta (Asian or European) you want in the broth to make it even richer, and voila! A complete meal, filling, but not heavy.


Butter and Olive Oil

Mirapois: Here, I find the traditional celery, carrots and onion don’t render as much punch as rutabaga, parsnips and star anise. The first two add a robust starchiness as if you were adding potatos, and the third adds a mysterious light spice. Since the whole idea is to make a flavored water, the more the merrier, but I discovered the secret ingredient for phở is star anise. If you’re a conoisseur, you know what I mean. Also, I am a fan of celery (who doesn’t love Dr. Brown’s Cel-ray?), but one stalk is mostly water; an über alternative is celery seeds.

Pork Neck Bones: Readily available and super affordable in the ghetto supermarkets, not so much on the Upper West Side. These give the most flavor because of the fat in the spinal cord; did you know all your nerves are sheathed in good ol’ fat? Our freezer is chock full of these babies ready to be souped up.

Bay Leaves

Chili flakes or powder, Garlic and Onion Powder

Salt and Pepper to taste

Render chopped mirapois in butter and oil about 10 minutes, until nicely browned and aromatic. Olive oil prevents the butter from burning with its higher heat threshold. A good sized whole one of each should make a nice big pot of soup. Don’t add star anise yet.

Add pork neck bones and fill up with enough water to cover bones. I usually use about 1 lb. You can also use oxtail. Chicken bones don’t render enough flavor for me, but if you insist on chicken, use 2lbs of bones, or a whole chicken. Here if you want a kicked up version, add white wine for a mellower sweetness, or red wine for a rich, tangy broth. Red wine-infused soup is tougher to layer with more flavors. 1 cup should be satisfactory.

Add star anise, garlic powder, celery seeds, chili flakes, bay leaves and any other aromatic you like. Southeast asian soups add lemongrass, galangal, clove, etc… but remember the soup will be an accumulated flavor, so anything too expensive is not worth popping in there.

Bring the soup to a boil, then simmer for 1 hr or more. Rapid boiling brings out all the solids in the marrow, which is like the oxtail soup you find at Korean restaurants; simmering gives a clear soup. I find soup tastes better the next day, after all the flavors chill out together for awhile, so you could make this the day before you want to use it. If you must eat now, pour a portion into a smaller pot and season to taste.

My favorite addition to give a meaty wrinkle to my soup is Taiwanese Bullhead Barbeque Sauce.


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