Maybe it’s because I’m half-Vietnamese and was raised eating them all the time, but I just love noodle soups. Of course pho (the national dish of Vietnam) is my favorite, but I also crave all sorts of ramen and Chinese mein and laksa and soba and udon. Nothing is more soothing and restorative than a hot, savory broth with slippery, tender noodles topped with bits of veggies and meats and seafood. I absolutely love the way you can personalize the dish to suit your tastes in the moment, by choosing your own toppings and herbs and by tweaking the dish with dashes of hot sauce or soy sauce or fish sauce or vinegar.
When the weather gets cold (and we’re ankle-deep in winter right now) all I want to eat is noodle soup. Not only do I like to eat the soup itself but I love making the broth in a drawn-out process, taking my time to develop flavor, and filling the house with warmth and a wonderfully enticing aroma. When you take the time to make a killer broth from scratch you build anticipation for the final dish; it makes eating the final product that much more fulfilling and enjoyable. So a few days ago I embarked on a broth-making enterprise with the idea of crafting a rich, clean broth full of the aromatics that signify Thai soups — lemongrass, kafir lime leaves, galangal, spice. I wanted something like a Tom Yum broth but more versatile, less spicy (in deference to other people’s palates since I have no problem handling the heat), and with a depth of flavor that you don’t often find in quickly-knocked-out Asian broths.
This is no shortcut recipe. It involves time and lots of ingredients, sometimes repetitively. But for me it made three excellent meals, three noodle soups over five days with slight variations in ingredients. I ended up having a quart of broth left over, which I popped in the freezer for another day. So if you’re feeling adventurous, make this broth and have some wonderful noodle soup with a Thai inflection!
You will need (in the order in which you’ll need it):
- 3 pounds of chicken backs and necks
- 10 scallions, white part only (green part used later)
- 1 stalk lemongrass
- 2 large cloves of garlic, smashed with the skin on
- 2 slices of fresh ginger, about three inches long
- 1 white onion, cut into two halves
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 5 quarts cold water, preferably filtered
- 1 cup Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce
- 1 handful black peppercorns
- 1 more tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 more stalk lemongrass
- 2 kaffir lime leaves
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 pound medium shrimp (shell-on)
- 1/2 pound baby bok choy, washed well
- 5 roma tomatoes
- 2 boneless & skinless chicken breasts
- 10-20 cilantro stems
- 2 thick slices of galangal
- 10 scallions, green part
- 2 tablespoons Thai red curry paste
- 1 slice fresh ginger, about three inches long
- 1 more kaffir lime leaf
- 1 teaspoon ground white pepper
- rice noodles — dried or fresh pad thai, pho, or mai fun
- sliced cooked chicken breast
- poached shrimp
- cooked baby bok choy
- peeled and seeded tomatoes
- oyster mushrooms
- fried cubes of tofu
- fresh baby spinach
- nappa cabbage
- sliced scallions
- cilantro leaves
- Thai basil leaves (the purple stemmed variety)
- mint leaves
- crushed peanuts
- toasted garlic cloves
- sriracha sauce or sambal oeleck
- soy sauce
- fish sauce
- white vinegar
- lime wedges to squeeze into the soup
Now do this:
Preheat your oven to 450° F. On a sheet pan put chicken backs and necks, scallion whites, one lemongrass stalk, garlic cloves, two ginger slices, and the white onion. Season with kosher salt and pepper and drizzle with vegetable oil.
Roast chicken parts until browned well, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and place all roasted ingredients into a big pot. Scrape any browned residue from the sheet pan and put into the pot as well. Cover with the cold water. Add fish sauce, peppercorns, additional salt, (un-roasted) lemongrass stalk, lime leaves, and sugar.
Over high heat bring the pot to a boil. When it boils reduce to low and simmer for two to three hours. If any scum floats to surface, skim it off.
Now, rinse the shrimp and put in the simmering pot of broth. Poach shrimp for about three to five minutes, depending on size. Remove shrimp with a slotted spoon or a skimmer and put into an ice water bath to stop the cooking process. Peel shrimp (reserving shells) and cut shrimp in half lengthwise. Remove any of the digestive “veins” from the shrimp and discard. Hold shrimp until later.
Blanch the baby bok choy in the simmering broth in the same manner. Also stop the cooking with a dip in the ice bath for a couple of minutes. Drain baby bok choy and hold until later.
Put the shrimp shells back into the simmering broth.
Prep tomatoes by cutting a shallow “X” in the bottom (not the stem-end) of each tomato. Drop into the simmering broth and blanch for thirty seconds, or until the skin around the “X” starts to curl. Remove tomatoes and put into an ice bath. Peel tomatoes and cut into quarters. Remove the seeds with your fingers and discard. Cut the peeled tomatoes into wedges or strips.
Poach the chicken breasts in the broth until cooked through and firm, about six minutes. Remove and cool to room temperature. Slice for the soup.
At this point re-skim the surface of the broth to remove any foamy scum. Also, if your broth seems oily gently scoop up as much of the floating fats as you can with a shallow ladle and discard.
To finish the broth add cilantro stems, galangal, scallion greens, Thai curry paste, remaining ginger, remaining lime leaf, and ground white pepper. Simmer for another twenty minutes. Into another large pot strain the broth through several layers of cheesecloth or a very fine-meshed strainer. Taste your broth and season with additional salt or sugar as your palate dictates. Your broth is now finished!
To finish your dish cook your noodles according to package directions, drain, and rinse very well under cold water. When you’re ready to eat, place a pile of noodles in a bowl, cover noodles with the toppings you desire, bring your broth to a vigorous boil, and pour steaming broth over the toppings and noodles. A note here: make sure your ingredients are at room temperature.
My first meal consisted of rice noodles with chicken breast, shrimp, fried tofu, baby bok choy, oyster mushrooms, tomato, cilantro, scallions, and Thai basil.
My second noodle soup had Dungeness crab, spinach, tomato, poached-and-peeled purple potatoes cut into wedges, sliced white onion, scallions, and cilantro.
My third and final noodle soup consisted of chicken breast, tomatoes, more crab meat, bean sprouts, cilantro, mint, spinach, and watercress.
All three versions were excellent! Flavorful, filling, and warming. And fun to make.