Saturday, August 16, 2014

Chicken Pho

We've been cooking a few of our old laying chickens. You can follow this recipe for a store-bought chicken, too, but the timing will be different because older birds are much, much tougher and require more cooking time. When it comes to cooking the old birds, the strategy is to make the stock with all the chicken parts and bones (back, neck, etc) and cook it for a long time, then retrieve the good meat (discard the rest), shred it, and cook it for a long time more, a lot longer than you would for a store-bought chicken. This is usually pretty easy to adapt into chicken soup recipes; it just means leaving out the things that shouldn’t cook too long until the very end. Our chicken went straight from the freezer into the stock.
Enjoying a bowl of chicken pho with all the trimmings.
This is based on a recipe from Smitten Kitchen. The broth was delicately flavored and unique. In lieu of star anise, which the original recipe-writer says is fundamental to pho, I used fresh fennel, since it is currently growing (like a weed) in our garden.  I also left out the fish sauce, since we’re basically vegetarian except when eating our own chickens. I regretted not putting some chile in the broth to spice it up, although suggested toppings for pho typically include jalapeno peppers and hot sauce for the heat. Next time, I will add a few dried chiles to the broth anyway, even if it’s non-traditional.

I should also mention that we love to cook on our wood stove when heating the house in the winter. It requires patience and attention to feed the fire, but it’s rewarding to prepare meals this way. It takes a long time to cook a working hen, so you might as well settle in, build a fire, and imagine being an old-timey pioneer while you type away at your computer as the chicken stock cooks on the woodburning stove.
Cooking on the woodburning stove.
Pho recipe from Smitten Kitchen, adapted for cooking an old laying hen.

One chicken or rooster, minus the organs and feet, quartered or in pieces
2 large onions
1 piece ginger root, at least 1.5 inches long
4 qts water
1 Tbsp salt
2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon (see note above, I went conservative on the spices)
1 Tbsp coriander seeds and 1 Tbsp cardamom seeds (whole; use way, way less if going powdered)
4 Tbsp chopped fresh fennel leaves
3-4 small dried chiles, hot (e.g., chile piquin); optional
1 lb rice vermicelli noodles

Serve with: your favorite combination of pho toppings, including lime wedges, chopped cilantro, Thai basil leaves, mung bean sprouts, sliced jalapenos, pickled radish, fried shallots, Sriracha sauce, and/or hoisin sauce.

Preheat oven to 400 F. Quarter the onions with the skin still on. Place the onions skin-side down on a baking sheet along with the ginger root, cut into ½-inch segments. Roast for 30 minutes until onion tips are slightly charred.

Toss the onion, ginger, bulk chicken parts, 4 quarts water, salt, sugar, spices, fennel, and chile (if using) into a large soup pot and cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 2+ hours. (I let it go for at least 3, but that’s probably unnecessary for the stock flavors to come together. You’ll want to shred the meat as soon as possible to let it tenderize for hours.)

Remove the chicken pieces and shred the desired meat from the bones. Discard the bones and scraps. Strain the broth and return to the pot. At this point, you may need to skim the fat from the broth, if necessary; this isn’t easy when the broth is hot and you plan on serving it that day, so you don’t have an opportunity to cool it completely and skim the fat when cooled. Instead, I tried cooling it in the freezer for a brief time (while shredding the chicken) and then swept the top of the broth with a large, flat spoon. There are ideas online for how to do this that may work better: using a piece of bread or two; a chilled piece of lettuce (!); a strainer lined with cheesecloth; etc. My method was blunt – I removed a lot of good stock along with the fat – and I kept this in a bowl which I refrigerated. (A day later, after we’d already eaten a bunch of the delicious soup, I skimmed the fat from this bowl and returned the good stock to the leftovers.) Next time, I would do something similar; just keep the soup in the fridge or the freezer, if you can fit it, while you shred the chicken, and then use the blunt-force method to separate the top layer of the soup, save it in a bowl, and separate the fat out when that bowl is completely cooled.

Put the strained, de-fatted broth back in the soup pot with the shredded chicken and cook for a few more hours. Depending on how tough your bird was, this could take as long as 5 hours! Try the meat occasionally for doneness and add salt. Cooking a tough old hen is not a quick process.

As the chicken nears tenderness, cook the rice noodles separately, following the instructions on the package. Add the noodles your bowl before filling with broth and serving. Serve with a fancy spread of the garnishes suggested above.
Chicken cooking on the wood stove.