When I found chicken backs hanging out in the meat department of the co-op I got really excited for two reasons:
1. They were super inexpensive.
2. I imagined they could be made into something fancy and exotic, like baby chicken back ribs or something.
I picked up a pack of two and went home to research.
As it turns out, chicken backs aren’t really used as a meat staple on their own, for the simple fact that there’s not much meat on them. However, while all their bones may make them too dainty to be a main course, all that marrow has its advantages when it comes to making stock for soup. To tell the truth, I was slightly disappointed when I resigned myself to making chicken soup. But I know that if I was going to be making chicken soup, I didn’t want to make just any chicken soup. I set out to make pho ga.
I am almost always DTP (Down To Pho). I probably make Chops eat at the Vietnamese place a few blocks from my apartment once or twice a month, on top of the several other times I go there when he’s not around. There’s something about a steaming bowl of rich broth, rice noodles, tender meat, mixed with the aroma of spicy peppers and herbs that seems incredibly healing, homey and settling. It makes my body and mind feel incredibly at ease, which is a lot to say about a bowl of soup.
1. Baby Got (Chicken) Back
I found a pretty basic but authentic pho recipe here: http://www.vietworldkitchen.com/blog/2007/06/chicken_pho_noo.html
It turned out that I needed a lot more than the two-pack of chicken backs I had picked up on my first round to the store. I went back, purchased the other ingredients, and returned with four more backs. After I had rinsed and trimmed away the excess fat, I finally got a good look at what I was working with. While I was hoping the pho would turn out well, right from the beginning I had to admit, chicken backs are ugly:
While following the recipe, I felt a little strange charring the onions and garlic directly on my stove’s electric burner, but nothing burned down, and the char added a sweet/smokey element to the broth that I hadn’t been expecting.
Another thing pho recipes mentioned that had never come up when I made chicken soup before, was the emphasis on the clarity of the broth. This recipe asks us to par-boil the chicken backs and extra chicken to rid them of “impurities.” Curious as to what these impurities were (bacteria? viruses? dirt? chemicals?), I took to the internet. It turns out that they’re not harmful, just proteins that cloud the broth and can form a frothy scum on the surface. That said, after all was said and done, the broth was definitely more appetizing in appearance than any stock I had ever made.
Once the chicken had been parboiled and rinsed, the stock’s other ingredients (peeled onion and ginger, cloves, coriander seeds, cilantro, and rock sugar) were added to the pot. The one ingredient that made me raise an eyebrow was the rock sugar. They didn’t carry it at the co-op, so I went to the Viet-Wah in the International District and found a bag. From what I understand, yellow rock sugar is made much the same way as rock candy, only with less refined sugar. It’s also said to be less sweet and slightly more healthy than refined sugar, but I couldn’t find an in-depth article explaining exactly why it’s healthier, so that could just be slanderous internet-talk.
I was grateful that I had started this project a little later in the afternoon, because at this point, the stock had to simmer for 11 1/2 hours. I went to bed with the pot gently bubbling throughout the night.
2. Packing a Bowl
The next day, after the stock had been strained and cooled, I had Chops over for dinner. As the broth reheated on the stove, I assembled the bowls. I rinsed and boiled the noodles, then added slices of chicken, topped them with a tower of bean sprouts, and then poured on several spoonfulls of clear, steaming broth. Limes, serrano peppers, thai basil, cilantro, and sriracha were served on the side. (It was at this point that I found myself wishing that I had roasted the chicken that I was slicing and including in the bowls. As it was, the superstar of this pho was really the stock, which, considering I was focusing on the chicken backs, is probably a good thing.)
3. The Verdict
We were both quiet for a really long time as we ate. It had been a long couple of days, we were both tired, and this was the first big home cooked meal either of us had all weekend. We slurped and sipped and chewed. When we finally stopped it was to say, “Oh my gosh, there are so many noodles!” It was like they were reproducing in the bowl, there was absolutely no end to them. I was full and happy, and like a toddler bored with her food, I began playing with them.
“Oodles of noodles! Oodles of noodles!” I cried, threatening to dump some of my noodles into Chops’s bowl.
“No!” said Chops.
I picked a stray noodle up off the table, and placed it on Chops’s head, “Now you have a noodle on your noodle!”
He gave me a poker face.
“Get it? A noodle on your nooooodle?” I prodded.
He didn’t budge.
“So then. I’ll, uh, just be taking that off now,” I said, removing the noodle from his hair and wadding it up in a paper napkin.
It was then he launched his sneak attack. He wrested and tickled me down to the floor until I succumbed to a fit of giggles and threatened to barf up all of my noodles if he didn’t stop. He agreed to a truce, and we wound up curled up on my sofa– warm, sated, dozing, and completely at ease.