Making great chicken stock can be challenging. Boil it long enough to get lots of flavor in your stock and you end up with dry pasty chicken. Don't cook it enough and you end up with a watery broth. It's a trade-off that leads many to throw away the meat used to make the stock and then cook a separate batch of meat to serve with the soup separately.
Given that one in seven people around the world are chronically hungry, this just seems gratuitously wasteful. It's a concept that has a word associated with it in Japanese: mottainai (勿体無い), which roughly translates to "What a waste". It's something frequently uttered with disdain in Japanese households and I suspect other Asian cultures have a similar concept since it is rooted in Buddhism.
One of the things I've always loved about Phở Gà is that it uses every part of the chicken, including the liver, heart, gizzards, etc. But it's always bothered me how the meat tends to be dry since it's boiled to make the soup.
I've found a better way to make chicken stock that gets you a great broth, with tender moist chicken, that is perfectly cooked. The trick is to gently poach the whole chicken first. Then, after separating the meat from the bones, the bones go back into the pot until you have an intensely flavored broth.
I use a similar method to make my chicken soup as well as my hainanese chicken rice. Since this is for Phở, I add aromatics like charred onion, garlic and ginger, but I go easy on the seasonings as chicken is easily overwhelmed by spices such as star anise and cloves. The charring not only develops new flavor compounds, but it also adds a wonderful smokiness to the soup that gives it depth.
Normally I'm a big fan of adding condiments such as basil, bean sprouts hoisin and hot sauce to phở bò (beef pho), but I prefer my phở gà northern style: with wider noodles and a minimum of garnishes. Perhaps it's because the more delicate chicken broth is easily smothered, or maybe it's because the first really great bowl of phở gà I had was Hà Nội style. Whatever the case, the only table-side condiment I serve my phở gà with is pickled green chilies.
One last note. I like my noodles very al dente. Because rice noodles cook so quickly, by the time you boil, drain and add them to the soup, they're soggy already. One way around this I've found is to skip the separate boiling entirely and to cook the noodles directly in the soup. This gets you perfectly cooked noodles every time.
For the soup
For pickled chilies
- Wash the chicken inside and out, including any offal it comes with and set aside. Using a broiler, torch, or a gas stove, burn the cut side of the onion, both sides of the ginger and both sides of the garlic. If you have some wire mesh you can set it on the gas stove for the garlic, otherwise a torch works great for these. You want the surface to be about 50% black as it adds a wonderful smoky flavor to the soup without making it bitter.
- Put the neck, gizzards, heart and liver inside the chicken. Place the chicken breast side up into a stock pot just a little larger than the chicken, then put all the other ingredients for the soup around the chicken. Add water until the top of the breast is almost covered. Cover with a lid and bring the water to a boil over high heat. When the water comes to a boil, turn the stove off (do not remove the lid), and poach the chicken for 40 minutes.
- Remove the chicken and set it aside to cool. When it's cool enough to handle, remove the offal from the cavity and set aside. Carve all the meat off the bones and return the bones to the stock. Simmer the stock for another 1 1/2 hours. Slice up the chicken meat and offal and put it in the fridge.
- Soak the dried pho noodles in warm water for about 30 minutes to rehyrdate them. Chop up your condiments and have them ready. Make the pickled chilies by adding the sliced chilies, vinegar and salt in a small bowl and setting aside.
- When your broth is done, strain it through a fine mesh sieve and skim off any excess oil. Taste the soup for salt and add more as necessary.
- Bring the stock to a boil. Drain the noodles and add them to the stock. The rehydrated noodles will cook in a matter of seconds, so a couple swishes is all it takes. Split the noodles between 4 bowls and top with the chicken, offal, onions, scallion and cilantro to taste, then ladle on the hot broth.
- Serve immediately with the pickled chilies. If you prefer a southern style Phở, you can also serve this with Vietnamese basil, bean sprouts, lime, hot sauce and hoisin sauce.