Pho bo—Vietnamese beef noodle soup—may be more popular in the states, but its cousin pho ga, made with chicken, is easier to make, and in my book, just as tasty. My wife and I ate bowls and bowls of the stuff on our honeymoon in Vietnam. Its rich, fat-slicked broth and clean flavors punctuated with handfuls of aromatic herbs are at once exotic to Westerners, but familiar enough that they hit all the comfort food notes that we occasionally crave when traveling abroad.
As I write today, I'm not quite as far from home, but I'm still a long ways away. For the past few weeks I've been writing and cooking out of my in-laws' apartment in Bogotá, Colombia. They're delightful people and Colombia is an incredibly rich and diverse country both from a cultural and a gustatory perspective. But working away from home offers a special set of challenges. There're the obvious things for any kind of computer work: not being familiar with your workspace leads to inefficiency. It's tough to edit photos on the small screen of my 11-inch MacBook Air when I'm used to my 27-inch monitor at home. I had to leave my entire reference library behind.
Then there's the kitchen-specific stuff. I find it hard to even begin to think about cooking without my knives by my side, and though my mother-in-law's kitchen is well stocked, I still have to dig around to find the right pot or pan. Have I mentioned that there's an entirely different set of ingredients available down here, starting with vegetables and running all the way to cuts of meat? And oh, let's not forget that we're at over 8,000 feet of altitude in Bogotá, a fact that not only messes with my soups, doughs, and sweated vegetables, but also makes me want to sleep an extra two hours per night (which edges me into seven-hour, normal healthy adult territory).
You could say that I've been working under pressure here (although as atmospheric pressure goes, it's technically the reverse).
Speaking of pressure, fortunately, there's a tool here that helps mitigate all those problems, letting me cook in Bogotá's thin air and get results the same as if I were back home at sea level in San Francisco. A pressure cooker traps expanding vapors inside thereby effectively increasing the pressure on the liquid, allowing it to heat to a higher temperature before boiling. While stovetop pressure cookers add pressure relative to the atmospheric pressure of their surroundings (so, for instance, at the 15psi we have at sea level, a pressure cooker with a rating of 15psi will be cooking at 30psi, or two atmospheres but at Bogotá's 10.5 psi, the same pressure cooker would cook at 25.5 psi), many electric pressure cookers will hold their pressure independently of their surroundings.
You could cook in the near vacuum of Mars' atmosphere with an electric pressure cooker and your soup would come out just fine. They use them for everything from beans to broth here, but today I'm doing something a little different and serving my in-laws a Vietnamese pho ga, a lunch that as far as I know is unavailable anywhere in Bogotá.
Pho, the Vietnamese soup of noodles and aromatics served in a clear, spiced broth, is really a great candidate for the pressure cooker. After all, it's really no much more than a simple broth with noodles in it, and as I've demonstrated in the past, the pressure cooker is the ideal vessel for making a clear, full-flavored broth.
Traditional Pho, whether it's the chicken version I'm making today or a more involved beef pho (check out my full-blown traditional recipe here), starts by browning onions and ginger until nearly black, either over the direct heat of a flame, or in a pot (I prefer the pot method, as it's less messy and faster). Next, you add water or broth along with aromatics: star anise, cinnamon, cloves, fennel seed, coriander seed, and some cilantro stems. Add your chicken or beef, some rock sugar and fish sauce, bring the whole thing to a simmer, then settle down for a long, slow cook with plenty of babysitting and skimming to make sure that the broth comes out clear and the meat comes out tender.
A pressure cooker relieves you of this tedium in two ways. First off, the high pressure environment of a pressure cooker allows water to heat well past its 212°F boiling point and allows meats to cook far faster. A chicken leg takes just about 15 to 20 minutes to cook down to fall-off-the-bone tender in a pressure cooker, a time savings of over 50%, all the while giving up plenty of liquid and gelatin to the broth.
Secondly, liquids heated inside a pressure cooker don't boil once they've come to pressure. So long as you cool down your pot after cooking by running it under cold tap water before releasing the pressure (take care that many electric pressure cookers should not be placed under running water), you can cook a soup start to finish with virtually no bubbling at all. Less agitation means less cloudiness in the liquid, which means no skimming is really required for a broth that's not crystal clear, but clear enough to serve in mixed company without the need to apologize.
Luckily Colombian food shares a few things in common with Southeast Asian food, namely the wide availability of chicken, cilantro, and onions, and I had no real problems finding the necessary spices and ginger. I was even surprised to find that the fancy supermarket near the apartment carried both fish sauce and rice noodles. Granted, they were the super-thin vermicelli-style noodle instead of traditional pho noodles, but they'll do fine in a pinch (I almost resolved to cooking angel hair pasta in water with baking soda to give them more of an Asian noodle flavor and texture).
The only ingredient I couldn't find was rock sugar, and that can even be hard to find in Asian markets in New York or San Francisco. At home, I'll substitute with a brown sugar like Demerara or Muscovado, which offer flavor as well as sweetness. Here in Colombia, I ended up using cubes of panela, a very simple sugar made by evaporating pure cane juice until it firms up with a deep caramel color.
Once all of my ingredients were locked into the pressure cooker, it took no more than 20 minutes for them to finish cooking. Even with pure water as my starting medium (store-bought chicken broth is unheard of here, though bouillon cubes are widely available), the soup came out with strong, rich flavors and a mouth-coating stickiness from the gelatin extracted from the chicken bones.
All it required was a trip through a strainer to remove the aromatics, and a quick skim to remove the foam and scum from the top (I left the chicken fat floating on top for flavor). Those 20 minutes in the pressure cooker? The perfect amount of time to prepare the rest of the soup by soaking the rice noodles, picking and washing the herbs and bean sprouts, slicing up some onions and scallions, and cutting a couple of limes into wedges, which means that from fridge to table, this is truly a 30-minute recipe, including all ingredient prep.
I don't know about you, but that seems like a pretty good deal to me, particularly when the various inefficiencies of working away from home start to pile up. (Oh, did I mention how adorable and distracting my 1 year old nephew is?)
Colombians take their lunch very seriously. It's their biggest meal of the day by far. I hope this will keep the in-laws satisfied.
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