Soup is food for the soul ... a magic elixir. You can throw assorted vegetables, herbs and seasonings into a broth and the resulting creation is much greater than the sum of its parts. Soups, stews and chowders make me happy. They are comforting and warm on a chilly day or light and refreshing on a hot, humid day.
One of my best memories of enjoying a bowl of soup was in upstate South Carolina. I honestly can’t remember which town it was or the name of the little cafe where a friend and I stopped for lunch on a rainy autumn weekend several years ago.
The cafe was warm and inviting and soft piano music was playing in the background. We had gotten soaked running from our car to the restaurant and we welcomed the refuge.
One of the lunch specials, a soup of barley and mushrooms, sounded good so we both ordered it. And we were so happy we did because it was exquisite -- rich, with so much depth of flavor. I wish I had paid closer attention to the ingredients. I’m almost sure it had some white wine in it and maybe some lentils, too. It did contain some finely diced carrots. Whatever ... it was one of the best soups I’ve ever eaten and one of the highlights of my culinary experience.
I’ve tried many times since to recreate the soup, but my versions never come close. My friend and I still talk about that soup. One of the things we’ve come to realize is that while the soup was certainly excellent, the fond memories it conjures up have more to do with the unbeatable combination of good company, the cozy atmosphere of the cafe and the sheer exuberance of good friends sharing a rainy Saturday adventure. It reminds me of the song “Come Saturday Morning” by the Sandpipers:
“Come Saturday morning
I’m goin’ away with my friend
We’ll Saturday-spend till the end of the day-ay
Just I and my friend
We’ll travel for miles in our Saturday smiles
And then we’ll move on
But we will remember long after Saturday’s gone.”
Since this is a cooking blog, after all, I’d like to share my favorite Vietnamese Chicken Pho (noodle soup) recipe with you. I made some this past weekend, and it hit the spot.
Vietnamese Chicken Pho
1 stewing hen, about 5 pounds
2 pounds chicken necks
4 quarts cold water
1 ounce fresh ginger, crushed
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons Chinese Five Spice
1/2 pound rice noodles
1 whole cooked chicken breast (2 halves), thinly sliced
3 cups baby spinach leaves
1 cup sliced green spring onions
8 to 12 fresh cilantro sprigs, for garnish
8 fresh basil sprigs, for garnish
4 fresh mint sprigs, for garnish
2 cups fresh mung bean sprouts, for garnish
2 limes, cut into wedges, to squeeze into soup
2 to 3 sliced fresh red chile peppers, sliced
Sriracha chili sauce, to add as desired
Fish sauce, to add as desired
Cut the hen into pieces, rinse in cold water and add to stockpot, discarding excess fat. Rinse chicken necks with cold water and place in pot. Add the water and ginger and bring to a boil. Skim foam from surface. Reduce heat to low simmer and cook for 3 hours.
Remove and discard the hen and necks. Strain the broth through a fine mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth. Return the broth to a large pot and continue to simmer until reduced to 2-1/2 or 3 quarts. Season with salt and Chinese Five Spice and keep hot while assembling remaining ingredients.
Soak rice noodles in hot water for 20 minutes. Drain well in colander. Rinse well under cold, running water. Drain thoroughly before using.
For each serving, ladle 2 cups of the broth into a large bowl. Quickly dip the cooked noodles in the remaining hot broth, then place a handful of noodles in each bowl. Divide the sliced chicken breast between the bowls, laying the slices over noodles. Serve the soup immediately, allowing your guests to choose garnishes from bowls of fresh cilantro, green spring onions, basil, mint, bean sprouts, lime wedges and chile pepper slices. Add Sriracha or fish sauce to taste.
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