Cooking Restraint: Mushroom Pho, vegan edition

Everyone gets bored in the kitchen now and again, from a Michelin star chef to a teenager

Challenge yourself, you'll be surprised at what you come up with.

just looking for some different leftovers to microwave after school, we have all felt the touch of creative culinary stagnation. Cooking and eating the same things gets boring, but trying to come up with new things to cook can seem daunting, scary even. But it can be done, it just takes a little work and ironically, a little restraint.

 I often challenge myself to try something new, but then run into the problem of not knowing what I should try. There are so many different foods and cooking techniques out there, it is hard to know where to start when looking for something new to add to your culinary repertoire. So, I've started to use a great creative technique to push myself to try new dishes and cooking techniques. All it takes is a little restraint, that meaning that if one limits themselves creatively, they are forced to find new ways to overcome these self imposed limits. These limitations could be a key ingredient, a cooking instrument, even entire cuisines, it doesn't matter how big or small. I've found that by removing something that I love to cook with, I'm forced to find new ingredients and techniques that I never would've tried before. In this series of blog posts I'll feature these culinary adventures with each post, adding each with the recipe I come up with, for better or worse. In this edition I try something I never enjoyed, cooking vegan.

I'm a big meat eater, a real snout to tail kind of guy. The thought of eating vegetarian has never appealed to me, let alone vegan cooking witchcraft. Then things changed when I started dating a vegan, moreover I started living with her as well. Now I'm not going to get into the debate of the health benefits or moral issues for or against cooking vegan, I have no interest in that topic here. What is of interest is how my cooking has changed since I started living with a vegan, having to cook every meal with both a vegan option and something that I feel happy to put on the table. This can be a real challenge, removing meat from a dish isn't so tough, but cooking without eggs, dairy, cheese?! How can I make a proper risotto without cheese? This is going to be a real challenge indeed, but not impossible or unpalatable.

So I decided to try my hand at making a vegan Pho. Some readers might be familiar with the fragrant Vietnamese noodle soup, Pho. This dish centers around the ultimate in rich spicy beef broth, far away from vegan territory. Gaining popularity in the past several years, the best Pho centered restaurants are hot debate among Pho fanatics (Pho is pronounced like the “fa” in fanatic). Pho starts with a rich broth, usually made using beef bones, onions, and a wide assortment of spices. This broth cooks for hours and then is garnished with rice noodles, slices of beef, sprouts, limes, fresh herbs, and just about anything else you could want. Which is all great, but how do I go making this dish vegan? The garnish was easy, just swap beef slices for some Chinese 5 spiced tofu, but the real problem is how to make the broth.

To conquer Pho's rich broth, I used a trick learned from the Japanese. Kombu, or dried kelp to the rest of us, is used as a base for many Japanese soups. Found at Asian markets or better grocery stores, this kelp adds a great wholesome richness to broths and a great deep but mild flavor as well. Plus it is easy to use, just crack of a piece and soak in boiling water, you'll have the base for a great broth in no time. Throw in a bunch of dried Shiitake mushrooms and then we really start to get a plush soup that is worthy of calling itself Pho.

So here's the recipe,

Serves 4

The broth:

2 quarts of cold water

4 palm sized pieces of kombu

3 large onions, I used both red and sweet

6 fresh garlic cloves

3 to 4 oz of whole dried Shiitake mushrooms

a handful of dried Tien Tsin chiles

6 whole Star Anise

8 whole cloves

4 short cassia cinnamon sticks

2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns

1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns

2 tablespoons dried lemon grass

2-3 medium pieces of dried ginger

1 tied bunch of cilantro stems

Low sodium soy sauce

(If desired you can ad a Essence de Champignon Gold for an extra rich broth, but you can skip it if you like)

To garnish:

Extra firm tofu, dredged in Chinese 5 spice

4 servings of rice noodle sticks (found in the Asian foods section of grocery stores)

4 to 5 small red radishes

a bag of fresh bean sprouts

a bunch of fresh cilantro leaves

a bunch of fresh basil leaves

a bunch of fresh mint leaves

a couple of limes.

Quarter onions and halve cloves of garlic, blacken cut sides at high heat without oil for a few minutes at the bottom of a large stock pot. Place dried spices and lemon grass in a food grade muslin bag. Reduce heat to low and add water, kombu, spice bag, celantro stems, and dried mushrooms to the stock pot. Let simmer for two to four hours.

Sear all sides of seasoned tofu in a dry non-stick pan. Slice tofu into quarter inch pieces. Thinly slice radishes. Cut limes into quarters.

Remove stock from heat, strain well, reserve mushrooms. Return strained stock to a boil, add dried rice noodles and cook as per package instructions.

Don't be afraid to over garnish.

To plate, place a serving of noodles into each bowl, fill each with a liberal amount of broth. Place mushrooms, sprouts, radish slices, cilantro, tofu, mint, and basil in each bowl to garnish. Enjoy

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