Last year, I filmed with Raymond Blanc for his BBC TV series, How To Cook Well (with thanks Rocket & Squash, who was one of the producers of the show). I demonstrated to Chef my way of making pho and how its entire process is all about “poaching” on an episode about, poaching. You can read a little about it here
It didn’t occur to me before that, that poaching is what I do on a regular basis because when we think of poaching food, we think of something that is blandly boiled in hot water. The result, something overcooked, watery and unappetising.
However in countries like Vietnam, poaching is a way of life. Its an alchemy; something to master. Poaching is an easy art form that sings in the delicious and healthy cuisine we so enjoy. To poach is to create broth, noodle soups, to cook meat and fish to perfection; blanch vegetables, maintaing the flavour & texture of vegetables. To poach is to combine flavours, from meat and fish to intricate complexion of herbs and vegetables. It is about pulling the characters of ingredients together to create and retain wonderful, sensual and textual taste to your palate as while being healthy and delicious. Poaching with different ingredients flavours the meat/ fish / vegetables and in return, they flavour the broth.
Poaching can either be a fast or a slow process depending on what it is being made but it is never a sacrifice on flavour. Everything can be made within one pot, creating two or three meals from that pot. Breakfast, lunch and dinner! For example, a poached chicken can make chicken salads, chicken noodle soups, steamed rice in chicken broth, congee, vegetable soups and so on. Once the basic principles are mastered, the choices in poaching are endless.Spices for phở
If we take phở for instance, the broth is flavoured by the different cuts of meat and bones or vegetables, the spices blend and mellow out together over time on a gentle simmer. Even when the broth is laddled into a bowl for serving, poaching rare pieces of beef or poach an egg that is cracked in. The hot broth cooks the raw spring onions and thinly sliced onion and saw tooth & coriander herbs tenderly, still leaving bite. When doing a good poach, understanding the temperature of the the pot and the broth is key to what it does to the rest of the dishes’s ingredients.
Consommé A lot of Vietnamese soups and noodle soups are based on making a good refined consommé with a wide variety of flavours. There may be many techniques to making a clear broth depending on the ingredients used. It can get complicated if you want to get all cheffy but if you just want a delicious simple dinner here are some of my tips:
If we look at a phở broth, my technique to making a clear broth is simply cleaning the beef and beef bones in a pre-poach by blanching it in boiling water for 10 minutes and then rid all of the water it sat in; clean all the pieces under running water; rewash the pot and then bringing fresh water back to the boil. By this time, the cleaned meat is ready to be poached with its spices, charred onion and ginger. Once the broth comes to the boil, it must then only simmer for the rest of the time. I usually simmer my pho broth for about 4 hours, taking the meat out after 2 hours.
In the kitchen, so much can be done with chicken stock which boasts many healthy benefits as it boosts the immune system with the minerals it contains from the bones and carcass. Simply put a whole free range, corn fed chicken into a pot and pour boiling water from a kettle to submerge and cook on a low boil for about an hour with the lid on, removing any scum that surfaces after about 15 – 20 minutes.
The broth can be flavoured with many things such as ginger, vegetables, fish/ seafood etc. It can be as complicated or as simple as you wish but for sure, a good chicken broth carries anything and makes everything better than it would be without it.
You can also use the chicken broth to cook rice.
Noodle Soups & Congee
Always having a plain chicken broth in the kitchen means you can pull together a noodle soup for breakfast, lunch or dinner at a moment’s notice. You can make congee from left over rice – so that nothing goes to waste and is especially good for your system when you are feeling poorly. It is also so delicious when you get your broth right. Just add finely chopped ginger, perhaps a fillet of fish to poach gently with the stock, season with fish sauce, a tiny rock of sugar, some herbs or spring onions. From the moment they are born, Vietnamese babies are on a congee diet until they can chew.Congee with trout
Congee is a rice soup made from left over rice in stock simmered over time. A small bowl of rice should make congee enough for 2 – 4 people. Its really healthy and smoothing. You can use it as a base to eat with many things. I like my congee still with a little bite from the rice grains, silky and runny. It could also be made way in advance too.
Poaching fish doesn’t take very long, you can have your congee ready within 15 mins from start to finish. Depending on the size of the fish/ fillets you only need to poach for a couple of minutes, leaving the fish nice and tender. Or you can pan fry fillets and mix it all in with fresh herbs at the end.
Mung bean noodles with Vietnamese ham and hot mint
Chinese mustard leaves, tofu & ginger soup
Winter melon soup with ginger and coriander
Depth & Flavour When you start poaching, the spices and ingredients used needs to marry and like with relationships, they need a bit of time to get to know each other in calm climates not a violent storm, so simmer over time and don’t boil! Keep the lid on. Only bring the broth to the boil just before you are ready to serve.
Using a good fish sauce to season the broth is one of the most fundamental things as it aids the salty and umami flavours of your taste buds. Always use a premium quality fish sauce if you can afford it. You can also use seaweed and radishes like daikon/ mooli or kohl rabi.
To aid the sweet flavours, add a piece of rock sugar, its not the same as regular sugar, its a milder sweet that makes a broth taste complete.
Good quality stock cubes can turn something to another and I am not ashamed of using them if I am not in the mood to wait for hours or I just want something quick.
Fish and meat bones are obtainable from a fish monger or butcher, most of the times for a cost of a smile. Fish heads are great for flavouring broth as are marrow bones and pigs trotters.Chicken & bamboo noodle soup
Chicken, seafood, fish and pork can be poached and used in a variety of salads and can be served with rice, in fresh rolls, with prawn crackers or on its own, leaving the broth for other things
Poached prawns & pork belly for fresh salad rolls
Udon noodles with chicken & cabbage
Without meaning to be, Vietnamese food is healthy, fresh and light. Whether you’re on a frugal budget or not, poaching is the way forward, it uses chicken, beef, pork, fish and vegetables to capacity and its delicious!
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