Hanging out with my family and in the mood for some toe-curlingly delicious soup on a wet and chilly day, (I like to eat soup on chilly days. Frequently. For real.) we settled on this seriously yummy pho-style soup with homemade meatballs. Inspired in part by Charles Phan’s book, The Slanted Door, we used his ideas for broth and chicken meatballs initially, but went in a really different direction with both. Dad had leftover turkey stock in the freezer, so we didn’t start from the very beginning with chicken and water, and then I went ahead and added kombu, bacon, duck fat, pork fat, and dried mushrooms. Phan’s meatballs were meant for sandwiches and cooked in sauce, so we went ahead and took lots of creative liberties with his recipe, adding bacon, extra soy sauce, cornstarch, more salt, and so on, until I had something that was just right for the broth, which we cooked the chicken meatballs in instead of his sauce. I’m sure what we wound up with would be pretty unrecognizable from what he created, but because his recipes inspired us, I just wanted to make sure to include not only his name, but a link to his astonishingly gorgeous book that came out just in time for me to give and receive as Christmas gifts to and from everybody last year! It was pretty funny: everybody knew I’d love that book, and I knew everybody else would love it too! We were all completely correct! It was fun to find one gift that got everybody excited.
Moving to San Francisco and surrounded by fantastic restaurants, everywhere you walked you would pass yet another restaurant that you desperately needed to try. Naturally, I couldn’t afford to eat at any of them. Slanted Door, though, was situated directly across the street from where I was working at the time and would catch my eye every single day. Mom, of course, would make sure to take me to over there every time she came to visit from Minnesota just because she knew I loved it so much. It was so fun and easy to head over there with her when she came to town. Located in the ferry building and across the street from where I was spending as many hours as I could convince them to give me, it was the perfect spot to meet, enjoy an amazing meal, look out over the bay at the ferry boats, watch the seagulls (and awesome tourists and San Franciscans) and then go on our way. Now that my folks have moved out here and we’re all the way up in Napa, we don’t go there much, but I certainly hope to go more often in the future!
There are lots of ingredients in this soup, but don’t let that scare you. It’s really simple to put together, it just takes some mixing and some time. If you don’t have pork fat or duck fat, go ahead and skip those, but make sure to add a little olive oil. Don’t skip the fat! It’s crucial for the flavor and mouth feel, and it also allows the broth to get hotter than it otherwise would, which will do a great job of reheating your noodles so you don’t have to reheat them separately. If you want to skip the bacon, feel free to do so! I love that flavor in there, but the soup and the meatballs will still be fantastic without it. Different without the smokey flavor, extra saltiness, and that fat, but still very, very good. The combination of the flavors of the stock itself combined with all of the flavors from the homemade meatballs cooking slowly in it will be amazing no matter what you need to do to make this recipe your own. I’ll also freely admit that I added crispy shallots both to the meatball mix and on the top for garnish, but those little guys are pretty tricky and can quickly take this recipe from being a pretty no-stress soup to one that makes you want to scream. I’m leaving that recipe for another day. If you are comfortable with them, I added two tablespoons of chopped crispy shallots to the meatball mix and used one tablespoon less of the fresh shallots.
More than anything else, what’s important is making the food that makes you happy. Crack a beer/pour some wine, take a deep breath, get your hands messy and have some fun!
Also, this recipe makes a lot of soup and those meatballs need a little space in which to hang out and cook, so if you’re looking for a good-sized pot for big batches of soup, you might like something like this.
Truly Tasty Pho-Style Soup with Lighter-Than-Air Homemade Meatballs
- 4 cups chicken or turkey stock
- 2 cups water
- 1 4" piece kombu, briefly rinsed
- 2 pieces bacon (we used thick-cut applewood smoked)
- 1 2" piece ginger, grated
- 1 clove garlic, grated
- 1 Tbs duck fat
- 1 Tbs pork fat (both are optional, but at least add 1 Tbs olive oil if you skip the pork and duck)
- 2 Tbs fish sauce
- 2 Tbs Tamari or soy sauce
- 1 Tbs white sugar
- 1 Tbs unseasoned rice wine vinegar
- 4 scallions, cleaned and ends trimmed
- salt to taste (you might not want any with the soy sauce and fish sauce)
- 1 package rice noodles
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 1 Tbs Tamari or soy sauce
- 1# ground chicken or turkey
- 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 4 Tbs shallots, finely minced
- 4 Tbs scallions, finely chopped
- 2 Tbs cilantro, minced
- 1 tsp salt
- 4 pieces bacon, finely chopped
- 1 1/2 Tbs tamari or soy sauce
- 1 Tbs cornstarch
- 1-2 jalapeños, thinly sliced
- 2 scallions, thinly sliced
- 1/2 cup bean sprouts
- lime wedges
- Combine the water and stock and bring to a boil.
- Reduce to a low simmer and add the kombu.
- Cook gently for 15-20 minutes.
- Remove the kombu.
- Add the bacon and scallions. Cook for 5 minutes.
- Add the Tamari, fish sauce, duck and pork fat (or olive oil), vinegar, sugar, garlic, and ginger.
- Cook over low heat for at least 5 minutes.
- Add the meatballs. Cook on a fairly low heat, barely simmering for 30-45 minutes, occasionally stirring gently.
- Remove meatballs, and taste and adjust seasoning. If the broth is too strong for you, add a little water. Otherwise, adjust with salt, Tamari, and fish sauce.
- Cook according to package directions.
- Or, bring a pot of salted water to a boil, add the noodles, and cook until tender, probably 5 minutes.
- Drain and rinse well in cool water.
- Toss with sesame oil and soy sauce.
- Mix all ingredients thoroughly.
- Form into 2" balls.
- Cook for 30-45 minutes.
- (I recommend cooking and tasting a sample first, just to make sure it's seasoned the way you want. Also, this is a very wet mix, which is tough to work with. We had a bowl of cool water to dip our hands in, which reduced the mix sticking to our hands, and we dropped the balls in the hot stock as we made them.)
- When done, remove the meatballs from the stock to stop cooking and make serving easier.
- Bring the broth back to a boil.
- Plate a mound of noodles in the bowl.
- Add three meatballs (or as many as you want).
- Pour the broth over.
- Top with jalapeños, scallions, one or two lime wedges, and bean sprouts. Enjoy!
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