phở chay (vegan pho with zucchini noodles and ginger-lime tofu)
Phở chay is one of the foods I love the most -- mind, body, soul.
Like many of the bowls of pho I have consumed throughout my life, this one was intended to be medicine... specifically, medicine for a fiery, painful sore throat and fever. However, whatever the weather or my state of wellness, I am always down for a big, savory, spicy bowl of pho (seriously -- ask my husband or anyone who has known me for more than a month).
But first, for those unfamiliar with pho, allow me to provide an introduction. Pho -- pronounced "fuh," not "foe" -- is a Vietnamese soup, traditionally made of spiced beef broth with rice noodles. Pho chay is the term for vegetarian pho, as opposed to pho ga (chicken) or pho bo (beef).
So now you may be asking: What in Sam Hill is a dish that is supposed to be a beef soup with rice noodles doing on a low-glycemic vegan recipe blog?
Well, let me explain.
Orlando, my stateside home-city, has a vibrant Vietnamese community, centered around what is now called the "Mills 50" district. Over my years spent here, I have indulged in many, many bowls of pho -- though as I have been vegetarian for so very long, it has always been pho chay. Around here, at least, the majority of pho spots seem to offer this bowl of vegetarian comfort, and this has mostly been my experience in my travels. (Some of my favorites are Black Pepper Pho in Boulder, Colorado; Rice Paddies Grill in Bethesda, Maryland; and Phat Phuc in London -- teehee...)
While pho chay may not be the OG pho that is pho bo, it clearly has its place in the Pho Universe... and an especially important place in my little culinary universe.
Makers of pho chay differ in how they prepare the broth; some eschew the traditional pho spices of ginger, anise, cloves, cinnamon, coriander, cardamon, fennel, and black pepper for a simpler vegetable broth. While the results can be nice either way, in this case, I find the wisdom of tradition to be the most delicious. My broth uses all of the traditional spices with a mushroom-based broth to provide an ultra-savory backbone (with no bones... and ultra-healthy adaptogens to boot!).
For the noodles, I opt for simple zucchini noodles (or "zoodles" if we're being cutie poodles), made by spiralizing raw zucchinis on the thinnest setting. This is not traditional but rather a way to provide texture without using high glycemic load rice noodles. Another non-traditional but VLGL option: mung bean noodles can have a similar texture with a relatively low glycemic load.
As for the protein and veggies? Here, I kept it simple with my three-ingredient ginger-lime tofu (made extra simple by using pre-cubed tofu -- the impetus for this recipe was my being super sick, after all...) and some green chard. Seitan, a vegan protein made of vital wheat gluten, also makes for a nice, protein-rich pho topping. I chose chard because I wished to use baby bok choy as Black Pepper Pho does, but my grocery delivery app did not reveal baby bok choy as an option (again, super sick, did not go to the store), so I found it to be the closest thing. Plus, super-rich in vitamins K, A, and C; potassium, magnesium, iron, and fiber, it seems to deserve superfood status.
One last thing before you get cooking... don't forget the toppings! Truly, the extra spices and aromatics are what elevate pho from a really good soup to a full-on sensory experience. My must-haves include lime slices, cilantro, mint, basil, sriracha sauce, and jalapeño peppers, and pho is often traditionally served with hoisin sauce and bean sprouts, as well. I never skimp on the sriracha sauce...
RECIPE: VLGL pho with ginger-lime tofu
☼ For the soup:
- 2 tablespoons olive or canola oil
- 2 pounds sliced mushrooms (I used "baby bella;" shiitakes, white mushrooms, or a combination thereof all work)
- 2 halved, small, yellow onions
- 10 cups water
- 6 tablespoons soy sauce or coconut aminos (Resist the urge to over-soy and overwhelm the delicate flavors! Wait until the broth is finished, and if it is not salty to your liking, add a bit of hoisin sauce or soy sauce as a condiment)
- 1 4-inch long piece of ginger root, halved lengthwise
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 2 teaspoons anise seeds
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1/4 teaspoon whole, black peppercorns
- 3 cardamom pods
- 6 whole cloves
- 2 spiralized, medium zucchinis
- 4 large green chard leaves, sliced in half and then into 1-inch wide strips OR 2 sliced bunches baby bok choy
- aromatic toppings and condiments to serve (cilantro, basil, mint, lime slices, sriracha sauce, sliced jalapeño peppers, etc.)
☼ For the tofu:
- 2 cubed, 8-ounce blocks of firm tofu
- 2 tablespoons ginger juice (I extract by completely thawing a 2-inch hunk of frozen ginger root and juicing with a handheld citrus juicer)
- Juice of two large, juicy limes
- Scant teaspoon of olive or canola oil
☼ For the soup:
- Toss the sliced mushrooms with one tablespoon of oil and spread in a sided baking dish, such as a casserole dish. Brush the halved onions and ginger root with olive oil, and place them on a separate baking apparatus, such as a baking sheet.
- Broil the mushrooms, onions, and ginger root. Remove the mushrooms after approximately seven minutes, or once they have released abundant juice and the edges have begun to brown. Broil the onions and ginger, turning over every seven minutes, until the edges have begun to char.
- Prepare your dry spices by placing the anise, coriander, fennel, peppercorns, cardamom, and cloves in a small, cloth bag OR (this is what I do) a secure tea strainer.
- Place the mushrooms and their juices, ginger, onions, and spices (including the cinnamon stick) in a large, deep stockpot. Add the water and soy sauce, and bring to a rolling boil. Reduce the heat to low, and allow to simmer for 90 minutes.
- After 90 minutes have elapsed, remove the dry spices, including the cinnamon (do not over-steep or your soup will taste like potpourri!). Allow to simmer for an additional two hours. In the meantime, prepare the tofu (directions to follow), zucchini, and greens.
- After a total of 3 hours and 30 minutes, discard the ginger, onions, and mushrooms from the broth. (I realize this sounds wasteful, but I find that they have "transferred" their flavor into the broth after simmering for so long; if you wish to keep them, hey, I will happily offer cooking suggestions but I will never tell you how to live your life). Add the greens to the broth and allow to simmer for 8-10 minutes, or until the stems have just softened.
- Place about 1/2 a zucchini's worth of zoodles into each serving bowl. To serve, place the tofu atop the zoodles, and ladle in steaming hot broth with greens. Add toppings, and allow to sit for 3 minutes or more to soften the zoodles before devouring.
☼For the tofu:
- Press the moisture out of your tofu by wrapping the cubes in two tea towels, placing this "bundle" atop one plate, topping with another plate, and weighing down with something heavy... I use five Southern Living cookbooks from the late 1970's - early 1980's. Allow to press for 20 minutes or longer.
- Juice the ginger and limes into a small bowl. Add the tofu and toss to coat. Allow to marinate for at least 20 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes or so.
- Brush your grill or stovetop grill-pan with oil and heat on medium-high. Once a drop of water sizzles, grill the tofu cubes until golden-brown grill marks are visible.
Serve with love.