Friday, 27 June 2014

Pho, with Thai basil, mint and coriander fishcakes

There is a huge backlog of recipes I plan to blog about, but haven't. A lot of times I start up the blogger page, stare at the white space and draw a blank. It's not a lack of cooking in my life– I am in the kitchen almost every day. It's not a lack of photos– I am one of those annoying people who disallow her friends from eating until she has taken a good 50 shots.

I start writing and I wonder, why would anyone read this? The recipes seem too short and too easy; you are only required to 1. not be afraid of fire and 2. be able to use a knife. A lot of them are also just variations of older recipes, swopping one ingredient out for one or two others– maybe fennel instead of cumin seeds, basil instead of mint, chard in summer instead of cabbage etc. But today I feel like writing anyway.

Fishcakes have probably appeared somewhere on the blog before, but not with these same herbs and not on top of a bowl of noodles. There is something particularly wonderful about the combination of fragrant Thai basil, mint and coriander; and crisp flaky fishcakes against slippery soft noodles. 

These fishcakes are made using fresh wild salmon instead of canned and aren't bulked up with 95% potato, so you really get the flavour of salmon and a lovely light texture that crumbles in the mouth. 
I have all the herbs growing in my basement flat (surviving thanks to the relatively sunny long days), so it's one of those recipes I can handle (and have handled repeatedly) for a lazy lunch. The three herbs are favourites in Southeast Asian cooking, and I actually first made these in Singapore a few months back. The boy I was seeing gave me a bouquet of chillies and herbs because he knew I liked my 'flowers' edible. I very unromantically made fishcakes out of them the next day. (Shush! He ate them too.) 

serves 2-4

for the fishcakes
400g fresh wild salmon, skin-on fillets
stock (see below for pho)
1 free-range egg,
3-4 tbsp cornflour (starch)
1" piece of ginger
1-4 bird's eye chillies (to own discretion)
sea salt, to taste
zest of 1 lime
1 handful of thai basil
1 handful mint
1 handful coriander
groundnut oil

for the pho
(I'm not referring to the more iconic beef pho. This soup is a light chicken broth that's spiked with fish sauce and lime.)
300g fresh or 100g dried pho noodles (1/4" wide flat rice noodles)
1l basic Asian chicken stock*
1 tsp rock sugar, or to taste
6 tbsp fish sauce, or to taste

to serve
1 lime, cut into wedges
more bird's eye chillies, chopped
more thai basil, mint, and coriander, roughly torn

*Made from simmering the carcass of a happy chicken with a lot of smashed ginger for 3 hours. More tips on getting a clear broth and general stock-making help here.

1. Place salmon skin-side down in a deep pan. Pour enough stock to cover the fillets, and bring it up to a boil. Once it starts to simmer, turn off the heat, cover and allow the salmon to poach for about 5 minutes. Do not overcook, and err on the side of undercooking, as you will fry the fishcakes further later. Once cooked, remove the salmon very gently from the pan, reserving the salmon-flavoured stock for later.  Remove skin (I eat this, yum #asian), then flake the salmon with a fork.
2. Combine salmon with the beaten egg and enough cornflour for the mixture to come together. Season generously, adding the minced ginger, chillies and lime zest at the same time. Finely chop the herbs and mix in gently. Refrigerate the mixture for a bit while you prepare the noodle soup.
3. If you're living in Asia, you can get access to fresh rice noodles from the market, they are amazing. If not, cook dried noodles in plenty of boiling water till just cooked, then drain, refresh and let sit in cool water- this prevents sticky noodles!
4. Add the salmon-flavoured stock to the rest of the stock, and bring to a boil. Add fish sauce and rock sugar to taste.
5. Back to fishcakes. You can shape them into patties (see photo above) but I have since improved my method to suit the lazy. I drop in about 2 heaped tbsp of the thick batter into medium-hot oil and then sort of shape the edges a bit, flattening with my spatula. Fry, flipping once, till golden on both sides. Repeat till you finish the batter, being careful not to overcrowd the pan.
6. To serve, drain noodles well and divide into bowls. Pour hot stock over. Place fishcakes on top.  Make sure the person eating squeezes lime over and stirs in the herbs and chillies into the hot broth to flavour it just before digging in.*

*That said, you can add as much as you like. Read my little rant about how everyone has the right to decide how they like their soup.

And that's it. It's pretty simple especially if you already have homemade stock in the fridge. The broth is easily flavoured with fish sauce, lime, herbs and the salmon you were poaching. The fishcakes themselves require as much effort as mixing a pancake batter takes and that even 6 year olds could do. If you want to change things around a bit, feel free to. Maybe a white fish, maybe dill, maybe vermicelli noodles instead. I guess that's what I really love about cooking– being spontaneous with the ingredients and having fun with the process.

p.s.  Coley and dill fishcakes, with vermicelli noodle soup may just be up on the blog in future; sod it with the 'not good enough'!

p.p.s. I am Asian so I eat a lot of noodles (on the days when I'm not eating rice, you know?) Get on the mailing list for recipes too short to blog about: roast fennel and miso somen soup; sugar snap peas and chilli shrimp oil vermicelli; marinated soy egg-n-cress noodle soup.


More Asian soups
The 'right' way to make stock
'Old-fire' watercress soup
Marrow goji berry stew

More noodle soup
Bittergourd fish soup, and what I learnt about perfect noodle soups in Hanoi
XO fish head noodle soup
Mee hoon kueh (torn handmade noodle soup)
How to make bouncy 100%-fishballs 
How to make Asian egg (alkaline) noodles