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Eric Akis: For an irresistible vegetarian pho, it's all about the broth

A flavourful vegetarian pho starts with broth that is simmered and infused with fragrant, warming spices, including star anise, cinnamon and black peppercorns.
Vegetarian pho is made with a heavenly spiced broth, noodles, shiitake mushrooms, vegetables and various garnishes. ERIC AKIS

If you enjoy Asian-style, aromatic, noodle rich soups with no shortage of flavour, you’ll no doubt be a fan of pho, a Vietnamese-style creation with variations on how it can be made.

According to the book, Hot Sour Salty Sweet: A Culinary Tour Through Southeast Asia, pho (pronounced “fuh”) means noodle, a key ingredient in this soup.

To make pho, once prepared, those noodles, often made with rice, are set in a large serving bowl and topped with rich broth. Where pho’s variations come in, is in how that broth gets flavoured and what other items find their way into the bowl. The latter could include such things as cooked pieces of beef, pork or chicken, seafood, vegetables and garnishes for the soup.

I choose to make a vegetarian version of pho and it’s preparation began with me simmering and infusing vegetable broth with fragrant, alluring and warming spices, which included star anise, cinnamon and black peppercorns. Star anise is a dried, star-shaped seedpod harvested from a small evergreen tree that has an intense licorice-like taste. It’s sold at some supermarkets and at Asian food stores.

Also adding flavour to my broth were such things as sliced shallots, ginger, garlic and umami-rich shiitake mushrooms.

Once the broth had been simmered with those ingredients and a few others, it was strained. It was then returned to a simmer with fresh, sliced shiitake mushrooms added to it, along with carrots, baby bok choy and broccoli.

Once the mixture was ready, it was ladled over the noodles, creating a very appealing bowl of soup you could enjoy for lunch or dinner. Before you do that, of course, you’ll want to further enhance the pho with the garnishes you serve with it at the table, such as sliced green onion, sliced chili peppers and fresh herbs, such as cilantro. You don’t have to use all the garnishes I’ve listed in the recipe, just use the ones that appeal to you.

My vegetarian pho serves two, but if you were only feeding one, the second portion could be cooled and frozen, to thaw, warm and serve at another time.

Vegetarian Pho

Rice noodles, cooked, set in large serving bowls and topped with rich broth, mushrooms and vegetables, creating a flavourful, meat-free version of pho.

Preparation time: 45 minutes

Cooking time: about 40 minutes

Makes: two servings

4 medium to large shiitake mushrooms (divided)

4 cups vegetable broth (I used Pacific Foods brand)

1 cup water

1 Tbsp soy sauce

1 tsp honey

1 cinnamon stick, broken into 3 pieces

2 star anise or 1/2 tsp five-spice powder

10 black peppercorns

2 medium shallots, thinly sliced

1-inch piece, unpeeled, fresh ginger, very thinly sliced, widthwise

1 large garlic clove, halved and very thinly sliced

10 small broccoli florets

125 grams dry Asian-style rice noodles (see Note 1)

• salt, to taste

1/2 cup grated carrot

1 large baby bok choy, trimmed and chopped

• pho garnishes, to taste, such as whole or coarsely chopped cilantro, Thai basil or mint leaves, or a mix of all three; sliced fresh fresno peppers or red Thai chilies or hot Asian-style chili sauce; sliced green onion; bean sprouts; and/or lime wedges, for squeezing

Remove the stems from the shiitake mushrooms. Set the stems in a medium, tall, not overly wide pot (my pot was six-inches wide, and five-inches tall).

Thinly slice the caps of the mushrooms and place half of them in the pot with the stems. Set the other sliced mushrooms aside for now.

Add the broth, water, soy sauce, honey, cinnamon stick, star anise (or five-spice powder), peppercorns, shallots, ginger and garlic to the pot. Set over medium-high heat and bring to a gentle simmer (small bubbles should just break on the surface). Lower heat as needed to maintain that gentle simmer. Simmer broth mixture 25 minutes.

Set a fine sieve over a bowl. Strain the broth mixture through the sieve and into the bowl. Push on the ingredients in the sieve with the bottom of a ladle to ensure you get all the liquid out of them. Measure the liquid in the bowl; you should have about four cups. If you don’t, top it up with water until you do. Pour the strained broth mixture back into the pot you strained it from. Taste and season it with salt, if needed, and then set it aside for now.

Bring a pot with about six-inches of water in it to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the broccoli and cook one to two minutes, until just tender. Scoop the broccoli out of the water with a slotted spoon, set in a bowl, cool with cold water, and then drain well. Set the broccoli aside for now.

Add the rice noodles to the boiling water and cook until just tender, about one minute. Drain the noodles well, and then divide them between two large soup bowls.

Put the strained broth mixture in the pot over medium, medium-high heat. Add the remaining sliced shitake mushrooms and carrots and bring to a simmer. Simmer two minutes, and then add the baby bok choy and broccoli. Simmer 30 seconds more.

Divide and ladle the broth mixture, mushrooms and vegetables over the noodles in the soup bowls. Serve these bowls of vegetarian pho with your desired garnishes at the table.

Note 1: Rice noodles are sold in the Asian foods aisle of supermarkets. In the soup, I used the thin, slightly wider style of rice noodle often labeled “rice stick.” Package sizes vary. If you bought one that contains more noodles than you need here, package up the leftover noodles for another time.

Note 2: Fresno peppers are a red chili pepper with mild to medium heat similar in size and shape to a jalapeño pepper. You’ll find them at many supermarkets.

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Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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