I often joke that if I were stranded on a desert island and could only eat one type of food for the rest of my life, it would be noodle soup. It’s the perfect one-bowl meal with protein, vegetables and noodles in a savory broth that soothes the soul. More importantly, with variations that run the gamut from light chicken pho to unctuous tonkotsu ramen, it’s a food with enough diversity that the hypothetical island-dweller version of me in this improbable scenario would never get bored.
So when a blizzard hit last week and I found myself stranded by a wall of white stuff, my first thought was to get the pressure cooker out and start making some stock for a noodle soup. As luck would have it I had some frozen spare ribs and a half empty pack of dried rice noodles. About an hour later, I was tucking into this steaming bowl of sublimely balanced broth with delightfully chewy rice noodles topped with fall-off-the-bone tender spare ribs, bok choy and fried shallots.
The key to this broth is in burning the aromatics. Yes, that’s right, you want to burn them, as in charred black. Don’t worry, you won’t be eating them and it won’t make your soup bitter or acrid as you might expect. Instead, the blackened garlic, onions and ginger take on a unique savory flavor that adds a depth to the soup that will literally make your mouth water.
Spare Rib Noodle Soup
- 1 package rice stick noodles (sometimes labelled banh pho)
- 23 ounces (640 gram) pork spare ribs
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 medium onion, sliced in half
- 1 ounce (30 grams) ginger
- 1 ounce (30 grams) garlic, unpeeled
- 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
- 6 cups water
- 1 stalk lemongrass, white part only
- 1 rib celery (including leaves)
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
- .5 ounces (15 grams) rock sugar
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 head bok choy
- 2 tablespoons fried shallots (for garnish)
- Put the noodles in a wide shallow tray and cover with warm water. Let the noodles soak until they are flexible enough to bend without breaking (about 45 minutes to an hour).
- Season the spare ribs with 1 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of black pepper.
- Next char the onion, ginger and garlic. There are a few ways to do this, including putting the aromatics directly over an open flame. The writer recommends using a broiler with the rack closest to the heating element, which can take about 12 minutes to get an even char on the aromatics.
- Heat a pressure cooker over medium-high heat until hot. Add the vegetable oil, and then place the spare ribs in a single layer and leave undisturbed until browned on one side. Flip the ribs over, and brown the other side.
- Add the water, lemongrass, celery, black peppercorns and rock sugar along with the charred aromatics, and turn the heat up to high to bring the water to a boil.
- Use a skimmer to skim any foam that floats to the top.
- When there's no more foam rising, affix the lid to the pressure cooker and cook on high pressure for 45 minutes.
- This can also be done in a regular heavy bottomed pot, and the steps are the same, except you'll need to cook the ribs at a low simmer for 2 1/2 to 3 hours.
- When the soup is almost done, boil a pot of water for the noodles.
- Follow your manufacturer's instructions to release the pressure.
- Use a ladle to transfer the onions, ginger, garlic and celery to a strainer and press to extract as much soup as possible. Then discard the solids.
- Season the soup to taste with fish sauce. The writer recommends about 2 tablespoons.
- Boil the bok choy, and then use the same water to boil the rice noodles. If you've pre-soaked them, they should cook in about 1 minute.
- Divide the noodles between 2 to 3 bowls, and then top with the soup, spare ribs, bok choy and fried shallots.
- Serve with sweet soy sauce (kecap manis) and fresh chilies.
Yield: 2-3 bowls
Marc Matsumoto is a culinary consultant and recipe repairman who shares his passion for good food through his website norecipes.com. For Marc, food is a life long journey of exploration, discovery and experimentation and he shares his escapades through his blog in the hopes that he inspires others to find their own culinary adventures. Marc’s been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and has made multiple appearances on NPR and the Food Network.