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Low sodium phở gà (Vietnamese chicken noodle soup)

A low sodium version of my favorite comfort food. There are so many different ways to make phở gà but one thing they all have in common is that they're loaded with sodium from both salt and fish sauce. This low sodium version has no salt, no fish sauce, and no added sugar. The broth is flavored with typical ingredients like onion, ginger, and star anise but I've also added daikon radish, fennel, an apple, and bonito flakes to give it more depth and flavor. There's not a lot of active cooking, but the broth will need to simmer and then sit for hours while the chicken poaches, so it's not something to attempt on a weeknight after work. The good news is that this recipe makes roughly 14 cups of broth, and the broth freezes well so you can save half for another time.

Servings: 14 cups, about 7 bowls Sodium: 229 mg per bowl (including chicken), see Tips below Time: About 3 hours active, 5-7 hours inactive

Broth Ingredients:

1 whole chicken (about 5 pounds, make sure there's no salt added)

1 apple, cored and quartered

1 large yellow onion, quartered

10 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed

1 three-inch piece of ginger

6-inch piece daikon radish, peeled

6-7 green onions, just the lower white parts

1 bulb fennel, quartered and chopped

1 stick cinnamon (do not substitute with powdered cinnamon, see Tips below)

6 pods star anise

2 tsp whole black peppercorns

1 cup (10 g) bonito flakes

Other ingredients:

1 package unsalted rice noodles, cooked according to directions

9 ounces beansprouts

1 bunch scallions, chopped

1 bunch cilantro, chopped

1 bunch Thai or cinnamon basil

1-2 jalapeños or other peppers, sliced thin

1 small sweet onion, sliced thin (or pickled, see Tips below)

2 limes, cut into wedges

Optional garnishes:

1) Prepare the broth ingredients:

Cook the onions and garlic in a heavy bottom pan on high heat to char them. Don't add any oil. This takes about 10 minutes. You can also do this on a grill.

Cut and clean all the broth ingredients EXCEPT for the bonito flakes. Those will go in later. Make sure you rinse the cinnamon stick and star anise well before adding to the broth. These vegetables will all be strained out of the broth so just cut them small enough so they fit well with the chicken in your stock pot.

Clean the chicken and put it in a large stock pot. I use a whole chicken, including the gizzards. Make sure you rinse the cavity of the chicken thoroughly. I use a 12 quart stock pot. Fill the pot with enough water to cover all the ingredients by about 2 inches.

2) Poach the chicken - Cook the broth, covered, on high heat until it comes to a rapid boil, about 20 minutes. Then turn down to a simmer and cook for 5 more minutes. After simmering on low for 5 minutes, turn off the heat, leave the lid on, and let the broth sit for 3-5 hours. We're poaching the chicken here, letting it cook slowly so that it doesn't dry out.

After 3-5 hours, carefully remove the chicken from the stock and let it sit until it's cool enough to handle. Tear or cut off the meat from the breasts and legs and shred them into small pieces to add to the soup later. I do this by cutting the legs off and taking the meat off the legs. Then I take the rest of the chicken and cut the breast meat off, leaving the wings, neck and all the back meat on the chicken. The chicken should be moist and tender, but still firm, not mushy. If any pieces are still pink, put them back in the hot broth for another 5 minutes or so.

3) Continue to simmer the bones with bonito flakes - Put the chicken bones back in the broth, add 1 cup of bonito flakes and bring to a boil, then simmer, covered for an hour.

4) Strain the broth - After the broth has simmered for an hour, turn off the heat and let it sit for another 1-2 hours, covered. This is a good time to boil your noodles and prepare the garnishes. Strain the broth by carefully taking out all the big pieces first. Then take a fine mesh strainer and pour the broth through it into a new pot that is large enough to hold all your broth (about 13 cups). Like I said, this broth takes some work.

5) Assemble your noodle bowls and eat! Once the broth is strained it's finally ready to go! I like to set aside half the broth to cool and freeze. Assemble your noodles, chicken, and garnishes and you're ready to eat! Here's what we like to eat in our pho. The broth should be boiling hot when you spoon it into your noodle bowl because the noodles and garnishes (especially the beansprouts) will cool it down pretty quickly.


-I was inspired to add an apple to the broth after hearing an interview with Andrea Nguyen on Milkstreet Radio. She adds a fuji apple to her vegan chicken pho to give it a sort of umami flavor. It's subtle, but really adds another dimension to the broth. Honey crisp, pink lady, Braeburn, or fuji all work well but avoid the more mealy apples like Washington or golden delicious.

-I like to eat my phở with very thinly sliced sweet onions, either raw or pickled in white vinegar. To pickle, pour a solution of half white vinegar and half water over thinly sliced onions so they are fully emerged in the vinegar solution. Refrigerate for 30 minutes before serving. Don't let the onions sit in the vinegar for more than an hour or so because they'll taste too vinegar-y and it will overwhelm your broth.

-Cinnamon sticks will vary significantly in flavor and size, so use your judgment as to how long you want to simmer your cinnamon stick. I usually keep mine in for the first hour of poaching, then remove it for a very subtle cinnamon flavor. For a stronger cinnamon flavor, leave it in longer. If you don't have a cinnamon stick, just omit it and do not substitute with powdered cinnamon.

-Cooking rice noodles - I've seen recipes that tell you to cook rice noodles by soaking them in hot water so they don't get gummy. That works for something like pad Thai where you stir fry the noodles after you soak them, but not here where you're eating the noodles boiled. To cook rice noodles, cook in boiling water according to the package. Once the noodles are soft, but still just a bit firm in the center, turn off the heat and add 2 cups of room temperature water to the pot. Cover the pot and let it sit for 5 minutes. The noodles will continue to get softer and fuller, but they shouldn't get mushy or break when you pull them out. Then drain and rinse the noodles.

A note on the sodium content:

The sodium content in all my recipes are estimates and will vary depending on the ingredients used. Chicken is the biggest source of sodium in this recipe at 80 mg/4 ounces. Any more than that and your chicken likely has some added salt solution or "enhancer" so be sure to check the labels.

For soups like this, it's even harder to estimate sodium because it's unclear to me how much sodium from the chicken remains in the chicken and how much is dissolved into the broth. Maybe someday I can rig a home laboratory and do a quantitative analysis but for now here's what I know.

The total sodium from all the ingredients I used was 2020 mg (based on a 5.7 pound chicken) and makes 7 bowls. So if you ate 1/7 of everything that went into this soup--the whole chicken, all the vegetables--it would be 289 mg of sodium per bowl. Realistically, however, you're not eating anything that went into the broth except for the chicken, and even then about 20% of the chicken is discarded because it's too mushy to eat after cooking for so long. So I think the actual sodium content is closer to about 80% of the total, about 229 mg per bowl, including 1/7 of the chicken.

We often eat the phở without the chicken to keep the sodium even lower (and use the chicken for another meal) and I really have no idea how to calculate the sodium of just the broth without the chicken in it. What we do is look at the nutritional data for our store-bought unsalted chicken stock (35 mg per cup), compare ingredients, and use that as a guideline for this broth. Based on this data, I estimate the broth alone to be about 40 mg of sodium per cup.

I'm not sure anybody needed that explanation but with Meniere's disease, it's important to stay very consistent with sodium intake and avoid any peaks and valleys from day to day and meal to meal. It's far from perfect but we need some rational way to determine our total daily sodium intake and for now, this is as good as it gets!

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