Phở Risotto: "Fusion" Doesn't Have to Suck
Do you remember that old nursery rhyme about Jack Sprat? Well, that's my wife and eldest daughter, only with phở. On our not infrequent trips to Van Loc, a longstanding family favorite, we always forget this fact. Every single time, we look across the table at a bowl full of dry noodles in front of my wife, and a bowl full of broth in front of my daughter, and decide that, next time, they're just going to get a bowl to share. Hasn't happened yet. Of course, that leaves me with a dilemma.
I have a visceral hatred of wasting food. I will pile half an enchilada from my kid's dinner into a doggy bag with a few scoops of rice from my wife, top it with a drizzle from the queso bowl, and reheat it for lunch the next day. With phở, though, I have to flex a bit of creative muscle. Reheated, the noodles fall apart, rendering the whole thing cloudy, starchy, and unpleasant.
Thankfully, I take the idea of leftovers as ingredients very seriously. I re-purpose nearly every scrap that doesn't make sense as a stand-alone meal, turning roast into hash, mashed potatoes into a sort of mutant latke, and morphing all manner of vegetables into soups and sauces.
Turning leftover phở into a new meal could have been as simple as throwing a handful of vegetables into the simmering broth and calling it soup, but I'd had a different idea in the back of my mind for a while. Phở Risotto. I know, I know. Fusion is passé. Fusion is gimmicky and trite. Fusion is annoying. Whatever. This was a good idea.
To keep with the spirit of fusion, I started the risotto with a handful of phở-appropriate aromatics (sorry). Chopped scallions went into a large pot, to sweat down in a bit of olive oil and the fat rendered from a bit of diced, crispy-browned spam (a questionable but delicious stand-in for chả lụa). I always start risotto with a bit of sweated onion or shallot (and often a bit of pork product), so this seemed an appropriate bridge, flavor-wise. After the scallions had softened slightly, I added a bit of chopped cilantro and basil, captured from the phở garnish plate. I find that layering herbs in helps build a nuanced flavor base, so I do that rather than just including them at the end.
Next, I toasted the rice: carnaroli that I'd pre-soaked and dried, per the brilliant 6-minute risotto method from Ideas In Food. I've used it many times, and it's great for making dinner a snap. I tossed the rice in a zip-top bag with some water a couple of hours before I left the office, just enough time to hydrate it before dinner. I'd meant to use the phở broth to hydrate and cook the risotto, but had forgotten to take the broth to work with me. Hydrating the rice in broth would have made for both more flavorful rice (seasoned from the inside!), and a creamier risotto (more hydrated, gelatinized starch in the final liquid phase); even a handful of thematic aromatics in the soaking water would have been nice; perhaps some ginger, scallion, and basil.
When the rice was just starting to take on a slightly golden hue, and its nutty aroma filled the kitchen, I deglazed the pan with a bit of manzanilla sherry I had sitting around, thinking its yeasty character would merge well with the overall temperament of the dish. Also, I didn't have the rice wine I thought I had.
From there, it was a simple matter of dumping in the (reheated) phở broth, bringing the whole thing to a boil, and setting a timer for six minutes. When it was thickened properly, I killed the heat and stirred back in some of the reserved SPAM pieces, along with a handful of basil, cilantro, and scallions, giving the aromatics just enough time to wilt and incorporate.
Of course, there wasn't a ton of broth left, limiting the amount of risotto I could make, so I felt I needed to add something to stretch the meal. While I was doing the phởsotto prep, I'd been marinating a few catfish fillets in a mix of miso, sugar, sherry, soy, and vegetable oil. It's a marinade I use often for quick and tasty broiled salmon that my kids love. It occurred to me that, with a bit of extra sugar and glazed on catfish, it would be fairly similar to the profile of cá kho tộ (Vietnamese clay-pot-cooked catfish flavored with fish sauce and caramel sauce). When I dumped the broth onto the rice, I threw the marinated fish under the broiler. The fish was perfect just as I finished spooning the risotto onto plates.
To serve, the fillets went on top of the risotto, garnished with some more fresh basil, cilantro, and scallion. A scattering of crispy SPAM finished things off, adding a nice crispy element. It was delicious, and exactly what I'd hoped for. I tried to get feedback from the wife and kids, but all I got was a muffled "mmrrrnnhhmm" and the scraping of spoons. I think that means they liked it. As for me, I'm already thinking forward to my next use for the leftover broth, as I'm certain this experience won't exactly reinforce the need to order more moderately. I think I'm okay with that, and I'm certainly looking forward to phởngee.