Daikon, Ginger And Lemon Grass
My town is blessed with some awe inspiring restaurants, among which my favorite noodle joint stands out. This humble place offers the usual assortment of pho dishes, all very tasty, but their vegetarian broth is so good that people order veggie pho with meatballs or whatever, just to savor the delectable broth. It’s silky, spunky, and gently pungent without being particularly spicy. It’s mainly made from daikon, a huge Asian radish (see below if you want to grow your own). I’ve been experimenting to try and make my own version of that broth, and here’s what I’ve got so far!
Savory, Satisfying Vegetable Broths
Savory, clean tasting broth is the chief building block for nearly all soups. I find commercial brands rather nasty, either greasy and muddy or weirdly sweet and metallic tasting. Happily, utterly delicious vegetable broths are ridiculously easy to make. You can make one from scratch as detailed below, but if you cook a lot, you can make excellent broth by packing a pot with vegetable scraps, adding water to cover and half a teaspoon of sea salt, then covering the pan and simmering on low for an hour or two. Strain and season to taste and you have a base that can take you pretty much anywhere you want it to go. I keep a container in the fridge where I put onions and garlic skins, roots and outer layers, celery roots and tops, carrot tops, and the parts of leeks that are too tough to eat. Since I make soup every few days, this stuff never gets funky, but it freezes just fine if need be.
These simple and very common ingredients are the basis for all sorts of soups, which can be elevated by later additions, from ginger and chili peppers to mushrooms and winter greens. However, some otherwise very pleasant soup ingredients do not contribute to good broth. I’ve learned not to add scraps of cabbage, kale or chard, all of which can overpower the pot. Peppers, eggplant, asparagus, beans, mushrooms and squash can also come on strong, so I stick with the basics for broth and embroider the soup later. If a vegetable broth tastes thin, add a little miso or flaked nutritional yeast (NOT brewer’s yeast), both of which offer rich flavor and a lot of umami. You can also stir in some vegetarian refried beans for body and depth, or kombu (edible seaweed). Pescatarians can add dried bonito flakes too (kombu and bonito flakes are the ingredients for traditional Japanese dashi broth).
Vegan Broth For Pho Noodles
1 onion, chopped, with papery skin
4 fat cloves garlic, chopped (with skins)
2 cups chopped unpeeled daikon radish root
2 inches unpeeled ginger root, chopped
1 unpeeled carrot, chopped
1 leek, chopped, including roots and all green parts
2 stalks lemon grass, cut in 2-inch pieces
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup diced tofu
1 cup julienned carrot
1 cup coarsely chopped cabbage
1 cup snow pea pods
1 cup shiitake mushrooms (or sliced baby Portobellos)
2 green onions, thinly sliced
4 cups pho noodles
2 cups bean sprouts
1 lime, cut in 8 pieces
1 jalapeno pepper, sliced
4 large sprigs thai basil
Make broth by combining all ingredients with 6 cups water. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, over low heat for an hour or two until vegetables are tender and broth is golden (onion skins add a lot of color). Simmer over lowest heat for an hour, then strain. Return broth to pan and season to taste with salt. Bring to a boil and add the tofu and vegetables, cook for 1-2 minutes, add pho needles and cook for a minute, then serve with garnishes. Serves 4.
Daikon (Raphanus sativus var. longipinnatus), sizes up fast (about 60-70 days from seed). You can find seed of various heritage daikon strains, some best for growing in hotter weather, most for the cooler months. Most are tastiest when harvested before they get more than a foot long. They’ll happily grow longer, but lose their crisp texture and develop woody cores. Because the root is so large, it grows best in deep, open soil, not easy to come by in my part of the world. I’ve had the most success growing daikon in spring and fall, in my deep berms of sandy loam.
On the other hand, daikon is a favorite crop with permaculture fans, who use it as a “vegetable drill” to open heavy, compacted soils. If you don’t care about getting perfect roots, go ahead and grow it anywhere! My most successful daikon crops have been sown in late winter and harvested before summer heat hits, or fall planted and harvested in early winter. A hard freeze turns them to mush, but recent winters have been good ones for daikon.
Growing Ginger…Or Not
Another key ingredient in that mildly addictive broth is ginger. There’s been a mild fad for growing your own from starts taken off grocery store ginger roots, but that’s not a great idea. For one thing, unless it’s certified organic, it’s probably been treated with fungicide as well as growth inhibitors that suppress sprouting. If you really want to try it, look for certified organic ginger “seed” (really small starts).
Like daikon, ginger prefers an open, nutritive soil, though ginger wants more fertilizing than daikon. It grows out rather than down, so it doesn’t need the depth that daikon does, but it definitely needs extra calcium, especially in the maritime Northwest, where calcium levels tend to be low. I admit to having grown some just to see what it was like, with moderate success, but unless you live in Hawaii, I’d say you’re better off getting good organic ginger from the grocery store.
The third magic ingredient in the pho broth is lemongrass. Like ginger, lemongrass is too tender to be perennial in the Northwest, but it’s easy enough to grow indoors. Again, look for certified organic lemongrass, choose a few plump stalks, and stick them in some water on a sunny windowsill (south or west facing works best). Change the water daily and in a week or so, you’ll see roots at the base of the stalks. Keep changing the water and in a few weeks, the stalks will be well rooted enough to pot up.
When the roots are ready, plant your lemongrass in a large pot, as big as you might use for a major houseplant. Use a nutritive potting soil, and give it a similarly sunny window. These guys get quite large, and need both deep soil and good drainage. Keep them moist but not soggy, and fertilize with 5-5-5 every few weeks. As they settle in, you’ll find new shoots coming up beside your starters. When you want to harvest, use a very sharp knife to cut a few stalks right at the base. Once lemongrass is established, cutting will encourage new growth, so you can harvest freely as the plant matures.