Quarantine Favorite: Andrea Nguyen’s Vietnamese Vegetable Soup

I’ve been enjoying Andrea Nguyen’s newest cookbook Vietnamese Food Any Day. Her Versatile Vegetable Soup has actually become my favorite soup in the last several months, especially during the Lunar New Year month when I repeatedly used a simplified version of it as a wonton broth. However, I find I’m making this soup even more often now during quarantine, about twice a week. As the name suggests, this soup is extremely versatile. I switch the veg in and out based on what I have in the fridge (especially now in Corona-Days) but I also change things around inspired by my mood and what I want to do with the broth.

Version with Israeli couscous, topped with tempeh and lemon-basil.

This has become my go-to broth for wonton soups and it’s perfect for noodle soups. When I make this soup concept as a broth for wontons or noodles, I reduce the types of veg so the soup has more room for other objects. I’ll eliminate the bean sprouts, and usually the carrots to make space.

Brothy version as wonton soup.

Sometime I’ll add some tempeh, tofu or an egg for protein, I’ll fry the tempeh separately and add it straight to the soup bowl. For an egg, you can add a fried or hard-boiled egg to the bowl, or do an egg-drop/egg-flower situation in the soup pot as the last step before serving. One of my friends has been using this recipe as a base for her corn and egg drop soup for her kids during quarantine. She adds a little turmeric to the broth.

I also have been obsessing about the intersection between Asian soups and porridges. I lived in China 8.5 years, and it took me a few years to embrace soup and savory porridge for breakfast. I think most of us who travel and are open-minded about foods from other cultures love to try new foods for lunch and dinner, but breakfast still feels like an emotionally nostalgic meal. We tend to cling to the comforting breakfast foods of their childhood. Sometimes while staying in the homes of my Chinese friends and students, I wished for a “simple” egg on toast with coffee while being served squishy-chewy rice balls for breakfast. However, after a few years in China I started to appreciate and even crave soupy things for breakfast!

Now that I’m back home living in California, I often make Asian-style soups and porridges for breakfast. Sometimes I merge the two by making an Asian soup and cooking pearl barley or another grain in it. Now this feels as homey and comforting to me as an egg on toast. I realize that China has changed me because I can’t get anyone else in California to eat soup with me for breakfast (although they love this soup for lunch or dinner).

Pouring Israeli couscous into the simmering soup.
Porridge version with pearl barley.

While some Asian soups take hours to simmer like pho or a Guangdong bone broth, most Asian soups like this one are quick, coming together in a few minutes. That’s usually surprising to Westerners who are used to soups taking a long time to cook. This one only simmers for 15 minutes, not an hour or 2.

The building blocks of flavor are sliced onions, minced ginger, mushrooms, and soy sauce. If you have those components – even dried mushrooms – this broth will accommodate. I truly feel it’s a perfect soup for quarantine flexibility.

Most recent version using a purple carrot, half a portobello, chard, and some lemon-basil.

Ingredients

1 tablespoon canola or other neutral oil

1/2 medium onion, thinly sliced

1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped peeled ginger

1 medium carrot, cut into thumbnail-size chunks

1 large celery stalk, sliced

2 1/2 cups bean sprouts (I usually omit these)

4 ounces fresh shiitake or white mushrooms, thickly sliced (or a handful of dried mushrooms)

fine sea salt

1 1/2 teaspoons soy sauce

4 1/2 cups water

1/2 cup pearl barley or Israeli couscous (my optional additions)

2 handfuls chopped kale, chard, or spinach

1 thinly sliced green onion, minced

1/3 cup fresh herbs such as basil, dill, or parsley

black pepper or chile garlic sauce for garnish

wontons or noodles (my optional additions)

Method

In a 3-4 quart saucepan over medium-heat, warm the canola oil. When the oil is barely shimmering, add the onion and ginger and cook, stirring frequently, for about 4 minutes, until the onion softens. Add the carrot, celery, bean sprouts, and mushrooms. Toss in the salt and soy sauce. Cook, stirring for 1-2 minutes to develop flavor and warm up. Pour in the water, partially cover, and turn the heat to high. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat. If you are adding the pearl barley, Israeli couscous, or another grain, add it now.

Cook uncovered, at a vigorous simmer for 15 minutes. Increase the heat to return to a boil, and add the greens and green onions.

If you are adding wontons, taste the broth and add salt or soy sauce as needed, then increase the heat to medium-high and add the wontons to the broth. Cook the wontons in the broth until the wonton skins are translucent, stirring occasionally slowly and gently so they don’t stick. If making a wonton soup, you can skip the following step of resting the soup.

If you are not adding wontons, now turn off the heat and let the soup rest, uncovered, for 5 minutes, then taste and, if needed, add more salt or soy sauce. Splash in water if you’ve gone too far or if the soup isn’t brothy enough for you.

If making noodles, boil them in a separate saucepan. Portion the cooked noodles into bowls.

Ladle the soup into individual bows and divide the herbs among them. Sprinkle on some pepper or add a little chili sauce. If using tempeh or another protein, garnish it on top of the soup. Enjoy!

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