When my girls were between one and a half to three years old, they basically lived off of my Vietnamese pork ribs and vegetable (of the day) soup. It was the work horse of all soups during this busy time in Mommyville for me. The mild, somewhat neutral flavor of the broth were more suitable to their developing taste buds. The softened pork meat and colorful vegetables when mixed with steamed rice were easier on their toddler teeth. The best part was knowing they were slurping with delight, spoonfuls of hearty, nutritious food made by their mama. These days, my reliable soup has ran its course with the girls as they are progressing to more complex dishes with richer, bolder, at times slightly spicier flavors. I only cook it when someone is under the weather or for my old folks when their dentures become problematic.
Having made this soup so frequently, I never measured anything or have a precise recipe. It was always by feel and tasting as I went. What’s excellent about this soup is its versatility. If you’re lazy or pressed for time, you can chop the vegetables into large chunks approximately 1″ cubed or cut pieces. If time is on your side, you can dice them like large pea sizes. You can add more or less of a vegetable you like. You can use whatever vegetables are at your disposable, or what grabs your attention while you grocery shop. I sometimes refer to it as “Everything but the kitchen sink” soup because I have purged many vegetables – current or past their prime, from my fridge with this soup. My greens of choice are zucchini, Korean or Chinese fussy squash, kale or napa cabbage. Those vegetables alone with the pork yields a fantastic soup. However, to make the soup heartier, I will add potatoes – whatever I have. Carrots are not my “thing” but I will include organic carrots to bump up the girls’ beta carotene intake (They don’t like raw carrots.) or purely just for contrasting color. Fresh tomatoes, baby portobellos mushrooms, and fresh corn are nutritious and delicious add-ons to the soup but I found the girls became “baby divas” and objected such additions. Different strokes for different folks perhaps. In the winter, I’ve been known to add canned cannellini beans (drained and rinsed under water first) which brings a hearty, earthy note to the soup. What is very consistent is my use of pork spare ribs. I love the richness and fattiness of the broth from the pork meat and bones. Skinless chicken thighs or drumsticks are reasonable alternatives. I recently brought this soup to a dear friend after the birth of her beautiful baby. She has since asked me for the recipe so I’m writing a post for it. Hope she finds it useful and will customize it to her own family’s taste.
2 lbs. pork spareribs (ask butcher to cut once against the bone, then into 2-3″ bite size pieces)
2 potatoes (yukon gold, russet, purple, whatever is available) peeled, cut into bite size pieces
2 small zucchini, Korean or Chinese fuzzy squashes, cut into bite size pieces
1 medium organic carrot, peeled, cut into bite size pieces
1 small sweet yellow onion, peeled, cut in half
1 knob of ginger (approximately size of a quarter), peeled, keep whole
1 teaspoon Chinese rice wine, Xiao Xing (optional)
2 teaspoons canola oil
3 garlic cloves, leave whole, smashed slightly
1 shallot (approximately size of a lemon), peeled, chopped finely
1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper or 6-8 turns with a pepper mill
1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
3 teaspoons kosher salt – or to taste
3 teaspoons granulated sugar – more if needed later
2 teaspoon fish sauce – or to taste
1 teaspoon Lee Kum Kee or Knorr chicken powder (very optional; soup is still good without it)
Warm tap water to make the soup
4-5 sprigs cilantro, separating stems from roughly chopped leaves (stems for making stock, leaves for topping soup before serving) – optional
2 stalks green onions, roughly chopped, pea sizes
- Parboil the spare ribs. In a 6 or 8 qt stock pot, pour water half way up the pot. Bring to a rolling boil. Add the first teaspoon of kosher salt. Add ginger knob and pork ribs. Add rice wine (if using). Boil ribs for 5-7 minutes to remove impurities. Drain well and rinse remaining impurities under running water. Set aside.
- Roughly wash the stock pot to remove impurities left inside the pot. Quickly dry pot’s interior with a paper towel. Place back on the burner. Set to med heat. When pot is slightly smokey, add canola oil. Swirl oil around bottom of stock pot to coat. Drop in the spare ribs. Add first teaspoon of fish sauce. Use a spatula, toss spareribs around to ensure fish sauce is coated evenly on the ribs. Brown for roughly 2 minutes.
- Add chopped shallots, sweet onions, and smashed whole garlic. Use spatula, toss ingredients evenly, avoid burning the aromatics. Brown for another 1-2 minutes.
- Drop in the cut potatoes and carrots. Add black pepper and crushed red pepper flakes (if using). Toss with spatula.
- Fill stock pot, approximately half way up the pot, with warm or hot tap water. Add sugar, chicken powder (if using), remaining 2 teaspoons of salt, remaining 1 teaspoon of fish sauce. Bring to a slight boil.
- Drop the heat to low, simmer for 30-35 minutes, with pot lid partially closed. Skimming off excess fat/impurities from the surface as needed. Drop in the zucchini/squash after the first 15 minutes of simmering. Add in cilantro stems.
- Taste soup after 20 minutes. Determine if more salt, fish sauce, or sugar is needed and add according to preference.
- Approximately 5-10 minutes before cooking is done, taste soup again for seasoning. Again, determine what’s needed and add accordingly. When satisfied with the taste, sprinkle chopped cilantro leaves and green onions, and topped with more black pepper/crushed pepper flakes if preferred.
- Serve with hot steamed rice.