Family-Style Hot and Sour Soup with Shrimp, Pork, and Chiles

Tony writes: I order hot and sour soup most every time I go to a Chinese or Thai restaurant. It’s my thing: the vinegary tang, the heat, the abundance (the broth usually contains some happy mix of unidentifiable, but good, stuff). Over the years, I’ve played around with hot and sour in my own kitchen, but never to great success. Replicating the Chinese version can be less than lovely: there are about 50 different things that go into a proper interpretation (many of them of the unidentifiable-but-good ilk), from wood ear mushrooms to bamboo shoots to velvety egg.  All of this costs and makes it hard to match, if not improve upon (I’m still chasing my hot-and-sour holy grail: Seven Star Mandarin‘s from the Newton Ctr. of my youth). The Thai version (tom yum) is more austere, more about aromatic flavorings: a light broth powered by lemongrass, chiles, cilantro, and fish sauce. It’s far easier to make, but not substantial enough to serve as dinner.

In what passes as a Eureka moment for me, I recently wondered: Why not make a hybrid of Thai and Chinese hot and sour? A one pot that would have a lot of stuff in it, be dinner-ish, but also encompass the best spicy-sour elements of both. A rich, ramen-ish broth spiked with vinegar and pepper, filled out with meat and shrimp and tofu. So on a quiet Sunday when it was still cold enough to consider soup, I gave it a go. And it was good, good enough to pass along…

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The technique:  I wanted the soup to be a meal and the broth to be rich. I accomplished both with one shot: with cheap, flavorful cuts – spareribs and chicken drumsticks. Both are easy purchases that serve as strong flavor bases. Brown each to give the broth a rich caramelized base. Then reserve the pork and chicken and saute some shallots (lemongrass would be good here) and hot chiles before adding water (or chicken broth) and bringing to a simmer; return the meat to the pot and cook until tender and the broth intensifies in flavor. Stir in the “hot” (white or black pepper) and “sour” (vinegar) and then finish the soup with tofu and shrimp and drizzle in some egg if you like. Serve, garnished with fresh cilantro and scallions.

The recipe

Serves 4 to 6

1. Sear the chicken and pork: Heat a large, heavy-based pot over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Sprinkle 4 pork spareribs (trimmed, about 3/4 lb.) and 4 chicken drumsticks (about 1 1/2 lb) with S+P (a total of 2 tsp. and 1 tsp.).  Add 2 Tbs. canola oil to the pot and once it’s shimmering hot, add the ribs evenly spaced. Cook the ribs, undisturbed, until they brown and easily release from the pot, about 2 minutes. Flip and brown the other side in the same manner, 2 minutes. Transfer to a large plate, reduce the heat to medium, add a splash of oil if needed, and brown the drumsticks in the same manner, about 4 minutes total. Transfer to the same plate.  

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2. Make the broth: Add a splash of oil if the pot is dry and, still over medium heat, add 2 shallots (thinly sliced),  2 oz. dried shiitakes (cut in half if you can) and  4 Thai chiles (leave them whole or cut in half if you’re feeling crazy), sprinkle with salt, and cook, stirring, until the shallots soften and brown in places, 2 to 3 minutes. Add 8 cups water and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium low, return the chicken and pork to the pot, and cook, skimming the broth occasionally (there will be some foam and fat) until the meat cooks through and becomes tender and the broth becomes intensely flavored, about 1 1/2 hours.   

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3. Finish the soup:  Into the broth, stir 2 Tbs. white vinegar, 1 Tbs. dark soy sauce (or 2 Tbs. soy sauce), 2 tsp. Sriracha, and 2 tsp. white pepper (or black pepper). Mix 2 tsp. cornstarch with 1 Tbs. water and then whisk into the broth; the broth should thicken. Add 1/2 lb. shrimp  (preferably 16-20 ct, peeled and deveined) and tofu (a 14-oz pack of extra-firm tofu, cut into strips) and cook until the tofu heats through and the shrimp becomes pink and firm to the touch, about 4 minutes. Optional: add 2 eggs (beaten), pouring them in a very light stream while simultaneously stirring the soup (so the egg turns into light ribbons). Season the broth with more vinegar and pepper to taste; each should be aggressive.

4. Serve: Garnish with scallions (about 4, trimmed and thinly sliced) and cilantro (about 1/4 bunch) and serve with steamed brown rice.

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