'It's so pretty, Napa cabbage. So ruffly and drapey.'
I held a few of the loose, ruffled leaves against the leg of my jeans and sighed, considering them.
'....I think if I was going to make a dress out of any vegetable at all, it would be Napa cabbage.'
My husband, who knows me well enough by now to know that this isn't even remotely crazy talk coming from me, wisely held his tongue and kept slicing shallots and chopping mint. He's a smart man. It is very pretty though, Napa cabbage, although when it comes to uses I recommend eating over eveningwear. And what better way could there be to eat it than sliced into delicate ribbons and swimming in spicy broth and tender noodles, a few golden shreds of duck meat, diced tomatoes, and a sprinkling of fresh herbs decorating the surface?
This recipe for Vietnamese duck noodle soup (also known as bun vit mang), from the May issue of Bon Appétit magazine, is built on a solid foundation of flavors: first of all, duck. Yum. I think it's only fair to tell you that you might, in the absence of duck, be able to build a perfectly respectable soup on, say, chicken. But it's going to be missing that inherently wonderful, rich, ducky quality. Don't cheat yourself. It's a little difficult to find at our usual supermarkets (at least it is in our Phoenix suburb, your mileage may vary if you're in a more duck-loving corner of the world?), but we can always, always find duck legs at our local Asian specialty supermarket, so look around.
The second fundamental building block in this complex soup is a large quantity of good, fresh ginger. Ginger is one of those rare food items (really, it's a short list) that I always claimed not to like, having tasted funky, limp pinkish pickled ginger slices too many times at too many cheap sushi joints and declaring it to 'taste like window cleaner.' I don't remember when I changed my mind, but I do know that it was fresh ginger that cracked that particular prejudice wide open. Fresh ginger is a juicy, tongue-prickling wonder, a staple around the Orange & Salt kitchen whenever we're cooking anything remotely Asian in flavor. It's also basically a superfood that is reported to do just about everything from curing indigestion, nausea, and cold & flu symptoms to lowering levels of 'bad' cholesterol so eat your ginger--but stay away from the pickled, cheap-sushi-joint stuff! It really does taste like window cleaner.
Finally, I would say the balance of flavor in this wonderful soup is made up by all those fantastic garnishes, piled on in traditional Vietnamese mix-and-match style, to suit the individual taste. It's a lineup of the usual suspects of Southeast Asian cuisine: fish sauce, hot chilis, mint, cilantro, bright & zingy lime juice, etc, and all the tangy-hot-spicy-sweet helps to liven up the rich, fatty soup base incredibly.
I couldn't resist including this photo, since we tried a new brand of fish sauce this time around, and I think the smiling, lipstick-wearing, thumbs-up baby fish sauce spokesmodel is hilarious. 'Heeyyy, try my fish sauce!' :)
What you will start with: a full to the brim bowl of juicy, spicy, crunchy, ducky goodness............
6 duck leg-thigh pieces
16 cups low-salt chicken broth
1 large onion, peeled, halved
6 tablespoons finely chopped peeled fresh ginger
2 tablespoons (or more) fish sauce (such as nam pla or nuoc nam)*
1 tablespoon sugar
1 6.75-ounce package rice vermicelli
3 cups sliced shallots (about 10 large)
2 1/4 pounds plum tomatoes, chopped
3 8-ounce cans sliced bamboo shoots, drained
6 cups thinly sliced Napa cabbage
1/3 cup chopped fresh mint
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/3 cup chopped fresh chives
Hot chili sauce (such as sriracha)
Heat heavy large pot over high heat. Sprinkle duck with salt and pepper. Add to pot; sauté until deep brown, about 6 minutes per side. Add broth, onion, ginger, 2 tablespoons fish sauce, and sugar; bring to boil. Reduce heat; simmer uncovered until duck is very tender, adjusting heat to maintain simmer, 45 to 60 minutes.
Using tongs, transfer duck to rimmed baking sheet. Cool 30 minutes. Skin and bone duck. Coarsely shred duck meat. Strain broth into large bowl; discard solids. Spoon fat from top of broth into small bowl; reserve. Return broth and duck to same pot. Can be made 1 day ahead. Chill soup uncovered until cold, then cover and keep chilled. Cover and chill duck fat.
Cook rice vermicelli in large saucepan of boiling water until just tender, stirring occasionally, 3 to 5 minutes. Drain, rinse with cold water, and drain again. Cut noodles in half to shorten.
Melt 2 tablespoons reserved duck fat in same saucepan over medium-high heat. Add shallots; sauté 3 minutes. Add tomatoes and bamboo shoots. Cook until juices thicken, about 7 minutes longer. Add tomato mixture to soup. Simmer until flavors blend, 5 to 10 minutes. Season with salt, pepper, and more fish sauce if desired.
Divide noodles, cabbage, and herbs among 6 large bowls. Ladle in soup. Serve, passing hot sauce and lime wedges.