Last night, I made a soup so good, I had to write about it.
I have made this soup before. Its Tom Kah Gai - Thai Coconut Soup with Chicken - and it is my husband's favorite, so we actually make it quite often. The ingredients are all simple and fairly readily at hand, with the exception of fresh lemon grass, and maybe the Thai red chile paste, depending on where you are.
Yesterday the lemon grass was the problem. The Ralph's at the bottom of our hill is the only place nearby that I know always carries it, and yesterday they had non. Jayson and Brook were coming for dinner so I had stopped at the Korean grocery store in Glendale (HK Market on Pacific) for pre-marinated Kalbi. They had lemongrass, but as seems to be more prevalent in the Asian grocery stores these days, it was pre-packaged in plastic. Which meant that while I only needed a stalk or two, I would have to spend $2.99 on a package of roughly 14. Not that its not worth it to spend the $3.00, but I have a thing about waste and couldn't bring myself to buy it.
Wil wanted me to simply leave the lemongrass out, but it is such an integral part of the soup, I decided to try another resource. I belong to a fabulous co-op in my neighborhood. We are a group of gardeners, foodies, locavores, and eco-minded, modern modified hippies who exchange excess produce from our gardens, along with ideas, resources, recipes, and general advice. I posted a notice that I was looking for fresh lemongrass and within minutes, got several responses (you guys are so fabulous!). Gail in Arcadia not only had lemongrass, but also kaffir lime leaves, limes and oregano. I drove to her house where she had left me the lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves in a bag on her porch, and left a pot of drunken fig jam in trade.
I'm embarrassed to admit, as big a foodie as I am, I had never used kaffir lime leaves before. I know what they are, but it's another one of those ingredients that I wouldn't use on a daily or regular basis, and I had yet to find a recipe tempting enough to make me go out of my way to find it. The recipe didn't call for it, but since I had it, I broke a few leaves into the soup towards the end, and was astounded at the results. The final soup was more fragrant and flavorful than any other time I had made it. It was smoother, and somehow this time, I had gotten the heat just right. Even my husband said it was better than usual.
Since I feel compelled to share, here is the recipe. A few notes: Kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass stalks can be found at most Asian markets and some specialty food stores. For those who have never worked with either, both lend incredible flavor that can't be substituted, but both are also inedible; you'll want to pull them out of your bowl. You really want to try to find Thai Red Curry Paste. No hot sauce (i.e. garlic sauce, Sirracha) will substitute. Strangely enough, I have always been able to find it at Cost Plus World Market in their grocery section. We like to add a scoop of rice to our soup, making it a little porridge-like. Add a salad of mixed greens tossed with a little miso dressing and you have a complete and balanced meal.
While this recipe contains my changes and modifications, the original base recipe came from "Soups & Stews" from the editors of Cook's Illustrated magazine (one of my favorite mags).
THAI CHICKEN AND COCONUT SOUP
Leftovers can be refrigerated for a few days, but the coconut milk will separate. Reheat slowly, not boiling the liquid, to prevent the milk from curdling. If you're having rice with this, refrigerate the rice in a separate container.
1 teaspoon canola oil
1 stalk lemon grass, outer sheath removed, bottom 3 inches trimmed and quartered lengthwise into julienne strips
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 large garlic clove, minced
2 teaspoons Thai red curry paste
3 cups chicken stock or canned low-sodium broth
1/2 cup water
1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
1/2 tablespoon sugar
1 (14-ounce) can unsweetened coconut milk
8 oz boneless, skinless chicken breast cut into 1 by 1/4-inch strips
1/2 (15-oz) can straw mushrooms, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons lime juice
6 kaffir lime leaves
1/4 cup loosely packed whole fresh cilantro leaves
1 scallion, greens only, sliced thin on an angle (optional)
Heat the oil in a large stockpot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the lemon grass, ginger and garlic and cook, stirring constantly until aromatic, about 30 to 60 seconds. Add the curry paste and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds.
Add 1/2 cup chicken stock to the pot and stir to dissolve the curry paste. Add the remaining stock, fish sauce, and sugar and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat, partially cover and simmer to blend flavors, about 20 minutes.
Stir in the coconut milk, chicken, mushrooms and lime juice. Break/bend kaffir lime leaves in half to release oils and add to the pot (they are prettier added whole, but I like to release their essence). Bring back to a simmer and cook until the stock is hot and chicken is no longer pink, about 5 minutes. Taste for seasoning and add salt as desired. Serve, garnishing with cilantro leaves and scallions.
To make Tom Kah Shrimp, substitute 1/2 small shrimp for the chicken, and use vegetable broth instead of chicken broth.
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