Tuesday, March 05, 2013

TOM KHA GAI


















We used to have a favorite neighborhood Thai restaurant. When I first moved here, I was addicted to its fast, fresh, cheap, and delicious food, and since it was only a block away, we’d stroll over to pick up takeout on a regular basis. It was our go-to place to feed visitors, especially since it’s attached to the hotel where my parents always stay when they’re in town. Now that my own cooking has become much more frequent and adventurous, ordering takeout isn’t a regular part of our lives, but I still crave Thai food from time to time. And maybe I just overdosed on our place, but it just doesn’t seem quite as good to me as it once did. It’s undergone a change in name and management (although the d├ęcor and menu have remained similar enough that I’m pretty sure the new management is related to the old), and every time I walk past, it looks abandoned. I keep expecting to find it closed, and even though we no longer frequent it, that would make me sad, because then I’d have to go through all the hassle of finding a new Thai place (yes, I am a creature of habit).

Yet this still wouldn’t have been enough to inspire me to try replicating my favorite Thai restaurant dishes at home. I’ve gotten a bit bolder than I used to be about tackling Asian-inspired recipes (fish sauce now has a permanent place in my pantry), but I doubt my ability—or at least initiative—to concoct anything authentic enough to compete with a good restaurant. So when my friend S recommended this recipe from Cooking Light, I didn’t immediately jump to make it, despite the fact that tom kha gai had been our favorite soup order from the local Thai place. Honestly, it looked way too simple to be very good, and the reviews were somewhat mixed. But eventually I got curious and gave it a shot.

Is this especially authentic? No (it’s my understanding that galangal is a key ingredient of traditional tom kha gai, and that’s missing here). Is it as good as restaurant tom kha gai? No. But does it have more flavor than I expected a recipe this streamlined to have? Yes. And is it a delicious, ridiculously easy to make coconut chicken soup with mushrooms? Absolutely. A and I both thoroughly enjoyed it (he willingly late the leftovers, which is my barometer for determining whether he actually likes something, especially soup).

I was able to buy a single stalk of lemongrass at the farmers’ market, which was nice. I often use light coconut milk (mostly because that’s what Trader Joe’s has) but opted for the regular stuff here to avoid making the soup too thin, which I think was the right call (if even Cooking Light doesn’t specify light coconut milk, it may be a sign not to use it). I had to go with Vietnamese chili paste, sambal oelek, because my grocery store didn’t have a Thai version and had no time to go hunting, but the chili taste is subtle here, so I doubt it makes a very discernible difference; I actually ended up adding a teaspoon or so extra for more heat. (A lot of the Cooking Light commenters mentioned using “curry paste,” which is a different thing entirely; I’m not sure if they mistyped or misread.) I was confused by the direction to use “quarter-size pieces” of ginger (do I then remove them along with the lemongrass, or do I just have giant ginger chunks in my soup?), so I diced them as I do in most other recipes, but then I ended up having to chew a lot of ginger, so scratch that; I guess it’s better to leave the pieces big and then people can eat them or avoid them as they prefer.

Other than that I basically made the recipe as written, but with a bit more lime juice and mushrooms—I had an 8-ounce package and didn’t have a use for the leftovers, so I ended up putting in the whole thing, and I’ll admit the end result was very mushroomy (sort of like a Thai version of cream of mushroom soup). I didn’t mind it but will maybe cut back slightly next time. I also found myself hankering for a leafy green and might try adding a little baby bok choy in the future, even though it’s not strictly traditional. I served spring rolls on the side, although that upped the difficulty of the meal considerably, so next time I’ll probably just do a simple green salad instead for a truly effortless weeknight dinner.

14 ounces coconut milk
14 ounces reduced-sodium chicken broth
6 quarter-size slices fresh ginger
1 stalk fresh lemongrass, cut in 1-inch pieces
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast or thighs, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 cup sliced mushrooms (I used cremini)
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc mam or nam pla)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon Thai chili paste
Salt to taste
¼ cup fresh basil leaves
¼ cup fresh cilantro

1. In a medium saucepan, combine coconut milk, broth, ginger, and lemongrass and bring to a boil over high heat.

2. Add chicken, mushrooms, lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, and chili paste. Reduce heat and simmer until chicken is firm and opaque, 5 to 10 minutes.

3. Discard lemongrass. Season soup with salt to taste. Portion into four bowls and garnish every serving with 1 tablespoon each basil and cilantro.

Serves: 4
Time: 30 minutes
Leftover potential: Good (will separate as it cools, but just stir it back together when reheating).

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