painting shows bowl of chicken-coconut soup with Asian condiments

Chicken-Coconut Soup. 8″ x 8″ watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

The weather swings from mackerel skies to overcast, from sun to rain. The farm box remains remarkably constant in content: spring onions, leeks, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, tangerines. Today we got cilantro and asparagus as well. My mother has been under the weather for days, following a diet of toast, toast and toast. What can I possibly make for dinner?

I settle on an old favorite, a spin on Thai chicken-coconut soup with plenty of winter vegetables: carrots, cabbage, spinach and leeks.

I begin by making coconut milk. I measure two cups of unsweetened coconut into the blender while I heat 2 and 1/2 cups of skim milk on the stove. (The richness of the milk does not matter: we are using it to extract the coconut flavor from the coconut — I’ve used everything from whole milk to skim and water in a pinch). Blend the warmed milk and the dry coconut for a minute or two and then strain out the coconut. Throw that same coconut back in the blender with two cups of warm water and make a second batch, straining the coconut out. Now you may throw the coconut meat out, or compost it: all of the flavor has gone into the bowl of thick and thin coconut milk.

I heat two pints of homemade chicken stock on the stove and add the coconut milk and most of a boned and skinned chicken that we roasted earlier in the week. I add 1 Tbsp. fish sauce and the juice of one lime and about 1/2 tsp of chili paste with garlic. I let the meat simmer in the broth while I cut up two root ends of lemongrass and slice about 1 Tbsp of frozen fresh ginger into thick coins. Leaving the lemongrass and ginger large means we will be able to spot them in the soup. I add a bowl of leek rings that I cleaned and cut a couple of days ago.

Mom slices carrots into irregular pieces — like making carrot sticks — and washes spinach leaves. I wash and chop the roots of today’s cilantro and add them to the simmering pot. I slice cabbage thinly.

Then we go upstairs and watch an episode of “The Rockford Files.”

When we return to the kitchen, Mom turns up the pot to high and adds the carrots. In three minutes the carrots are almost cooked and I turn the burner down to medium and add the cabbage. Oops. I have underestimated the volume of the soup, so instead of cooking spinach in the soup we put spinach leaves in our bowls and ladle the hot soup on top of them, turning off the soup pot. I garnish my bowl with fresh cilantro. There is plenty of soup for future meals: we will reheat it and add fresh spinach and cilantro to our bowls again.

Food Notes: As you can see, this is not a precise recipe. The basics include a blend of chicken broth and coconut milk and the classic Thai seasonings of ginger or galangal, lemongrass, fish sauce, and chilies. You can vary the amounts of fish sauce, lime juice, chili paste, lemongrass and ginger to taste. If you like your soup sweet, you can add brown sugar. You can make it with canned coconut milk, either regular or light, which is what I do when I am not out of canned coconut milk. Tonight’s version was mild, rather than spicy, to accommodate Mom’s indisposition, but you can amp it up with loads of chili paste or fresh chilies. You can make it traditional Thai style with no vegetables at all. You can add rice noodles or rice. You can use leeks, spring onions, or scallions. You can include sweet potatoes or broccoli, as long as you do not cook them too long in the soup. If you like crunchy broccoli, you might want to put it in your bowl and pour the soup over it like we did with the spinach: by the time you get to the bottom of your bowl the broccoli will be nicely cooked. This is a nice soup to eat when you have a cold or when you are trying to tempt someone with a low appetite: packing it full of vegetables adds vitamins and minerals to the broth.

Painting Notes: The quickest of paintings to meet a deadline.

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