Thai Coconut Shrimp (or Tofu) Soup

Thai Coconut Shrimp Soup with Basmati Rice and Orange Slices
Another version of Thai Coconut Soup, with the cilantro chopped fresh and sprinkled on at the end!

Yesterday’s post described my big ski adventure to a hut deep in the Colorado mountains.  Being light years from the nearest grocery didn’t keep us from enjoying great cuisine, from potato-broccoli fondue to a hash brown scramble and apple crisp, to the Thai Coconut Soup that provoked yesterday’s post on the “Good to Better Continuum.”   In case you’re now hankering for Thai cuisine, here’s my recipe for a shrimp version, although tofu can easily be subbed for a vegetarian take.

Thai Coconut Shrimp (or Tofu) Soup                                                      Serves 4

  • 1 oz.  mung bean threads (See below for more info)
  • 2 cups boiling water

Place noodles in a small mixing bowl and cover with boiling water.  Set aside for about 10 minutes.  After noodles have softened, drain in colander, then use kitchen shears to cut roughly into 2-3” lengths.   Reserve.

  • 1 Tbsp. canola or safflower oil
  • 2 lrg. carrots, julienned and chopped into 2-3” lengths (about 2 cups)
  • 4 green onions, sliced ½” thick (about 1 cup) or 2 lrg. leeks, white and light green parts, diced to 1/2″ (about 2 cups)
  • 1-2 lrg. cloves garlic, minced (or 1 1/2 tsp. bottled minced garlic)
  • 1 1/2 tsp. grated fresh or bottled ginger
  • ¼ to ½ tsp. chili pepper flakes, to taste

Heat oil in a large soup pan until fairly hot.  Add carrots,onions or leeks, garlic, ginger and chili flakes, in that order, sautéing about 5 minutes total.

  • 1 6-oz. can regular, not lite, coconut milk
  • 1 qt. (4 cups) chicken broth

Add to vegetable mixture and simmer just 5 more minutes, until carrots and leeks are crisp tender but still vibrantly colored.

  • 1-2 Tbsp. fish sauce, to taste
  • 7 oz. baby shrimp, peeled, de-veined and tails removed (or 8 oz. firm tofu, diced into ½” cubes)
  • 1-2 tsp. toasted sesame oil
  • 2-4 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lime juice, to taste

Add fish sauce and shrimp (or tofu) to soup along with drained and cut mung bean threads.  Simmer just 2-3 minutes more, until shrimp turns pink and opaque (or tofu is heated through).  Remove from heat immediately and stir in sesame oil and lime juice, to taste.  Serve and garnish, as desired, with:

  • Chopped cilantro (optional)
  • Thin lime wedges (optional)

Notes

Soaking Dry Mung Beans Threads in Boiling Water

Soak a wad of mung bean threads in boiled water . . .

Mung Bean Threads? Way cool noodles made out of mung beans, so they’re ok for Gluten-Free folks.  But kids really like them, too, because they’re so very kid-like.  They start out as a wad of crackly white sticks but after just 10 minutes of soaking in boiled water, presto, they become soft, gelatinous noodles, great in Asian style soups, stir fries and lettuce wraps.  I cut them for better mouth manageability, but they can be left long for slurping.

Be Prepared for Speed This recipe is truly fast, so fast, in fact, that it’s advisable to have all your ingredients prepared and ready to go before beginning to cook.  Also have any side dishes either already, or almost all prepared.  It’s important that the soup not get overcooked or it will lose color and freshness.

Mung Bean Threads Turn Soft and Clear

and they turn into clearish, tender noodles.

Super Sides Speaking of side dishes, there are many nice accompaniments for this all-weather dish, depending upon when you decide to make it:

  • Spinach salad with fresh berries and curry vinaigrette
  • Steamed artichokes
  • Brown basmati rice
  • Plate of cucumbers and orange segments or cantaloupe balls
  • Roasted winter squash:  acorn, butternut, delicata, etc.

Make It Your Way A great thing about cooking is making a recipe exactly as you like.  There are three distinct flavors in this recipe that can be adjusted up or down to suit your tastes:

  • Salty:  Fish sauce
  • Sour:  Lime juice
  • Hot:  Chili pepper flakes

Words to the wise:  start small with seasonings, since you can always add more but can’t take away!  You might even experiment with a small amount in a bowl before adding it to the entire pot of soup.

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Using Fresh Herbs at 11,000 Feet

. . .  and the “Good to Better Cooking Continuum”

You’d think cooking might fall off the priority scale in a bare bones hut, at 11,400 feet above sea level, in the middle of winter.  Actually, cooking, meals  and food conversation were a good 50 percent of the fun on a recent altitude adventure.  In fact, it was a deep discussion about the proper use of fresh cilantro that prompted this blog.

Heading Into the Barnard Hut

A friend and I start our Altitude Adventure

First, however, some background.  A friend and I accepted a challenge to ski seven miles with some outdoor pros to a backwoods hut in the mountains above Aspen, Colorado.  While it was a cakewalk for them, my friend and I view the trip one of the crowning physical achievements of our entire lives.  Things might have been easier, of course, if we hadn’t hauled in two pounds of hashed brown potatoes, one pound of cheese, 18 eggs and the fixings for a dried apple crisp.

As mentioned, however, cooking was a big part of the trip, which is how we came to be discussing the proper use of fresh cilantro when the world outside was frozen solid.  One of the dinner chefs was planning to make Thai Coconut Soup.  To conserve space, he had mixed the fresh chopped cilantro with the peppers and onions, meaning the cilantro would have to be sautéed with the peppers and onions.  Would this be a bad thing for his soup, he wondered?

The Standard Answer:  How to Use Fresh Herbs

Fresh CilantroThe standard answer is that fresh herbs should be cut as close to serving time as possible and added at the end of the cooking time, to prevent their flavor from cooking out (The Professional Chef, 7th ed., p. 183.)  So technically, my hut companion did a “bad thing” for his soup by mushing the fresh cilantro with the vegetables that had to be sauteed.

Although this answer was “right,” I’m not sure it was helpful.  Assessing things as simply good or bad only seems to contribute to the cooking fear the paralyzes a lot of everyday cooks.  “Am I doing this exactly right?” is a question that plagues us amidst on overload of cooking info in magazines, on TV and all over the Internet.

An Alternative View

Here’s an alternative view:  Maybe cooking was never meant to be an exact science, subject to one-dimensional assessment on a good/bad scale.  Instead, cooking is first and foremost an avenue for making food edible and then, pleasurable.  The object is to simply do the best job possible, with the food gifted us, to make meals that nourish and nurture.

Taking this perspective eliminates the pressure to achieve absolute “rightness” in the kitchen, replacing it with a no-pressure opportunity to just make things better, as we have the time and wherewithal.  Hence the “Good to Better Cooking Continuum,”  where the inquiry is longer judging good vs. bad, but exploring what might make a good thing better.

Thai Coconut Soup at 11,440 Feet

Everyone in the hut is pretty satisfied with the Thai Coconut Soup, even if the cilantro was cooked, not fresh. (Ben the Soup Chef is first on the left; I'm third from the right.)

In this view, cooking becomes something like a treasure hunt.  All along our journey we find nuggets of information to make our meals ever more enjoyable.  Step-by-small-step, we utilize these finds and keep nudging our “good” baseline a little to the right, towards “better.”

The Thai Coconut Soup was a perfect example.  It was magnificent!  Could it have been better if the cilantro had been freshly chopped and sprinkled on at the end?  Sure.  But that’s just a trick for making it magnificent-plus on the next go round.

Tomorrow’s post:  A Thai Coconut Soup recipe,  plus, in the vein of offering tasty tidbits for your treasure hunt, be sure to check out VegetableAMonth.com:  all sorts of tools, information and inspiration you need to make your eating life better—especially when it comes to vegetables.

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