thai-style chicken soup (tom kha gai)

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Cooking and eating, I think I manage to do ambitiously. I just really like food, and I want to enjoy it as much as absolutely possible. That means I need to eat whatever is offered to me with an open mind. My desire to try new foods is driven by curiosity, but my desire to cook new recipes is about challenging myself. How much can I learn? How good can I be?

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But I have a weakness when it comes to food, and that is in the shopping. I go to the store with a plan and a list. Occasionally the store will have some seasonal item – long beans, meyer lemons, kaffir lime leaves – but I never buy it. Because what would I make with it? What other ingredients would I need to use it? I never know, and I’m not willing to make more grocery store trips than necessary, so I miss a lot of opportunities to try new ingredients.

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Finally I decided there was at least one produce item that there was no excuse not to try, and that is galangal. It’s often compared to ginger. Ginger has a long shelf life, so I assumed that galangal did too. I could buy it one of those rare times when it was available and ignore it for a week or two until I found a recipe to use it in.

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In the end, I used it in a recipe that doesn’t even require galangal. Cooks Illustrated’s Thai-style chicken soup (their version of tom kha gai) bypasses the need for ingredients that are difficult to find – like galangal – by designing the recipe around readily available prepared red curry paste.

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The curry paste already has galangal in it, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to sweat fresh galangal with the lemongrass, cilantro, shallots and fish sauce. Coconut milk and chicken broth are steeped in the vegetables, and then they’re strained out, leaving you with a sweet, deeply flavored coconut broth, in which thinly sliced mushrooms and chicken are briefly cooked.

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I’ve made this soup for years, and it is good. Really, exceptionally good. The kind of good where I spend the whole meal saying “oh my gosh this is so good!” (which I’m sure is just as annoying as you’d expect). I don’t think adding fresh galangal made a significant difference in the end product, but that’s okay – I got to play around with a new ingredient, and that makes me almost as happy as this soup does.

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Thai-Style Chicken Soup (from Cooks Illustrated)

6-8 as an appetizer, 4 as a main course

I like to skip the serrano chile garnish (and a rarely bother with the scallion and lime garnishes) and add just one chile to the vegetables in step 1. It makes the soup a bit spicy.

This is great as a first course with pad Thai served afterward, or as a simple main dish served over rice.

Cooks Illustrated recommends Chaokoh coconut milk, which is what I’ve always used. For a lighter option, they like A Taste of Thai’s Lite Coconut Milk, but I’ve never been able to find it.

1 teaspoon vegetable oil
3 stalks lemon grass, tough outer leaves removed, bottom 5 inches halved lengthwise and sliced thin crosswise
3 large shallots, chopped
8 sprigs fresh cilantro leaves, chopped coarse
3 tablespoons fish sauce
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 (14-ounce) cans coconut milk, well-shaken
1 tablespoon sugar
½ pound white mushrooms, cleaned, stems trimmed, cut into ¼-inch slices
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, halved lengthwise and sliced on bias into ⅛-inch-thick pieces
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice from 2 to 3 limes
2 teaspoons red curry paste (Thai)

Garnish:
½ cup fresh cilantro leaves
2 serrano chiles, sliced thin
2 scallions, sliced thin on bias
1 lime, cut into wedges

1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until just shimmering. Add the lemon grass, shallots, cilantro, and 1 tablespoon fish sauce; cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are just softened, 2 to 5 minutes (vegetables should not brown). Stir in the chicken broth and 1 can of the coconut milk; bring to a simmer over high heat. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the flavors have blended, 10 minutes. Pour the broth through a fine-mesh strainer and discard the solids in the strainer. Rinse the saucepan and return the broth mixture to the pan.

2. Return the pan to medium-high heat. Stir the remaining can of coconut milk and sugar into the broth mixture and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium, add mushrooms, and cook until just tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Add chicken and cook, stirring constantly, until no longer pink, 1 to 3 minutes. Remove soup from heat.

3. Combine lime juice, curry paste, and remaining 2 tablespoons fish sauce in small bowl; stir into soup. Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with cilantro, chiles, and scallions. Serve immediately with lime wedges.

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vegetarian lasagna

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This is, for me, perfect lasagna. You can’t go wrong with most combinations of pasta + sauce + cheese, but this one has just the right balance of light and rich, cheese and tomatoes, pasta and sauce, vegetables and…well, not meat, because there is none.

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But don’t worry, it isn’t vegetable lasagna. It’s vegetarian lasagna. It’s a fine line.

It isn’t that I don’t like meat in my lasagna; I just don’t know that it’s really necessary for me. On the other hand, I definitely do not like large chunks of vegetables in my lasagna – no layers of eggplant or zucchini or peppers.

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What I’ve done here is use minced mushrooms to mimic the texture and somewhat even the flavor of ground meat in the tomato sauce. The sauce has so much flavor that you’ll never miss the meat. Other than that, it’s a pretty traditional lasagna. I’ve replaced the ricotta with béchamel sauce, just because I like it that way.

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It’s also, as far as lasagna goes, not terribly indulgent. I use 2% milk in the béchamel and skim mozzarella, although you can certainly use something richer if you prefer. I like to make my own spinach pasta, because if you can add a bag of spinach to the lasagna without it affecting the final flavor or texture, why not? And with mushrooms replacing meat, plus plenty of homemade tomato sauce, there is certainly no shortage of vegetables.

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It’s just…perfect. Perfectly flavored, a perfect balance of richness. It’s full of vegetables, but they’re not overbearing. It’s a lot of work, yes, but I usually have fun making lasagna. And for a big pan of what is, for me, perfect lasagna? It’s absolutely worth it.

One year ago: Stuffed Sandwich Rolls

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Vegetarian Lasagna

Serves 8

The recipe looks more complicated than it needs to because of the homemade pasta. You can save yourself a lot of time (skip steps 1 through 4) by buying fresh pasta sheets instead of making and rolling out the spinach pasta. Or you can use a box of no-boil lasagna noodles, soaking them in hot water for 5 minutes before layering the lasagna.

Utilize your food processor! For the parmesan, mozzarella, fresh mushrooms, onion, and tomatoes (in that order).

You can make the whole lasagna ahead of time and refrigerate it overnight. Or you can freeze the whole lasagna. Let it defrost in the refrigerator overnight. To bake the lasagna straight from the refrigerator, just place it in the cold oven, then turn the oven onto 375ºF to bake the lasagna. The lasagna will warm up as the oven heats.

You can also make the pasta dough and both sauces a day in advance and then assemble the layers right before baking.

If you keep fresh basil around, definitely mince up a few leaves and add them to the cooked tomato sauce. You may also want to sprinkle some on top of the lasagna when it comes out of the oven.

Spinach pasta:
5 ounces baby spinach, washed
1 egg
¾ cup all-purpose flour, plus (a lot) more for dusting

Tomato sauce:
½ ounce dried porcini mushrooms, rinsed
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped fine (reserve ½ cup of the onions for the béchamel)
4 cloves garlic, minced
16 ounces mushrooms, minced
¼ cup wine (optional; red or white is fine)
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained and pureed
1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained and pureed
¾ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper

Béchamel:
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup finely diced onions
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2½ cups milk
1 bay leaf
pinch nutmeg
¼ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon pepper
½ cup grated parmesan cheese (1 ounce)

Assembly:
nonstick spray
8 ounces (2 cups) shredded mozzarella cheese

1. For the pasta: Place the spinach in a 12-inch skillet and add a few tablespoons of water (or if the spinach is wet from being washed, just add the wet spinach to the skillet). Turn the heat to high until the water boils, then reduce the heat and stir the spinach until it just wilts, about 1 minute. Remove the spinach from the pan (don’t wash the skillet) and place it on a clean dishtowel. Pat and squeeze the spinach until it’s very dry, then finely mince it.

2. Add the flour to a wide bowl or pie plate, then make a well in the center of the flour. Lightly beat the egg, then add it to the well with the chopped spinach. Stir the flour, egg, and spinach together until thoroughly mixed, then started kneading. Knead, adding flour as necessary to keep the dough from being sticky, until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Don’t be concerned if you need to add quite a bit of extra flour; the dough should be malleable but not at all sticky.

3. Divide the dough into 3 balls. Work with one ball of dough at a time and leave the others covered with a damp dishtowel (you can use the same one you used for drying the spinach). Flatten the dough slightly, then roll it through the widest setting on a pasta roller. Fold it in thirds like a piece of paper going into an envelope, then roll it through the pasta roller again, feeding it with one of the open sides first. If at any point the dough is sticky, brush it with flour. Repeat the folding into thirds and rolling a few times. Without folding, run the pasta through the widest setting once more. Adjust the pasta roller to the next-thinner setting and roll the dough through the machine. Continue to gradually thin the dough until the third-to-last setting. Brush it with flour if the dough starts to stick at all. If the strip of dough becomes too long to handle, cut it into two shorter strips and work with each strip separately. Repeat the rolling, folding, and thinning with the remaining balls of dough, laying the sheets of pasta on dishtowels.

4. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, then add 1 tablespoon salt and reduce the heat until the water is at a lively simmer instead of a vigorous boil. Cut the strips of dough into 8-inch lengths. One by one, dip each rectangle of dough in the water, leave it for about 10 seconds, then remove it and rinse it under running water. Lay the strips of dough on dishtowels.

5. For the tomato sauce: Place the dried porcini in a small saucepan and add just enough water to cover. Bring the water to a boil over high heat, then turn the burner off.

6. Heat the olive oil over medium heat in the same large skillet the spinach was cooked in. Add the onions and a pinch of salt and sauté, stirring occasionally, until the onions just brown around the edges, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and mushrooms and continue cooking and occasionally stirring until the mushrooms start to brown. First they’ll release a bunch of liquid, but then that will evaporate and they’ll brown. Once they do, pour in the wine and cook, scraping the bottom of the pan, until the wine almost completely evaporates, then add the tomatoes, salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer. Carefully lift the porcini from their soaking liquid with a fork; mince them and add them to the sauce. Simmer the sauce over medium heat until thick, about 15 minutes.

7. For the béchamel: Heat the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. When the foaming subsides, add the onions and garlic and sauté, stirring occasionally, until the onion is softened. Add the flour and stir continuously for 1 minute. Stirring constantly, gradually pour in the milk and reserved porcini liquid (pouring carefully so as to leave any grit behind in the small saucepan). Increase the heat to medium-high and bring the mixture to a light boil, stirring very frequently. Once the sauce starts to bubble, lower the heat to medium-low and let it simmer for 10 minutes, stirring in occasionally. Stir in the nutmeg, salt, pepper, and parmesan.

8. Assembly: Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 375ºF. Spray a 9-by-13-inch pan with nonstick spray. Spread a thin layer of tomato sauce on the bottom of the pan, then add a layer of noodles. Spread ¼ of the béchamel on the noodles, followed by ¼ of the cheese, and ¼ of the tomato sauce. Repeat the layering (noodles, béchamel, cheese, tomato sauce) twice more, then finish by adding a layer of noodles, then the last of the béchamel, the last of the tomato sauce, and the last of the mozzarella.

9. Spray a large sheet of aluminum foil with nonstick spray, then use it to cover the lasagna. Bake, covered, for 30 minutes, then remove the foil and continue to bake for another 15 minutes, until the lasagna is bubbling around the edges. Remove the pan from the oven and let the lasagna set for 10 minutes before cutting and serving.

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pumpkin and mushroom soup

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Cooking déjà vu: When you start to make a recipe and then think, “Wait a minute…this seems familiar…have I made this before?!” Generally not a great sign because if you don’t remember it, perhaps it wasn’t worth remembering.

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I actually found pictures of this soup from last year, when I’d apparently made it and decided it wasn’t worth sharing. But I didn’t understand how a recipe like this could be anything but good – mushrooms and squash seem like a great match that can only get better with the addition of fall herbs and spices.

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I don’t think I did too much differently this time – cooked the vegetables longer until they were nice and browned maybe, and this time I stirred in some pureed pumpkin at the end, whereas before I’d just used diced squash at the beginning.

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The pureed squash made a huge difference in texture, thickening the soup so much it resembled stew. It was so hearty and delicious, and you’d never guess that there’s no meat in it, especially with that deep brown color. I was right to try this recipe again, because the woodsy mushrooms and the earthy squash are an unbeatable combination.

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One year ago: Sugar Cookies (for decorating)

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Pumpkin and Mushroom Soup (adapted quite a bit from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home)

Serves 4

I kind of feel like this should be called “Squash and Mushroom Soup” because it seems like other types of squash are used more in savory recipes than pumpkin is. You can really use any type of squash you want, as long as it has a similar texture. The same goes for the fresh mushrooms – I used maitake, but cremini, shiitake, button, whatever, they all work.

½ ounce dried porcini mushrooms, rinsed
water
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
salt and ground black pepper
1 small pie pumpkin, peeled and diced
12 ounces mushrooms, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon thyme leaves
1 teaspoon sage leaves, minced
pinch nutmeg
¼ cup Marsala or dry sherry
2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
½ cup cooked pureed pumpkin (like the stuff from a can)

1. Place the dried mushrooms in a small saucepan and add enough water to cover. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then immediately turn off the heat. Set aside.

2. Heat the oil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven (not nonstick) over medium heat. Add the onions and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until just beginning to brown at the edges, about 8 minutes. Add the squash, mushrooms, ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper and continue cooking and occasionally stirring until the mushrooms release their liquid, it evaporates, and the vegetables brown, about 15 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, use a fork to lift the rehydrated porcini mushrooms from the liquid and finely chop them. Save the liquid.

4. Add the porcini, garlic, herbs, and nutmeg and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Pour in the wine and cook until it nearly evaporates, scraping the bottom of the pan to release the browned bits.

5. Add the broth, pumpkin, and mushroom soaking liquid (either strain it through a coffee filter or just be careful to leave the grit behind with a bit of liquid) and bring the soup to a simmer over medium heat. Adjust the seasonings and serve.

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