Friday, March 13, 2009

Thai Soup, Maine Shrimp

I was going to start this post by whining about how hard it is to eat soup in Thai restaurants because of the chicken stock factor, and then I read this piece in the NYT Travel section about finding vegetarian food in Thailand, and I realized that for true vegetarians (rather than fish-eating mostly vegetarians like me) it's much harder because of the fish sauce factor. I still eat fish for many reasons but that it makes my life easier in restaurants (and countries other than India) is one of them. So, no whining.

Still, while I have no doubt that I have unknowingly consumed chicken stock more than once over the years, I won't eat it knowingly, so that rules out a lot of Asian soups. One of my favorites that I hardly ever get to eat is the Thai soup with coconut milk and lemongrass and galangal root, since it's often made with chicken. (I know it's made with prawns sometimes, but I'm never sure about the stock.) So, a year ago, when Melissa Clark published a recipe of a similar kind of soup, easily made at home without chicken stock, I was excited.

I suddenly remembered it last week, and the timing was fortuitous since we're at the end of Maine shrimp season here on the east coast. I'd never known about Maine shrimp before this year. I saw some at Whole Foods right earlier this year, and they looked very appealing--they were little but advertised as wild caught, and they were cheap (on sale for $3.99/lb, I think). It turns out that they're in season from January-March, and if you don't get them at Whole Foods, they may be even cheaper. I made Melissa Clark's roasted shrimp and broccoli with them the first time, and they seemed like just the thing for this soup.

The recipe calls for chicken stock, and originally I'd been thinking I'd use vegetable stock, but one thing about the Maine shrimp is that they come with their shells on. To get to this bowl of pretty pink shrimp, you have to spend some time and get your hands rather sticky.

And after I'd spent the time separating the shrimp from their shells, it seemed silly not to use them. I started looking up recipes for shrimp stock, and I found some that were very involved (a list of 10 ingredients and an hour on the stove) and some that were very simple (Mark Bittman said you could make it with just the shells, water and salt cooked together for 20 minutes). I opted for the middle route, and I combined the shells with some chopped up onion and celery, bay leaves and peppercorns, plus the salt and water and cooked it for a half hour or so.

Once the stock is done, the soup comes together very quickly. I already had rice vinegar and fish sauce on hand, and then it was just a matter of chopping the shallots, garlic, lemongrass and cilantro. I would like to think of a better way to use the lemongrass--I chopped it into tiny pieces, but we still ended up spitting out little bits of lemongrass as we ate the soup because it didn't soften up. I may try putting it in a food processor next time, or I may try keeping it in in larger pieces and then pulling them out before serving the soup.

Even with my minor tweaks--I couldn't find any basil, I forgot the jalapeño--the soup was still delicious--a lovely layering of flavors and just the thing for an early March night. I made a pot of jasmine rice, and we ladled the soup over that. Although he didn't want to, I made Alex leave me enough so that I could have some for lunch the next day. And just as much as the flavor, I loved the flexibility. Last year I made it with non-Maine shrimp and scallops; next time maybe I'll try fish. And whatever I do, I don't have to worry about the chicken stock. I can have my soup and eat it too. Very satisfying.

Coconut Fish Stew With Basil and Lemon Grass
adapted from Melissa Clark's "A Good Appetite" column

Time: 20 minutes (I would say it's closer to 30, not including the time it takes to shell the shrimp and make the stock, if you're making stock.)

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 shallots, thinly sliced

1 small garlic clove, minced

2 1/2 cups chicken stock (or shrimp stock or vegetable stock)

1 13.5-ounce can coconut milk (I used light coconut milk)

1 lemon grass stalk, finely chopped

1 jalapeño pepper, seeded, if desired, and thinly sliced

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1 tablespoon light brown sugar

3/4 teaspoon salt

Finely grated zest of 1 lime

3/4 pound snapper or other firm fish (cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks), peeled shrimp, scallops or a combination

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

Fresh lime juice, to taste

Cooked rice, for serving (optional).

1. Heat oil in a medium pot over medium heat. Add shallots and garlic and cook, stirring, until shallots are softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in stock, coconut milk, lemon grass, jalapeño, vinegar, fish sauce, sugar, salt and lime zest. Simmer for 10 minutes.

2. Stir in seafood and herbs. Cook 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in lime juice and serve, with rice if desired. (Note: Without rice it’s more soup than stew.)

2-3 servings, depending on how hungry you are

1 comment:

Lisa said...

Are Maine shrimp like rock shrimp? I used to get those in Chinatown back when I worked near there, because they were a great deal. Pain in the butt to shell, though.