Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Tom Kha Gai - Thai Coconut Chicken Soup

Working on my post about broth got me in the mood for soup.  As its hot outside, this Tom Kha Gai from Paleo Comfort Foods looked like a nice light dinner.  I've made this recipe once before and messed up.  It was an innocuous mess up that still made good soup, but I wondered if it could be better.

As this soup calls for chicken broth, I decided to put together a quick batch of Paleo Comfort Foods broth made with a whole chicken.  The cooked chicken will be used in the soup instead of the chicken breasts it calls for.  The first time I made this recipe, I did the same thing.  One of these days, I'll make the recipe as written.  I think doing the recipe this way has value, as it shows you how you can make a broth and chicken meat that can be used in the soup or in other dishes at the same time without a large time investment.    

I started making the broth by cutting up my onion and stuffing what would fit into the chicken.  Make sure to check the cavity for giblets before stuffing the chicken.  If your chicken comes with giblets, use them in the broth as well.  I put the chicken, herbs, and remaining onion in my 12 quart stock pot, added enough water to cover the chicken, and put it on the stove to cook for one hour.  I was out of celery, so I used a little celery flake instead.  I also did not have fresh parsley.

Pretty easy so far, right? 

After an hour, I carefully pulled the chicken out of the stock pot and put it on a tray to cool.  I used a metal sieve and a ladle to strain the broth that I would need for the soup.

I strained the rest into a glass container and refrigerated it for use in other recipes.  This broth wont be as high in nutrients as a broth that has simmered for hours, but it will provide a tasty base for any soup that is far better than store bought.  If you do it this way, you will also be rewarded with chicken!

Once the chicken had cooled, I discarded the skin and removed the meat from the bones.
Chicken on the Left and Bones to the Right
Now, I can assemble the soup.  The recipe calls for 2 pounds of chicken.  My whole chicken didn't give me that much, but I believe this amount is sufficient.

I added my freshly made broth to my pot.  Began add the flavors that make this soup.  I added the peeled ginger and bruised lemongrass.  To bruise the lemongrass, you can press your palm on the back of your knife on the lemon grass or a safer option is to take a heavy bottomed glass and pound the lemongrass with it.  I prefer the glass method.  I added the lime leaves, lime juice and fish sauce to the pot. Now a word about fish sauce.  

Don't spill this anywhere!

I like this brand because it is 100% pure and gluten free.  Be very careful when handling fish sauce not to spill it anywhere or you will be smelling fish sauce for quite a while.  To say its odor is pungent is an understatement.   With that said, it adds that authentic Thai flavor to the dish and is worth having to pinch your nose for a bit.  

The recipe also calls for Thai chilies.  That makes things a little hot for my taste, so I used one jalapeƱo instead.  Before slicing the pepper, I put on my trusty latex gloves on both hands.  This protects your hands from the pepper's oils that will linger on your hands, even if you've washed them well, and make anything you touch hours later burn, e.g., your eyes.  I even wash my knife after cutting the peppers with my gloves still on.  

After adding the pepper to the soup, I let the pot simmer for one hour.  The recipe didn't say to cover the soup, so I didn't.

Pre-simmer Volume
I checked the pot a few times and I could see that the broth was evaporating, but was a bit concerned when I saw that it had reduced this much at the end of the hour.  Each time I checked the pot, I tried adjusting the burner down a bit but it seemed either it was simmering or stagnant.  I was, to be honest, really concerned.
Post-1 hour Simmer
I added 2 cans of coconut milk.  This time I used canned as it was more efficient than my 8 oz. Tetra Paks given the volume I needed for the recipe.  The brand I used uses BPA-Free cans but has guar gum in it.  By and large I've not read anything horrible about guar gum, but I'd rather it not be there.  I also added the sliced mushrooms.  I let the soup come back to a simmer and added my cooked chicken. 

I let the soup again simmer until the chicken was heated through and the soup was piping hot.  

Accessibility and Cost of Ingredients:  None of the ingredients in this recipe are especially expensive.  My chicken was a little expensive, $14, since I went with an organic bird, but you don't have to do so.  Lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves can be hard to find.   I had to go to two different grocery stores to find the kaffir lime leaves.  I went to Whole Foods first, and they did not have them.  I went to Central Market, a more gourmet minded grocery, and they had them.  They were $2.99.  If they didn't, I'd have given up the search and used the lime zest alternative given in the recipe.  I found lemongrass at both Whole Foods and Central Market  It was $1.99 at Whole Foods.  I recently bought some dried lemongrass from Penzey's Spices and will try using it instead of fresh the next time I make the recipe.

Prep and Cooking Time:  Since I made a batch of broth, that added an hour to my cooking time, but it only took about 5 minutes of prep time.  For the soup itself, the prep time was about 15 minutes for prepping the ingredients and then about an 1 hour and 45 minutes cook time.

Clean Up:  As there were long cooking periods between steps in making the broth and simmering the soup, I was able to get almost everything cleaned up and loaded in the dishwasher before the soup was done.  I did make sure that I started with an empty dishwasher that could hold my 12 quart stainless steel stock pot.  Those of you who do not have a dishwasher and are solo in the kitchen, I applaud you.  I don't know where I'd be without a dishwasher.  After getting soup going, I also had the time to strain the remaining amount of chicken broth.

The Paleo Review:  Thumbs up!  The soup turned out really nicely.  I have no clue if my soup turned out the way it "should" turn out, but it's tasty.  Despite having a lot of coconut milk in the soup, it does not have an overly-coconut flavor.  The pepper added just enough kick without detracting from the delicate taste of lime and ginger.  One bowl of this soup, as pictured above, was quite filling.

I have unresolved questions about this recipe.  Would it be better to cover the soup during the hour simmer time to lose less of the liquid or is it supposed to reduce that much?  Would the flavor change if I followed the recipe and used raw sliced chicken breast?  Also, my broth, as I used it right after I made it, had a little more fat than I'd typically like, but I don't think it hurt the flavor of the recipe, but would it?

Despite my questions, this recipe makes a fine light but filling meal on a hot day.