Friday, September 25, 2009

A veritable bounty

Or, What Happens When Jolan Visits Chinatown

For all my love of Argentine food, I have some beef (groan) with food shopping here. Perhaps it's because I'm spoiled, coming from the States, where even the average supermarket has its International aisle, replete with hot sauces, fish sauces, interesting juices, and even more interesting oils. While such International fare can be found in Buenos Aires, it takes more than simply schlepping off to the nearest Giant.

Enter el barrio chino, aka Chinatown. The city's Chinatown isn't much more than a few blocks, but it bustles with various Asian restaurants, specialty stores, and inexpensive kitsch shops. My favorite place to visit in the neighborhood is Casa China, a three-room market packed full of all sorts of fun imported foods. Need rice flour? Go to Chinatown. Need hot bean sauce? Go to Chinatown. Canned chestnuts? Fresh dill? Philadelphia cream cheese? It's all there, waiting patiently, in Chinatown.

I can spend hours walking up and down the food aisles at Casa China. I actually have to limit myself to a certain amount of pesos in my wallet before I leave the house, because otherwise I would spend way too much on that fancy bottle of pickled peppers from Patagonia, and we would be left eating nothing but rice flavored with expensive hot sauce for the rest of the week.

I kept myself to buying just a few ingredients necessary for tom kha gai, a Thai soup that is a favorite in our humble household. That meant: fresh lemongrass, cilantro, ginger, mushrooms, fish sauce, and coconut milk. I also got excited and bought two hot sauces and dende oil, the latter being such a sexy thing, all bright orange and Brazilian and promising all sorts of fun experimenting this week.

I do recommend making the Thai soup -- it is easy, healthy, and incredibly tasty. It does require a hefty amount of ingredients that tend not to be pantry staples, but once you buy the basics (red curry paste, fish sauce), the majority of cost has been borne (and those ingredients are wonderful in so many other things). If you're missing a thing or two, don't let that put you off. I've made this soup at times without lemongrass, or without ginger, or without fish sauce, and while it may miss a certain depth of flavor, it's still very bright, and very spicy. And if you're just around the corner of your International aisle, why not check it out?

Thai soup (tom kha gai)

My version of this soup is adapted from Cook's Illustrated, where they originally stipulated adding chicken breast along with the mushrooms. Pork works wonderfully, too, I'm sure, but I think I prefer this (almost) vegetarian, made a substantial meal when served over hot white rice.

1 teaspoon vegetable oil
3 stalks lemongrass, tough outer leaves removed, cut into 2-inch long pieces, and sliced thin lengthwise
2 shallots, chopped
a small knob of fresh ginger, sliced thickly
a handful of chopped cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons fish sauce, separated
2 cups chicken broth
1 can coconut milk
2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 pound white mushrooms, cleaned and sliced into 1/4-inch pieces
juice from 1 lime
1 1/2 tablespoon Thai red curry paste

optional garnishes:
one serrano chili, seeds removed and sliced very thin
one scallion or green onion, sliced thin
another handful of fresh cilantro, chopped

In a large saucepan, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat until just simmering. Add the lemongrass, shallots, ginger, cilantro, and one tablespoon fish sauce. Cook until the vegetables are just softened, a little less than five minutes -- you don't want them to brown. Stir in the chicken broth, and half the can of coconut milk. Bring everything up to a simmer over high heat; cover, reduce heat to low, and let the pot simmer until the flavors have combined well, about ten minutes.

With a fine-mesh strainer or slotted spoon, strain the solid aromatics from the liquid, reserving the liquid and discarding the solids. Return the liquid to the saucepan.

Return the mixture to medium-high heat, stirring in the remaining coconut milk and the sugar. Bring to a simmer. Add the sliced mushrooms, and cook until they are just tender, about three minutes. Remove the soup from heat.

Combine the Thai curry paste with lime juice, and the remaining tablespoon of fish sauce. Add most of this mixture to the soup -- it's what gives the broth its spicy heat. I tend to like mine very spicy, which is why I recommend only adding a portion to the main pot, and to set out the remaining curry at the table.

(The spiciness of the curry paste can be easily adjusted: a higher proportion of lime juice to curry will thin out the paste, and make it a bit gentler on the palate.)

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