Thai Coconut Soup with Tofu and Mushrooms

A comfort food without the high caloric price tag.

A comfort food without the high caloric price tag.

This is a soup recipe that has been requested by friends, and is so good that I crave it.  So I share it with you.  Wonderful even during the summer, it also is fantastic comfort food when sick or on a cold day.  You can tweak this dish with lite coconut milk, lime zest instead of lemongrass, or if you have access to Thai ingredients use kaffir lime and Thai basil.

Lemongrass is easy to grow and to use.  Just the base of the peeled stalk is used as a flavoring.  Cut it only in half so the pieces are easily found in the soup and put aside.

Lemongrass is easy to grow and to use. Just the base of the peeled stalk is used as a flavoring. Cut it only in half so the pieces are easily found in the soup and put aside.

I’ve had it without tofu, and without mushrooms, and it is still wonderful. Put the lime in the coconut, and drink it all up! Don’t put too many extra veggies in it; it is a simple soup.

Thai Coconut Soup with Tofu and Mushrooms
Author: 
Recipe type: Soup
Cuisine: Thai
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 4
 
A simple, delicious vegetarian Tom Kha soup. The lemongrass isn't meant to be eaten because its too tough. The kaffir lime leaf may be eaten only if you use a young one and slice very thinly before adding it.
Ingredients
  • 1 can (1 ½ cups) unsweetened coconut milk
  • 2 tsp. grated fresh ginger
  • 1 fresh lemongrass stalk, peeled and halved (or 2 tsp. dried, or 1 tsp. lime zest)
  • 1 bruised fresh or dried kaffir lime leaf, (if young can be sliced very thinly(or ½ tsp. lime juice)
  • Two - three Thai basil leaves (optional)
  • 3 cups mild vegetable stock
  • ½ to 2 teaspoons Thai red curry paste, or Thai coconut curry paste, or curry powder (depending on hotness desired)
  • 1 package (12 – 14 oz) extra firm tofu (not silken)drained and cut into small cubes
  • 15 oz canned straw mushrooms, drained and rinsed, or half-cup sliced button mushrooms
  • 2 tsp. sugar or other tasteless sweetener
  • 2 Tablespoons light soy sauce (I use Bragg’s Amino Acids instead)
  • Salt to taste (opt.)
  • Fresh lime juice to taste (opt.)
Instructions
  1. Combine lemongrass, ginger, kaffir leaf, Thai basil leaves, and coconut milk with broth in a large saucepan and bring to a boil.
  2. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 5 – 10 minutes.
  3. Add the curry paste a half-teaspoon at a time, stirring well and tasting for desired hotness.
  4. Stir in the tofu, mushrooms, sugar, and soy sauce.
  5. Simmer for about 10 minutes more.
  6. Taste before adding additional optional salt.
  7. Serve as is or over hot rice.
  8. Offer fresh lime to squeeze on top as desired (it makes the flavors pop).

 

Jook

Jook with sesame oil and chopped cilantro

Jook, Juk, Chinese rice soup, rice porridge, congee… these are many names for basically the same food, rice cooked with a lot of water. There are equally as many ways to fix this wonderful comfort food. Jook can be made with plain water and white or brown rice, then served with toppings such as cilantro, sesame oil, chopped peanuts, bits of cooked tofu, soy sauce, chopped hardboiled egg, preserved or cooked vegetables, chives… as little or as much as you’d like. Jook can be prepared with or without salt; I prepare mine without, then grind a little on the top when serving for that little burst of flavor. Jook can be served with cinnamon and sugar for dessert; this is especially nice for those who love rice pudding but don’t want to eat or can’t eat dairy. Commonly eaten as a savory breakfast dish, Jook is also a perfect food for when you are ill. Not only is it comforting and filling, but it is easy to eat for a sore throat, easy on a troubled stomach, nutritious, and if you are a victim of Montezuma’s Revenge (if you know what I mean), rice is very good for helping you to stop going. Ah-hem. Jook is a very good baby food for those little mouths that are just getting into semi-solids.

You can find hundreds of different versions of Jook on the Internet.  Many make it with part broth, part water.  Some throw in fresh ginger, some cook bones in it for added calcium.  Cooking it plain allows you to top each bowl up the way you want, which is what I do.  Leftover Jook can be mixed with water to loosen it up, or eaten in its more solid form.  You can’t get a much easier comfort food to make that is so versatile.  It is particularly good for celiacs (those who cannot eat gluten).  With cooler weather upon us, make one dinner a Jook day!

Jook
Author: 
Recipe type: Main
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 6-8
 
Jook, rice porridge, rice soup or congee, is a wonderful versitile comfort food.
Ingredients
  • 1 cup washed white rice (short or long grained depending on your taste)
  • 8 cups water (if you like it thick)
  • or
  • 10 cups water (if you like it medium)
  • or
  • 12 cups water (if you like it very thin and soupy)
  • optional: 1-2 tsp. salt)
  • optional: substitute broth for equal parts of the water)
  • optional: add a thumb-sized knob of fresh ginger)
  • Topping suggestions:
  • sesame oil, peanuts, fresh cilantro, chopped hardboiled egg, cooked tofu, seaweed, soy sauce, freshly ground salt and pepper, butter, cooked vegetables, pickled vegetables... leftovers. Also make it sweet with sugar, honey, cinnamon, nutmeg, dried fruit, chocolate chips!
Instructions
  1. Put washed rice and the desired amount of water in a dutch oven
  2. Heat until boiling
  3. Turn down heat to a simmer and cook uncovered 2½ - 3 hours, depending on how thick or thin you want it.
  4. Serve hot in small soup bowls with choices of toppings.

 

Locro de Papas (Ecuadorian Potato Soup)

Locro de Papas

A couple of years ago my daughter and I went on a birdwatching ecotour of the cloud forests in Ecuador, and then to the Galapagos islands.

Me and Galapagos Sea Lions

The flights ended and began in Quito, the capital city, which holds about 75% of the entire population of Ecuador.  Eating wasn’t as much a challenge as we had anticipated; often in lower economic areas there are better non-meat choices.  We stayed at a hotel in Quito at the beginning, middle and end of our journey.  Room service was the same price as eating in the restaurant, so we indulged in our room for most meals because we were exhausted.  One of the three separate nights we stayed there we watched Lord of the Rings in Spanish. Neither of us really speaks  Spanish, but I understand enough to get the gist of what is being said. On our last day the streets were blocked off because the president of Ecuador came to stay in the adjacent hotel and we saw his party board a plane as ours was taking off the next day.

The hotel menu offered interesting side dishes made with interesting ingredients such as yucca and plantain.  Our absolute favorite, though, was Locro de Papas.  Literally this translates as Potato Stew, but it wasn’t a stew.  Locro de Papas is one of the most popular dishes in Ecuador and the Andes.  It is wholesome peasant food that has as many variations as Americans have chili recipes.  At home I managed to reproduce the version that we fell in love with as best as I could.  A few ingredients make the soup special.  One ingredient which you may not have on your pantry shelves, but is easily obtained in the Mexican food isle, is annatto, also called ground anchiote.  It has a slight flavor and is used to color foods.  It is not essential for the success of this soup, but it is a nice addition. They use an oil that is colored with the anchiote seeds, but using the ground spice with olive oil works just fine.

Cumin, annatto and cheese

What is essential is ground cumin.  Some people can’t stand the smell of cumin, which is slightly reminiscent of dirty socks.  However the flavor carries this soup perfectly.  Another addition is sliced avocado.  Warm avocado is melt-in-your-mouth delicious.  Living in Fallbrook, the Avocado Capital of the United States, I have ready access to the many forms avocados can take.  Avocado fudge, ice cream and fried avocado slices are all standards of the yearly Avocado Festival.  Another addition to this soup which creates a wonderful texture as well as adding protein and calcium, is cubed non-melty cheese.  If you are non-dairy, then substitute with cubed firm tofu (which can be added even with the cheese).  The textures of the potatoes, cheese and avocado are heavenly.

One of the standards of an Ecuadorian lunch or dinner is an introductory soup, usually vegetarian.  We ate some fantastic soups.  Instead of bread on one occasion, we were given a bowl of popcorn to sprinkle on our soup.  It was great!  I’ve included it here.

Be sure to slice the potatoes no less than 1/4 inch thick; if any thinner they will fall apart when cooking.

Thick potato slices won't fall apart

The version in the hotel had lots of butter in it; I’ve replaced half of it with olive oil, but if you don’t do butter then use all olive oil.  The butter’s fat content makes the soup satisfying to the palate.

Saute shallots in oil and butter

This is a quick and easy soup.  Don’t cheat yourself out of a great meal by not making Locro de Papas!

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Locro de Papas (Ecuadorian Potato Soup)
Author: 
Recipe type: Soup
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 4
 
This version of the favorite soup of South America is quick to make and very filling.
Ingredients
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 shallot, diced
  • 1 pound potatoes, peeled and sliced no less than ¼ inch thick
  • ½ tablespoon ground cumin
  • ½ tablespoon ground annatto
  • 6 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 avocado
  • 1 cup cubed non-melty mild cheese, such as Queso Fresco
  • 1 block firm tofu, cubed (optional)
  • Cilantro leaves for garnish (optional)
  • 1 cup freshly popped popcorn (optional)
Instructions
  1. In a medium saucepan, heat olive oil and butter over medium-high heat.
  2. Add diced shallots and cook until translucent, about three minutes.
  3. Cut potato slices in half and add to pot.
  4. Stir in cumin and annatto.
  5. Pour in vegetable broth.
  6. Bring soup to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for about twenty minutes, until potatoes are just tender enough to part when pressed. Don't overcook!
  7. Ladle soup into wide shallow soup bowls.
  8. Add chunks of cheese and tofu (if using).
  9. Top with sliced avocado.
  10. Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve immediately.
  11. Provide bowls of popcorn alongside soup to add as topping (don't add it ahead of time, they become soggy instantly).

 

 

Taking the “Ew!” out of Tofu

Working Tofu Magic

I’ve been an ethical vegetarian for seventeen years, raising both my children without animal protein as well.  Believe you me, packaged vegetarian foods have come a looonng way in palatability.   There is a whole new world of packaging rife with misspellings and quotation marks, such as “chickn” and “bakon”, just to make sure that no hen or pig will sue the company for false representation.  Many vegetarian options were simply god-awful to eat; some still are.  It is still hard to find products that aren’t filled with pieces of red and green peppers (ick!), whose flavor permeate the rest of the food making it disgusting if it had been palatable at all in the beginning.

There are wonderful meat substitutes that can vary a menu and add protein, and the ability to create mock meat has become an art and can be found in many restaurants, especially Thai or Chinese.   I order several times a year from May Wah in New York, who sells mock meats created in Taiwan.  Morningstar Farms makes wonderful standards such as fake bacon, sausage links and patties, chicken strips and meatless crumbles (like ground beef).

A host of good pseudo-meat products

When my daughter and I toured England four years ago, the popular vegetarian option on all the menus that year was mushroom risotto.  We ate quite a lot of mushroom risotto, as well as some very strange stuffed onions which were stuffed… with more onions.

Although there are many interesting varieties of fake meats, the least expensive and easiest way to provide extra protein to your diet (other than beans, kale and dairy products, etc.) is to learn how to prepare tofu.

Tofu is prepared soybean curd.  It comes either in a water bath tub which must be refrigerated or in asceptic pouches which can be stored at room temperature.  On the label you’ll see that it comes in ‘soft’, ‘firm’ and ‘extra firm’ for different uses.  Most beginners at eating tofu say that it has no flavor and it just soaks up the gravy and seasonings it is cooked with.  Not so.  Fresh tofu has a delicate, fresh flavor that is available to a palate that is not overly spoiled by too much salt and seasonings.

Types of tofu

I’ve grown to like the soft tofu as much as the firm, cooking it so that the outside has a crisp texture and the inside is smooth, and that is the recipe I’ll give to you shortly.  For those who want something chewier, there is a great trick to make tofu more meat-like.  Freeze it!  This works best with firm or extra-firm tofu that is in a water bath tub.  Freeze it, then thaw it out, press out the water, slice it however you want and throw it into whatever you are making.  It is much more like a sponge and has more texture.

For fresh or thawed tofu, you should drain it.  Pressing it is easy and can be done while you are gathering the rest of the ingredients for your meal.  Just put a plate on top of a cake of tofu, which is on a cutting board or plate by a sink, and set a heavy can or two on top.

Nice hat

You’ll be amazed at how much water runs off.  If you happen to own a Japanese pickle press (you don’t?  Oh, you should!) it is really easy to press tofu.

Say 'Pickle Press' ten times fast. Go!

I bought mine at Green Apple Japanese Market in Oceanside for about five dollars.  The screw press holds the vegetables down into the brine, or acts as a torture device for tofu.  If you press thawed tofu, it’s texture becomes so spongy that it doesn’t easily fall apart and you can squish it down pretty far!  It’s fun!

A simple way to prepare tofu is to press it for no less than five minutes, slice it, and pan fry it.

Sliced tofu

I use a combination of olive oil (because it is one of the most recommended foods that you can eat, and you should have about two tablespoons a day!), sesame oil for flavor, and a product called Bragg’s Amino Acids.  It is similar to soy sauce or tahini sauce, but is far less salty and very healthy, providing extra amino acids to your diet.  I buy it at health food stores such as Henry’s Marketplace.

Tofu and his cooking buddies

If you aren’t going to go run out and buy some right now (whyever not?  Pick up a pickle press while you’re out!) use a little tahini sauce, or very lite soy sauce.  As these sauces cook, the salt condenses and overpowers the flavor of the foods.  So, to one cake of sliced tofu, I put about two tablespoons olive oil, half a tablespoon sesame oil and one tablespoon Bragg’s Amino Acids in a frying pan and heat it to medium-high.  I mix them together to cover the bottom of the pan and set in the tofu slices.  The more moisture in the tofu, the more it will splatter, so I turn up the heat a little more after setting the slices in the pan.  I also use a splatter guard.

Cook slices in pan with splatter screen

The slices should sizzle.  Cook for about ten minutes, then turn them for another five.  They should be light brown.  Add them to vegetables, serve them seperately or top a bowl of noodle soup with them.  A varient on this recipe is to use extra-firm tofu, well drained, sliced into smaller pieces and cooked at a higher temperature for a little longer.  The pieces become crispy… mmmmm!

You can add soft tofu into smoothies or puddings, or scramble them to make something that really doesn’t taste at all like eggs but can be very tasty as well as nutritious with the right seasonings.

So don’t be afraid of your tofu.  Buy it as fresh as you can (there is a tofu maker in San Diego!) and play around with it.  Look for tofu that specifies non-GMO soybeans.  There are so many ways to prepare it, but this method is quick and simple for busy people, and very tasty, too!