Kitchen Intuition: Coconut soup

Authored By aliceodea

I’ve heard of a few people who have been suffering with spring colds lately, so I thought I’d put this coconut soup out there as a comforting dish, which also might offer some possibility of relief. Like chicken soup (the other classic for sick days), coconut soup can be spicy (to help clear the sinuses) or prepared with milder ingredients, giving a result that is easier to digest for those with sensitive stomachs.

This is a dish that is best avoided when eating in restaurants or ordering in, because of the potential for extra-high fat content (if they overdo it with the coconut milk) and extreme amounts of sodium (for some reason, that’s what you tend to get with soups in restaurants, cans and takeout). But when you make this soup at home, you control the ingredients. You get to decide how much coconut milk to use, whether to use the full-fat version and if it’s worth bothering with the other things that are often added to commercial versions, like lots of extra salt and sugar.

Mark Bittman, “The Best Recipes in the World”

“Lemongrass, which looks like a long, tough scallion, is usually used in one of two ways: It is bruised all over (use the back of a chef’s knife), then tossed into stews or other dishes, whole or chopped into easier-to-handle lengths. It flavors dishes this way, and you can gnaw on it after it’s cooked, but you can’t chew it.

“Alternatively, trim the ends and peel off as many of the outer layers as necessary (use a small knife to make a lengthwise slit to make this easier) until the relatively tender inner core is exposed. Mince this, or, if a small food processor is handy, chop it and then mince it in the food processor. Expect each stalk to yield a tablespoon, at most, of minced lemongrass.”

Chicken and coconut is a well-known Thai combination. The classic ingredients in that soup are coconut milk, galangal (which is similar to ginger, but with more citrusy notes), lemongrass and chicken, though I surveyed more than 20 recipes and the only ingredient that was in every single one of them was coconut milk, so it’s pretty much all optional.

In “How to Cook Everything Fast,” Mark Bittman calls coconut soup one of the “chop-and-drop soups” that allows for quick cooking as you go. Get a pot of liquid simmering, and then add ingredients as you get them chopped-starting with the ones that need the longest cook times (his suggested order is aromatics; firm vegetables; thinly sliced meats, fish and shellfish; greens and sprouts; and, finally, fresh herbs and other seasonings and flavors).

There are a number of directions to take this soup, but here is a basic recipe to start from. That should give you a sense of the proportions, or you might want to consider vegetarian and vegan varieties (here’s one with brown lentils); making it in a slow cooker (with chickpeas); adding  tomatoes; or-perhaps my favorites among the recipes I discovered this week-Deborah Madison‘s red lentil and coconut soup with black rice or Crescent Dragonwagon‘s version with black-eyed peas.

Some ingredients that have appeared in the recipes I surveyed include both chicken and vegetable stock (or just plain water); full- or low-fat coconut milk; and proteins such as chicken, beef, tofu, red lentils, brown lentils, black-eyed peas, chickpeas and, yes, even squid! Veggies might include bell pepper, red pepper, chilies, snow peas, mushrooms, bean sprouts, lemongrass (fresh or dried), butternut squash, jalapeƱos, Swiss chard, carrots and tomatoes. Aromatics could be mild, like ginger or shallots, or stronger, like garlic and onion. Lemon and lime juice are about the only acids I found, but other flavorings to look for are nampla/fish sauce, Sriracha, sambal oelek, soy sauce and miso.

And finally, for extra spiciness, put in a little extra cayenne, curry, Thai chili, dried galangal or garlic, kaffir lime leaves, turmeric, mustard seeds, red pepper flakes, paprika, coriander, cumin, curry leaves and Thai basil (or use a curry or chili paste); garnish with green onion, cilantro, avocado, sliced almonds or shredded coconut; and serve with chapati, black rice, brown rice or rice noodles.

I made two versions this week. One was the plain, basic version, and it was a tasty, comforting soup. The other was the Dragonwagon version, with lots of spices and black-eyed peas, and it blew me away. I’m a big fan of heat and flavor, and this had lots of both. I’ll look forward to experimenting further, and as the weather gets warmer, I might also try out a no-cook version.

Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not or its employees.