Cooking Chapbook

Notes from my kitchen in the D.C. area & beyond

Month: November, 2012

The Empowerment of Coconut Soup

For a new cook, any delicious spoonful created by your own hands brings with it a stunning epiphany: I have food power.

I never have to wait for that take-out place to open at 5 or the grocery store to be stocked in premade whatever or my good friend so-in-so to invite me over or the occasional trip to Texas/New Orleans/San Francisco/insert your favorite food city.

Any time I want this precise glorious taste, at 4 p.m. or 2 a.m., I can have it.

And the skies open and tea kettles sing.

I feel this same sweet emotion whenever I make something I never imagined I could, something that once tasted so exotic, I had no idea how to begin picking out the flavors.

Like Thai Coconut Soup.

On a chilly snow-slush day like today in Germany, I craved the creamy, warm, spiciness of coconut soup, filled with soft vegetables. A veritable vitamin-packed tropical escape.

Though, in all honestly, I don’t really know how Thai this concoction is. There are no kaffir lime leaves or galangal or lemongrass or ginger even. So let me work on the name. Hmm.

The basic gist is coconut milk, vegetables and spices. The right spices. Fish sauce is also key. If I had had ginger, I would have added it. Ditto on chicken or shrimp and most any vegetable – string beans, okra, zucchini all sound nice to me.

Coconut Soup with a Kick

Serves 4

  • 2 cans (around 13-15 ounces or 400 ml) of coconut milk (ideally at least 1 non-lite)
  • 2 cups of chicken broth, vegetable broth or water
  • 2 sweet peppers, sliced into strips
  • Handful of shiitake mushroom caps, cut into strips
  • 1 small eggplant, sliced thinly into rounds and then each round quartered
  • 1 box of firm tofu, cut into chunks
  • 3+ garlic cloves, minced
  • 2-3 tablespoons oil (peanut, canola or vegetable – not olive)
  • 3 tablespoons red curry paste
  • 1-2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 2 teaspoons curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon red chili flakes, more to taste
  • sprinkle of cayenne powder, more to taste
  • fresh cilantro, chopped, optional
  • rice (cook according to package instructions)

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil over medium in a deep skillet or dutch oven. Add the minced garlic and red curry paste. Stir.

Add the eggplant, peppers and any other chopped vegetables you like. (White mushrooms would be good to add here – shiitakes are so delicate, they cook just by simmering later.)  Add the tofu. Let it all cook for a few minutes, enough so the vegetables get a head-start on cooking. Stir periodically. Add a little more oil if things start to stick.

Pour in the coconut milk and broth (or water). Stir to combine. Add the shiitake mushrooms. Let it come to a boil and then adjust the heat so it simmers.

Add the curry powder, turmeric, cayenne, red chili flakes and 1 tablespoon of fish sauce. (If you aren’t one for heat, omit the cayenne and only sprinkle a bit of the red chili flakes. You can always add more.) Let it simmer for a minute or two and then taste. Does it need more fish sauce? More heat? More curry? Add more spices and fish sauce until you hit the right spot for you. This is one of the most valuable parts of your own kitchen. Dinner is exactly to taste – your taste!

Let the soup simmer until all of the vegetables (the eggplant is usually the last to relax) are soft enough to your liking and ready to eat. It won’t hurt to keep the soup simmering a little longer while you set the table and wait for the rice to cook.

Serve with rice and topped with chopped cilantro, if you like.


In Europe, coffee as art

I never quite got coffee in the States.

I didn’t get the cheap cups at 7-11 or the communal coffee pot in the newsroom or the “first coffee” period in business school. (I tried to do the coffee thing then, really tried, out of some duty to the “process,” and ended up switching to green tea after headaches ensued.)

In Europe, though, I have fallen madly in love with cappuccinos. They are delicious. They make my head buzz happily and productively. I crave them. Sitting in a cafe for a few hours with a book or my sweetheart and a warm cup filled with rich espresso and delicious cream is heaven. Bliss for 2.50€.

And I never fail to be delighted if  my cappuccino comes bedazzled with art.

These three beauties came from a breakfast in Croatia.


I wondered how one creates such prettiness, a question YouTube promptly answered.

Watch a barista make a bear and a leaf in this video. I really can’t wait to get a bear on my coffee.


Brussel Sprouts from Heaven

Upon request from Olga, the coolest grill master I know.

Adapted from “My Berlin Kitchen” by Luisa Weiss, a memoir sprinkled with yummy recipes from the creator of The Wednesday Chef blog. Highly recommended. Her recipes from her Berlin kitchen are in U.S. metrics, so I end up converting them these days for my Stuttgart kitchen, a sort of children’s telephone game. Which makes me laugh for some reason.

Roasted Brussel Sprouts from Heaven

This recipe jammed with fish sauce, chili flakes and lemon is ideal “to taste,” if you know what I mean. And if any of those ingredients sound dreadful to you, we may not have the same idea of heaven …

  • 500 grams (1 pound, more or less) brussel sprouts
  • olive oil
  • sprinkle of chili flakes
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 lemon
  • fish sauce (Luisa recommends colatura,  a Sicilian version of Vietnamese fish sauce, but we only had handy what we use for Filipino dishes. If you try colatura, let me know how it turns out. I’m curious!)

Heat oven to 200 C / 400 F or so.

Wash the sprouts. Cut off the tough bottom parts, slice them in half and discard any sad-looking leaves.

Toss with a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a baking pan. Don’t drench the dear sprouts, but I’ve only realized after multiple mediocre attempts at sprout-roasting that I usually don’t oil them enough.

Roast for 15-20 minutes, checking often and stirring occasionally.

Mix in a bowl juice from 1/4 lemon or so, a bit of zest, a tablespoon of fish sauce, the garlic and a good sprinkling of hot chili flakes. Adjust according to your inclinations. Spicy-minded folks might like a full teaspoon of chili flakes. Or you might like less fish sauce.

Take the sprouts out of the oven and immediately dose with the lemon-chili-fish sauce mixture. Toss.

Serve immediately, or eat straight from the pan, if you can’t resist.

My FIrst Sinigang Soup

When I’m cooking a dish for the first time, I like to read through dozens of recipes. Each one is a little different, but slowly the crux of it emerges. The archetype, Plato might say.

For a national dish like Sinigang, a sour soup from the Philippines, the quintessential version is under constant and gentle dispute. I love reading the recipe comments feuding over ingredients, but always, because this is a Filipino dish, kindly and politely. Something akin to: “Authentic Sinigang would never have potatoes, but your recipe looks nice, too.”

So I read recipe after recipe after recipe. And then I took a look in the fridge, the ultimate arbitrator.

Sinigang Soup

I first had Sinigang this summer, while in the Philippines. My husband loves it. The taste is a little too sour, too pungent for me to sip without wincing a little. I felt like a little girl tasting blue cheese for the first time and trying to act all grown up. Yes, really! I do love it!

I hope, as with blue cheese, I’ll grow into it.

Tamarind is often the key souring agent for Sinigang, but when I spied a box of Sinigang soup packets in the Philippines, I couldn’t resist. It came back on the plane with me.

Here’s my first go at Sinigang, a warm, comforting, savory blanket of vegetables and sea on a chilly day. You can use pork or fish, instead. Daikon radish, bok choy, okra, spinach, and ginger could all be added. I used what we had around.

My beginner version is much less sour than what you’d have in the Philippines, but with the sourness dialed back a bit, I really did love it.

Brianne’s First Sinigang

  • 2 packets Sinigang soup mix (for this particular box, 1 packet = 4 cups)
  • 6 cups water
  • 2 cups of thin green beans (or “snake beans” or whatever variation you like)
  • 1-2 cups frozen shrimp, peeled and already cooked
  • 1 medium onion, sliced
  • 2 tomatoes, chopped
  • 2 garlic gloves, sliced or minced
  • canola oil
  • 1 small Asian eggplant or half of a big U.S. one, sliced and cut into semi-circles

Drizzle the canola oil into a skillet on medium heat. Add the garlic, onion and tomatoes. Let it cook for a few minutes until the garlic and onions soften. Stir occasionally so the garlic doesn’t burn.

Meanwhile, heat the 6 cups of water in a pot. Add in the green beans and eggplant slices. Bring the water to a simmer.

Once the garlic/onion/tomato mixture has softened a bit, add it to the pot.

Add one soup packet; stir till dissolved and taste. Add the second soup packet, or part of it, if you like more flavor and sourness. You can also add fish sauce for a more pronounced savoriness.

Let the soup simmer 10-15 minutes or so, until the beans and eggplant are tender to your liking.

The shrimp can be added toward the end. If they are already cooked, they will only take a minute or two to thaw.

Serve with rice.