Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Koh Pha-Ngan Thai Rice Soup

You're probably expecting a Valentines Day dish today. I just couldn't bring myself to do it. In my opinion, V-Day dishes, no matter how delicious, always end up looking like some heart shaped travesty covered in blood sauce. But, in honor of the day of lovers, I made a little heart with my vegan shrimp and tomato slice in the center of the soup. Happy Valentine's Day!

Koh Pha-Ngan Thai Rice Soup
from Virginia's World Vegan Kitchen

Rice soup, or Congee, is eaten all over Asia. I found this version at a little restaurant next to the bungalows I was staying in on Sunset Beach on Koh Pha-Ngan. I absolutely fell in love with it and the cook was kind enough to show me how to make it. It is wonderfully light and fresh tasting. The shrimp were somewhat rare and there was usually only one in a bowl, so I have duplicated that here. You may, of course, add more. You may also completely omit the shrimp (the way it was served to me) if they are unavailable or not to your liking. This soup may sound complicated, but if I have the roasted garlic on hand (and I always do) this meal takes me 15 minutes from start to finish.

Ingredients (clockwise from lower left):
1 rounded cup of cooked white rice
4 frozen vegan Shrimp (I like the Vegetarian Plus vegan shrimp with chili sauce, available at Whole Food's Market. You won't need the chili sauce for this dish)
Garlic for making roasted garlic cloves (see instructions) You'll need three roasted cloves.
Salt and pepper
1 small handful cilantro
2 green onions
1 "finger" of ginger
1 smallish tomato

Instructions for roasting garlic: (Note:I usually make a couple heads of this at a time. They are easily stored in an airtight container in their oil for several months, then they are ready to add a rich, buttery flavor to stirfrys, pasta sauces, or in this delicious soup!)

Carefully peel your chosen amount of garlic. Many Asian markets sell packets of fresh, pre-peeled whole garlic - a real time saver! Put your garlic cloves in a small sauce pan and pour vegetable oil (your choice) over the garlic. The oil should completely cover the garlic. Turn heat on high and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and deep fry garlic for 4-5 minutes or until it turns a deep tan/light brown color. Remove from heat and lift out garlic with a slotted spoon to avoid further cooking/burning. On the left you can see whole heads of garlic, freshly peeled garlic, and the cooked garlic on the plate. Allow oil to cool. Pack cooled garlic in a small glass jar and fill jar with oil, making sure to to completely cover garlic, and leave at least an inch of headroom at the top of the jar. Screw on lid and keep in a cool dark place. Discard if oil becomes cloudy or "stringy", and in any case, after 6 months.

Instructions for dish:

Wash and slice the tomato into wedges.
Finely chop cilantro
Slice green onions into thin rounds, including 3/4 of the green
Peel and mince or grate the ginger, you'll need a scant tablespoon of ginger.

Dump the rice and one cup of water into a medium stock pan. Turn heat to high and bring to a boil. Once water is boiling, begin mashing and smashing the rice against the side of the pot with a wooden spoon (See picture below). The rice will break down and thicken the soup fairly quickly.

When the soup becomes quite thick, pour another cup of water into the pot, bring back to a boil, and begin mashing the rice again. Once the soup thickens a second time (this will take a little longer than the first time, perhaps 5 minutes), pour 1/2 cup of water into the soup and bring back to a boil.

Add the shrimp, garlic cloves with their oil, half the ginger, 1 teaspoon of salt and a generous grinding of pepper. Reduce heat to low and let simmer (no lid) for 3-4 minutes.

By now the soup will have thickened up again. Add another 1/2 cup of water and again bring to a boil. Add the tomato (save a few wedges for garnishing), the green onions and most of the cilantro (save a tablespoon or so for garnish). Reduce heat and simmer for 2-3 minutes.
The soup will again have thickened. Add 1/2 to 3/4 cup of water to thin the soup. It should be somewhat, but not too watery. I try and add water so that when the rice settles it comes about 1/2 inch below the level of the water.

Bring back to a quick boil and add the rest of the ginger. Check the spices, you may need to add another 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of salt and some more pepper. Remove from the fire and serve immediately. Serve family style or in individual bowls. Garnish with a slice of tomato and a quick sprinkling of cilantro.

Makes about 5 cups. Serves 4 people for a soup course, or 2 people for a main course. Make sure everyone gets a shrimp :) The garlic cloves are meant to be eaten...yummmm!

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