If you want to avoid the take-out trap, you need a few aces up your sleeve, those dishes you know you always have the ingredients for, and that come together fast.
One of my aces is a Thai coconut curry soup.
This is actually kind of surprising, even to me. I’m a big Asian food eater but not much of an Asian food cook. That’s why my pantry is dominated by Mediterranean-influenced ingredients, things like tomatoes and garbanzo beans and anchovies. But there’s a bottle of fish sauce in there too, and some cans of coconut milk, and there’s always a jar of red curry paste in the fridge. Turns out, that’s about all I need to simmer up this simple but super flavorful Thai-inspired soup. The flavors are bright and “exotic,” but totally approachable. Even the kids love it.
The base is easy to to make: It’s pretty much an open-and-pour job, though I usually start by sautéing some onion or shallot first, because I can’t imagine making soup without that first step. But you can just add raw sliced shallot to the simmering soup base and it would be just as good. The biggest shortcut comes from using red curry paste (I swear by Portland-made Thai and True brand), which is made with Asian aromatics like lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime, saving me the trouble of buying them fresh. I do add fresh ginger and lime, but I always have those around. Galangal? Not so much.
After that, you can add just about anything to the base to turn it into a belly-filling soup. Mushrooms, tender greens and chicken would be a classic trio, along the lines of tom kha gai. But I’ve also used grated carrots, tofu, leftover cooked meat, broccoli florets. Seriously, just paw through your fridge. Whatever your time or ingredient constraints, this soup has you covered.
Easy Thai Coconut Curry Soup
Makes 4 servings
If you like tom kha gai, you’ll love this coconutty, hot-sour-spicy soup. It’s so easy to throw together on a busy weeknight with a few pantry staples and bits from the fridge. The red curry paste has all the aromatics you need, so you don’t have to stock up on specialty produce like kaffir lime leaves or lemon grass. Often I toss in some cubed chicken (raw or even leftover cooked chicken works great) or tofu, but sometimes all I have is just a few handfuls of baby spinach or braising greens, and that works great, too. The soup base is so delicious and versatile, whatever you have on hand will likely be delicious.
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 shallot, sliced
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger
1 tablespoon Thai red curry paste (I use Thai and True)
1 tablespoon fish sauce
Zest and juice of 1 lime
1 jalapeño, sliced (ribs and seeds removed if you don’t like heat)
1 14-ounce can coconut milk
1 teaspoon salt
1 baby bok choy, leaves and stems sliced separately, or 2 cups chopped spinach
1 cup chopped wild mushrooms or quartered cremini mushrooms
1/2 cup diced chicken (raw or cooked; optional)
2 teaspoons chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish
1 lime, cut into wedges, for serving
Heat the oil in a large saucepan set over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring, occasionally, until tender and just beginning to brown. Add the broth and scrape the bottom of the pot to release any browned bits. Add the grated ginger, curry paste, fish sauce, lime juice and zest, and jalapeño. Bring to a simmer and allow to cook for about 10 minutes, so the flavors can meld.
Add the coconut milk and bring back to a simmer. Taste and add the salt, plus more of the curry paste, fish sauce or lime juice if desired.
Add the bok choy stems, mushrooms and raw chicken if using. Allow to simmer until stems and mushrooms are tender and chicken is cooked through, about 7 minutes. Add the bok choy greens or spinach greens (and cooked chicken if using instead of raw) and simmer just a few minutes more.
Serve, garnished with fresh cilantro and lime wedges.