Thai-Style Chicken Soup

Thai-Style Chicken Soup
Excerpted from The Best of America's Test Kitchen 2008. Copyright 2007 by the Editors at America's Test Kitchen. Used by permission of America's Test Kitchen.

Serves 4

What Makes This a Best Recipe: While Thai-style chicken soup may not look like much - a creamy, pale broth laced with chicken slices, mushrooms, and cilantro - what it lacks in looks it makes up for in flavor.

Sweet-and-sour components balance the richness of lemongrass-and-lime-infused coconut milk, which, in styles of chicken soup seem as enticing as hospital food. However, most recipes for Thai chicken soup require a shopping list's worth of exotica available only at Asian markets

This recipe, however, takes the trouble out of the soup and makes it doable for any home cook. And it's quick too, requiring minimal effort and little time. While most traditional recipes stew a whole chicken in water with aromatic ingredients to lay the soup's foundation, we found that we could achieve the same flavor faster by simply simmering prepared chicken broth and a portion of the soup's coconut milk (the fat in the milk "clung" to the aromatics' flavors better than broth alone) - and a little potent fish sauce - with the aromatics. Within 10 minutes, the broth was ready to be strained and enriched with the remaining coconut milk, sugar for balance, mushrooms, and paper-thin slices of chicken breast.

As for those exotic Asian aromatics and flavorings, we could locate lemongrass and fish sauce at most supermarkets, though no such luck with galangal, Kaffir lime leaves, or bird's eye chiles. Those flavors, however, make up Thai red curry paste, a bottled paste that is available at most supermarkets. Stirring a spoonful into the soup - dissolved into a slurry with fish sauce and lime juice - just before serving gave our soup the heady aroma and resonant flavor of the authentic versions we sought to replicate.

Note: The soup can be prepared through step 1 up to 1 day ahead of time and refrigerated in an airtight container. Finish the soup just before serving, as the chicken and mushrooms can easily overcook.

1 teaspoon vegetable oil
3 lemongrass stalks, tough outer leaves removed, bottom 5 inches halved lengthwise and sliced thin crosswise *
3 shallots, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
8 sprigs fresh cilantro, chopped
3 tablespoons fish sauce
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 (14-ounce) cans coconut milk, well shaken
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 pound white mushrooms, cut into 1/4-inch slices
3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (5-6 ounces each), halved lengthwise and sliced on the bias into 1/8-inch-thick pieces
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice from 2 to 3 limes
2 teaspoons Thai red curry paste

Garnish:
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves
2 serrano chiles, sliced thin
2 scallions, sliced thin on the bias
1 lime, cut into wedges

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until just shimmering. Add the lemongrass, shallots, cilantro, and 1 tablespoon of the fish sauce; cook, stirring frequently, until just softened, 2 to 5 minutes (the vegetables should not brown). Stir in the broth and 1 can coconut milk; bring to a simmer over high heat. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the flavors have blended, 10 minutes. Pour the broth through a fine-mesh strainer and discard the solids in the strainer. Rinse the saucepan and return the broth mixture to the pan.

Return the pan to medium-high heat. Stir the remaining can of coconut milk and sugar into the broth mixture and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium, add the mushrooms, and cook until just tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the chicken and cook, stirring constantly, until no longer pink, 1 to 3 minutes. Remove the soup from the heat.

Combine the lime juice, curry paste, and remaining 2 tablespoons fish sauce in a small bowl; stir into the soup. Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with the cilantro, chiles, and scallions. Serve immediately with lime wedges.

* Fresh lemongrass can be omitted, but don't be tempted to use jarred or dried lemongrass - their flavor is characterless.

LYNNE'S TIPS

Be sure you buy coconut milk, not sweetened coconut milk. Check the label. They are two completely different products.

A delicious Southeast Asian dessert is made by cooking short or medium grain rice with sweetened or unsweetened coconut milk with water, then blending pureed mango into the rice. I mold the cooled rice into little balls, sometimes tucking a chunk of mango in the center. Serve the mango rice balls finished with a squeeze of fresh lime and a topping of toasted, shredded coconut.

There is no substitute for fish sauce, a salty, uniquely flavored seasoning condiment made from fermented fish and used in many Southeast Asian dishes. A little goes a long way. Keep an opened bottle in the refrigerator. One reliable brand to look for has three crabs on the label. You'll most likely find it in Asian markets.

The testers at America's Test Kitchen recommend the Chaokoh brand of coconut milk because it has much less sugar than other brands, or A Taste of Thai Lite Coconut Milk if you're watching fat grams. Personally, I lean toward the new organic coconut milks on the market.
THOUGHTS FROM LYNNE

Those of us in cold climates who are so very winter-weary about now can take heart. Asparagus season has arrived and nicer weather should soon follow. Those lucky ones in warmer climes can celebrate, too, with this recipe I just had to share.

When buying asparagus choose bunches of uniform sized spears. I prefer pencil-slim ones because they don't need peeling, and cook faster and more evenly than thick stalks. Tips should be tightly closed and the entire stalk should look plump and fresh.

Trim away tough ends by bending one stalk to find the natural break point. Then line it up with the rest and cut. One last tip: for the best appearance, don't squeeze lemon juice over the asparagus until you're ready to serve them. Acids take green vegetables from bright green to olive drab in about 20 minutes.