New recipes can be born out of thin air.
Sometimes it is an ingredient that lays the foundation of a new dish. Sometimes it is the season, the mood, or occasion. A craving for a cuisine. Travels and postcards. Pictures, songs and colors. Even a serving plate. A piece of china. Oftentimes, in my case, it is the shortage of ingredients in the pantry and the need to take shortcuts that spark the creativity. And every once in a while, my cooking inspiration is Miss Pain, my seven year old daughter, and our family’s mission to broaden her food horizons.
Miss Pain is not a naive customer. Just to give you an idea, she is the spitting image of Lucy in Peanuts, if you know what I mean, dark haired, deadly serious and bursting with knowledge. I do not engage in debates with Miss Pain because I always lose. She has read every single book up until grade eight and above, she has mastered the foundations of genetics and probability, she knows how ice crystals are formed and how babies are made, she says things like, “Mama, I have decided to stir you pasta, by doing so the heat will go to the top and the cycle of warmth will start all over again.”
Developing ones offspring’s food palate is not a trivial task. Much to the contrary, it is a task of close to Sisyphean proportions. There is no straightforward convincing as in, “hey, here is an ash-ripened goat cheese, give it a try” or “would you like to try some of my boudin noir, also known as the blood sausage”. Teaching kids to embrace food requires a great deal of imagination and character study. Translated into layperson’s terms, the trick is to offer Miss Pain something she already knows and likes, and then gradually build up from there. And once you have done it properly, many wonderful structures can be built. As in “you like carrot puree, here are carrots with garlic” (Miss Pain age 14 months), as in “you liked garlic, let’s now add cumin,” (Miss Pain age 18 months), as in “you like mozzarella, let’s try tofu”, “you like ham, here is prosciutto” or “you eat cabbage, here are Brussels sprouts”. And once you have successfully evolved hot dog into a sausage with fennel, in the next transformation cycle you may even pull off boudin noir.
We have passed some significant hurdles so far. We’ve conquered chicken liver and lard. We’ve morphed grilled salmon into smoked one and then evolved it into sashimi. We have achieved the metamorphosis of French fries into squid stew, via fried onions and fried calamari. We have battled raw scallops and tripe.
And when there was close to nothing left to battle (we are reserving oysters and sea urchin for a later day), when there were almost no victories to be won, we concluded that Miss Pain is ripe enough to experience a touch of heat and a touch of spice.
It was pasta~into~soba~soup~into~curry~peanut-butter~into~Thai mantra that almost led us to victory. But there was one step in the evolution that we missed.
Would you like to know what got us killed?
It was the lime.
Lime Scented Thai Soba Soup with Poached Chicken
For extra crunch, you can garnish the soup with chopped scallions, red peppers or carrots. As a refreshment add some cold cucumber on the side. You may even throw in a cilantro leaf or two, should you, unlike me, happen to eat cilantro, for that was the battle my parents never won. If, by any chance, you end up with some soup and soba leftovers, though I very much doubt it, no worries. After a night in the fridge the noodles will absorb all the soup, and evolve into a delicious cold soba salad.
* 16 oz dried soba noodles
* 1 lb boneless skinless chicken breast, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
* 2 cups coconut milk
* 4 cups chicken broth
* 1 cup water
* 1/3 cup finely chopped shallots
* 3 garlic cloves, crushed
* 1/3 cup creamy unsweetened peanut butter
* 1 1/2 tbsp Thai red curry paste
* zest of half a lime
* 1 tbsp lime juice
* two inches long stalk of lemongrass, cut into half lengthwise
* 1/2 tsp grated ginger
* 1 tbsp fish sauce
* 1 tsp tomato paste
* 1 tbsp vegetable oil
* lime wedges, cilantro and/or chopped scallions for garnish (optional)
In a large saucepan bring the chicken broth to a boil. Add the chicken, reduce heat and simmer until chicken is opaque throughout and barely done, for about four to five minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat and leave the chicken in the broth for about twenty minutes. With the slotted spoon remove the chicken cubes from the broth and set them aside.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl mix the peanut butter, curry paste, fish sauce and tomato paste. Slowly add a tablespoon or two of warm soup and mix well. Keep on adding more soup until the mixture is smooth, evenly combined and somewhat liquid.
In a medium saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until shallots are soft and golden, about a minute or two. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about one minute. Remove the saucepan from the heat. Add in the peanut-butter-curry mixture and stir well. Slowly whisk in the coconut milk, chicken broth and a cup of water. Add the ginger, lime zest and lemongrass. Return the pot to the heat and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for about 10 minutes until the soup thickens a bit.
While the soup is simmering, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the soba until al dente, about four minutes (or according to manufacturer’s instructions). Drain the noodles and rinse well with warm water.
Remove the lemongrass from the soup, add the chicken cubes and simmer for another minute. Remove the soup from the heat. Season with lime juice and salt. Taste, and if needed, adjust the salt and acidity. Using tongs, divide the soba evenly among warmed bowls, ladle in the soup generously -- I like my soba with a lot of soup -- garnish and serve immediately.