Early last year I had the chance to go to Vegfest in Seattle. It is a food festival for vegans and vegetarians, and they are held all over the country. Chances are, if you live in the United States, there’s one not too far from you. It’s fun because you get to sample a lot of food products from well-known brand names, buy cookbooks, get freebies, and attend cooking demos.
While there, I attended a handful of cooking demos presented by PCC, a local co-op with locations in and around Seattle (very similar to Whole Foods, but smaller and member-focused – although anyone can shop there). I learned some interesting new techniques for cooking, as well as some inspiration for what to make next in my kitchen.
One of the demos showed us how to make a Thai coconut ginger vegetable soup, or Tom Kha Ja. It’s a lovely soup with some really interesting flavors and textures intermingling – lemony, spicy and creamy. The nice thing is that you don’t have to use the vegetables listed in this recipe if you don’t want – you can use whatever is on hand or others that you might prefer. The only things that I would recommend not skimping out on are the lime leaves (or lime peel), lemongrass (if you have it available in your grocery store), ginger, and of course, coconut milk. There are a few other key ingredients, but those really set the tone for supporting flavors.
5 tablespoons canola oil
8 ounces or one package firm tofu, diced
1/2 carrot, diced (about 1/2 cup)
1 small onion, diced (about 1 cup)
8 button mushrooms, stems removed and diced
3 cups water
3 Thai or serrano chile peppers, smashed
2 stalks lemongrass, trimmed and smashed
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, cut into 8 pieces and smashed
8 Kaffir lime leaves, or peel of 1 lime
4 shallots, trimmed, peeled and smashed
1 small zucchini, diced (about 1 cup)
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
1 jalapeño pepper, peeled and diced
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup coconut milk
4 tablespoons lime juice
1/4 cup cilantro leaves, optional but highly recommended
2 tablespoons coconut cream (the top layer on canned coconut milk), optional
Tip: Having a hard time finding Kaffir lime leaves or lemongrass? Both can usually be found in Asian grocery stores, but if you don’t have any near you try your local specialty grocery store or health food store. Lemongrass is more likely to be available where your other prepackaged herbs are (think basil, oregano, rosemary). One package of lemongrass should do you for this recipe if you cannot buy the whole stalks by themselves.
Drain and prepare your tofu.
Heat a wok or skillet, then add three tablespoons of canola oil. Fry the tofu until all sides have a golden crust.
Remove the tofu from the pan, and set aside.
Dice your carrot, onion and mushrooms.
In the same pan you used to fry the tofu, sauté your carrot, onion and mushrooms with the remaining two tablespoons of oil for three to five minutes until translucent and fragrant.
Place the vegetable mixture in a large pot with water and bring to a boil.
Prepare your chile peppers, lemongrass and ginger by smashing them all. Just use the flat side of your knife and give each of them a few good whacks. You don’t have to do it too hard or too many times. The key is to allow the soup to extract the flavors of these ingredients.
Tip: If you do not want to have large chunks of ginger in your soup, do not cut it into smaller pieces. Just smash a large chunk or two, and then you can easily find and remove them before you serve the soup.
If using lime peel, trim and roughly peel a lime with a knife.
Prepare your shallots by peeling and dicing them. I recommend that you use one full shallot or two to four shallot cloves (they look like very large garlic cloves).
When your water comes to a boil, stir in the chile peppers, lemongrass, ginger, lime leaves or peel and shallots. Let boil for five minutes.
Prepare your zucchini.
Remove the stem and seeds from your jalapeño, then dice. Grab your corn (I used a whole package of frozen corn).
Add zucchini, corn and jalapeño to your pot and cook for two minutes.
Stir in salt, coconut milk and lime juice.
To serve the soup, remove the large pieces of lemongrass, ginger and chile peppers, as well as the lime peel and lime leaves, then ladle into soup bowls. Add your fried tofu and garnish with cilantro and one teaspoon of coconut cream.
This is such a yummy soup – and so versatile and forgiving if you don’t have everything you need. I think potatoes would go nicely in this, as well as snow peas, and other kinds of mushrooms, too. To reduce the fat, use a low fat coconut milk, sauté your vegetables in water, and bake your tofu (without oil) instead of frying it.
To see a step-by-step photo illustration of this recipe, click here.