Saturday, January 1, 2011

Things I didn't consider...

As I mentioned earlier, I have resigned at my current job to advance my career with a new opportunity. While I did consider the friends I would be leaving behind, the big scary move to a new environment, and a possible double commute time (triple! in the warmer months when I typically bike to work), I failed to consider the culinary options I would be missing. Working on a city college/busy hospital campus provides near-endless options when one lacks a packed lunch. There's the cheap-o general cart where I can get a "small" eggplant and spinach parm sandwich for $3 that will fill me up in no time, the burrito cart that surpasses Qdoba and Chipotle with their sweet potato burrito for $3.50, the falafel cart that may not be cheap, but satisfies the occasional craving for falafel and baba ganoush, and ooh la la, the crepe truck, where I can get a veggie-filled crepe with the creamiest yummiest feta sauce slathered inside for a whopping $4.50. (I'm afraid the Crepewalk may even beat Temple's city-renowned crepe truck!) I could go on with more bargain eats and not-so-bargain eats, but lets just say, University City has something for everyone. Although I don't hit up The Real Le Ahn very often, I'm afraid this is the truck I'll miss most.
The funny thing is, in the 3 years that I've worked there, I've never found a good Chinese food cart in University City. If I'm craving anything Chinese, I have to splurge on the restaurant up the street. The Real Le Ahn is the one and only place to satisfy a very specific craving. When I started my current job, I was prone to sinus infections. Like 1 every 6 weeks prone. Like, boss pulled strings to get me to the best of the best in 2 days prone. Meanwhile, a coworker suggested I get an order of Le Ahn's lemongrass chicken soup. Long story short, I now credit Le Ahn (and the god of chronic sinusitis relief) with suffering only 1 sinus infection in the last 2 years. Just at the first inkling of a sore throat, I scrap the leftovers or previous craving I may have had for lunch and head right to Spruce Street, just west of 36th, for a generous helping of tom yum goong with shrimp (long ago I decided I love the shrimp version more than the chicken).

Item in image may appear more delicious than item I made.
So the other day, on my commute home, I was reflecting on the previous 3 years. The professional experience I've gained to get me to this next step, the people I've met, the colleagues who will now be friends, and of course, because my stomach is always influential, the foods I eat every day. It hit me, that on those lousy days, when I'm not feeling great, I'm not going to be able to run to Le Ahn for the soothing, healing, magical tastes of her tom yum goong. Panic started to set in; I started to re-evaluate this move. Common sense quickly started drowning out my panic-stricken mind and I said "self: you're just going to have to figure out a way to make your own tom yum goong and keep a hoarder-worried-about-nuclear-war-caliber stash in the freezer." So that's precisely what I set out to do.

I searched for a recipe and actually chose 2. I wasn't sure I could pull off the authentic one, so I kept the Americanized one on hand and had intentions of combining as I felt comfortable. I had to put in a request to Grace for her next trip to the Asian supermarket for nam prig pow and had an unjustified frustrating time looking for lemongrass (which can easily be found at Whole Foods). Once I had all my ingredients, I set aside an evening to make my first attempt (I'll refer to this in a bit).
Not much is needed to create tom yum goong, although I must admit, I tried to substitute 1 item that I knew nothing about since I didn't feel like tracking down kaffir lime leaves. Hubby didn't seem thrilled at my idea of tom yum goong for dinner, so I took that as a green light to load it up with mushrooms.

I started with 8 cups of water in my dutch oven. While the water heated up, I chopped and pounded the lemongrass stalks to allow the oils to infuse the water. I also peeled a few strips of the lime peel to use instead of the kaffir lime leaves and added the peels to the water with a few dried chilis. I let that steep for about 15 minutes...
...before I removed those aromatics and added the mushrooms, shrimp, and noodles...
While the shrimp cooked and the noodles softened, I prepared my soup bowl with the juice of half of a lime and a spoonful of spicy soury nam prig pow.
Five minutes later, I ladled some soup into my bowl, sprinkled some chopped cilantro on top, and tasted my own attempt at love in a bowl.

Ok, breathe. I can make this career move and not force my stomach and sinuses to give up their most favorite treat. It was definitely not on the same level as The Real Le Ahn, but for a first attempt, it was exactly what I was expecting. There are several things I will do differently next time; and I can assure you, in these cold winter months, next time isn't far off.

  • I used shiitake and crimini mushrooms. The shiitake had a mushy consistency by the time I ate the soup even the first time and just got mushier with each serving of leftovers. Next time, only criminis and maybe some buttons.
  • Hubby did eat a bowl (carefully ladled to avoid all specks of fungus) and noted that it was a little too lime-y. I'll put forth the effort to find the kaffir lime leaves next time. I'll put in the effort that I spent looking for the lemongrass that was sitting under my nose the whole time, to find the lime leaves.
  • My Asian cooking source of knowledge suggested I cook the noodles separately from the soup and combine them at each meal time instead of cooking the noodles all at once in the pot with the soup. The noodles ended up breaking into many small pieces and seemed to suck some of the flavor out of the soup. Not in a good way. 
  • I will not plan my evening around the soup's creation. It took a total of about 30 minutes, but only took about 10 minutes of active prep time. Simple, quick, delicious. 
All in all, I'm quite proud of my first attempt and am excited to try it again. Give it a shot before you need it. Freeze, then thaw and heat at the first hint of sickness. I'm telling you. It's even better than Grandma's chicken soup.

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