Sunday, November 7, 2010
The Leftovers: Henry's Last Meal
Henry had simple, but fine tastes. He couldn't resist roast chicken of any kind, and he loved a good head cheese.
He also, Kent argues, had good taste in beer, as well as a bit of sweet tooth for fresh pears.
In his last few days, he was so weak and sick that he could barely eat, so we nursed him with syringes full of homemade chicken stock and maple syrup.
If there was ever an important reason to make chicken stock, this was it. Luckily, I had a chicken carcass in the freezer, which I had froze several weeks ago when I didn't have time to make stock. More than anything I wanted this food to heal my dear, feline companion of eight years. But sadly, he was just too sick. Now that he's gone, I am left with an empty spot on the comfy chair that was Henry's favorite napping spot, and 2 quarts of homemade, organic, free range chicken stock.
I also understand now why it's a cultural practice to bring casseroles and pies to the bereaved. While I didn't expect any condolences, friends leaving messages on Facebook have been incredibly kind. I know the next time someone in my life has a major upheaval, I'll be the first to bring food. I went nearly a whole five days without cooking a single thing except Henry's chicken stock. There were nights of greasy General Tso's Tofu, nights of even greasier leftover General Tso's Tofu and even a night when, after spending several hours at the vet, we stopped by Kroger on our way home for hotdogs, buns, and a can of chili for dinner. We have not had a pleasant week.
But finally, yesterday, I picked up my chef's knife and a few pots and pans and got back into the rhythm of the kitchen. I wanted to do something with the leftovers from Henry's last meal. Grief makes me feel like I'm moving through my life in slow motion, but the routine of cooking was a relief, a familiar pattern that I could lose myself in.
Every time I roast a chicken, I make a stock, and then soup. While chicken noodle or chicken dumpling is a traditional standby, it seemed too much like sick food. Instead, I made Thai Coconut Soup. This soup is rich and complex, and overall, deeply satisfying. I think that this is in part because of the contrast of flavors. The sweetness of the coconut milk hits the front of your tongue, while the sourness from the lime tickles the sides, and deeper in your throat you feel the power of the chiles. The fish sauce and mushrooms add unami to contrast with the sharp, bright zing of fresh cilantro. This soup has a lot going on, but it's incredibly simple to make.
Thai Coconut Soup
A couple of notes. First, I am not picky about stock making techniques as long as it's homemade and is a true stock, which means it must be made with bones. I just covered the entire chicken carcass with water (which I did not salt), brought it to a boil, and simmered for about an hour or so. Then I removed the carcass, chilled the stock, and skimmed some of the solidified fat off the top. If you boil the stock hard, it will become cloudy, but here that doesn't matter as the coconut milk hides any imperfection in the stock.
Second, I used dried lemongrass, which I found in a specialty Asian market. It is worth seeking out because it is so much cheaper than fresh lemongrass, and it's easier to work with. If you can't find it though, a 4-inch piece of fresh lemongrass would work. Simmer it whole, and then remove before serving.
Finally, do not even think about substituting light coconut milk here. If you do, you'll be terribly disappointed in the flat flavor.
2 quarts chicken stock
1 t. dried lemongrass
3 (1-inch) pieces lime peel
4 (1-inch diameter) pieces thinly sliced fresh ginger
2 hot chiles (thai chilis, serrano, or similar), seeded and halved
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 (15 oz.) can coconut milk
4 to 5 thinly sliced crimini (baby bella) mushrooms
1/2 green bell pepper, cut into 1 inch strips
1/2 red bell pepper, cut into 1 inch strips
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup diced cook chicken
4 limes, juiced
handful of chopped, fresh cilantro
Bring the stock to a boil in a large soup pot. Add the lemongrass, lime peel, ginger, chiles, and garlic. Simmer over low heat for about 10 minutes.
Add the coconut milk, mushrooms, bell peppers, fish sauce, sugar, and chicken and continue to simmer for another 10 to 15 minutes, or until mushrooms are cooked through.
Remove from heat stir in lime juice. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding more sugar or lime juice as needed.
Garnish with cilantro. Warn diners of the lime peel and ginger coins, as they won't want to eat them.