Valentine’s Day bunnies get the munchies

I think I may be getting sick. Over the course of dinner tonight I spontaneously lost the ability to breathe through my nose. :O

Dinner itself was terrific! I am bastardizing recipes right and left, mostly from my Food Network cookbook and Jarod’s Jamie Oliver cookbook.

Thai Chicken Noodle Soup

  • 6 cups   chicken broth (1 large can)
  • 1/4 cup   fish sauce
  • 6  cloves garlic
  • 1  piece of ginger, thumb-sized or larger (larger, definitely larger when it’s me cooking. Give me a piece the size of a fist and then I will be satisfied.)
  • 1/2   fennel bulb (my new favorite veggie!)
  • indeterminate amount of lemongrass (I found preserved sliced lemon grass in a jar today; used several spoonfuls)
  • 2   boneless chicken thighs, chopped into 1″ chunks or thereabouts
  • 1  5-oz package   of rice sticks
  • 1/3 cup   chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1/3 cup   chopped fresh basil
  • lime wedges, to serve

Pour the broth and fish sauce into a big stock pot and set to medium heat. While it’s heating, chop everything but the herbs. Chop the garlic as finely or coarsely as you like, likewise the ginger. Chop the fennel into nice little pieces, maybe 1/2″ in size. When the broth starts simmering, add these, the lemongrass, and the chicken, put the lid on and leave to simmer.

I’m not thrilled with the lemongrass I got today. It’s very convenient out of the jar, but no match for fresh. It didn’t have much flavor. Next time, I’ll be using fresh lemongrass. The first time I used the preserved kind was in Wellington, I got it from Moore Wilson and it was terrifically flavorful. I guess it depends on the brand?

I am, however, thrilled with the fish sauce. It doesn’t really taste fishy, and it makes the difference when trying to get authentic Thai flavors. I don’t think the fennel counts as authentic Thai, but I’m at that stage of adoration where I put it in everything I can. I’d never tried cooking with it before because I grow fennel from seed, and the plant is very fragrant and strong in flavor. The bulb is surprisingly mild, but still has enough of that fennel-anise-y flavor to make things interesting. It can provide a lot of bulk without dominating the rest of the dish, can be as crisp or soft as you need (depending on cooking time) and… it’s just all-around nice. I like bok choy for the same reasons, come to think of it. I love celery in things but celery has a totally different texture. I’d try both the fennel and the bok choy if you don’t like celery and need a replacement.

While you’re waiting for the chicken to cook, chop your herbs! I heartily recommend using Thai basil (‘Siam Queen’ is a good common variety; you might be able to find it at an Asian grocery or grow it from seed yourself. I’m not sure about other greenhouses/nurseries, but I always grow it at ours.)– it has a totally different flavor than the Italian, large-leaf basil usually sold in grocery stores. Normal basil works fine (it’s what I used today), but the Thai basil adds a really special and distinctive kick. And cilantro. Oh baby! I can never have too much cilantro. This yields quite a lot of herbage– either chop less, and do more later if you need it, or plan on saving the extra for the chopped salad, coming up next.

Take the rice sticks out of the package and soak in cold water for 10 minutes. The package will probably say to go longer, but don’t– we’ll be adding them to the simmering broth, and if they’re already completely soft they’ll get mushy. 10 minutes.

Keep checking your chicken, and remember that thigh meat is dark and won’t turn white. Use breast meat if this makes you uncomfortable. I prefer dark meat, but in soup it probably doesn’t make much difference. When it’s cooked, add your noodles and herbs, and simmer for several more minutes. Ladle into a bowl. Et voila! Delicious!

Chopped Salad + Dressing

  • 1  package of spinach (because I hate lettuce)
  • 1  package chopped red cabbage
  • 3  carrots
  • 1  stick celery
  • 1  cucumber
  • 1/2  fennel bulb
  • 1  avocado
  • cilantro, basil, other flavorful leaf herbs

Peel the cucumber and carrots, and chop into pieces. Make the carrot pieces smaller, since they’re so crunchy. For the cucumber: slice in half lengthwise and quarter; scoop out seeds. Cut across so that they’re about half an inch thick. Chop up the celery and fennel into smallish pieces. Put in a big salad bowl with the cabbage, then chop up the spinach leaves into smaller pieces. Chop up your herbs; add to the bowl. Mix with your hands! It’s fun. Chop up the avocado and add it last, since ripe avocado tends to get squashy if it’s over-handled.

Dressing:

  • juice of 1 lemon
  • white vinegar
  • olive oil

This part is very inexact. Jamie Oliver’s ‘Jam Jar Dressings’ call for three parts oil to one part acid (lemon juice, vinegar, etc), but that was way too oily for me. I think ultimately I ended up with three parts acid to one part oil. The jam jar (or a canning jar, of which Jarod now has a nice set waiting to be used) is brilliant– put the lid on and shake to mix, and then spoon out so that it doesn’t run down the sides and create a huge mess. I started out with pure olive oil, then added some Extra Virgin because I’d never used it before. I’m not sure which I prefer, since I then added copious amounts of vinegar and the flavor of the oil ceased to dominate. Vinegar ranks right up there with cilantro and ginger for me… (Also, it cures hiccups! Drink a teaspoonful, it’ll set you right. Vinegar flavored potato chips will also provide short-term relief.)

I know my recipes usually turn into a sort of culinary “Choose Your Own Adventure.” But I think that’s the nice thing about cooking– there’s so much freedom to experiment, as opposed to baking, where if you omit something or mix it in the wrong order you’re liable to end up with World’s Foulest Chocolate Cupcakes (true story), or Flattest Cake. I love baking too, but for different reasons. I love the results of baking, and I love the process of cooking. Cooking is more soothing to me than baking. I get lazy when it comes to baked goods; I’ll balk at pre-made meals but will happily scarf down Sandra Lee frozen creampuffs.

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