Ah, January. The gym is packing about 50% more bodies these days, and the grocery store is swamped by people vowing to cook more and eat out less often. Budgets are being drawn up and Christmas lights finally taken down. A full week at work after several 4- or 3-day abbreviated ones seems rather strange and a just a little bit cruel.
I've been feeling like somewhat of an onlooker these past couple of weeks. You see, I'm just not a resolver. I gave up making New Year's resolutions sometime around 1999, after my friend Meg and I resolved to give up chocolate for the entire year. We were, I think, juniors in high school. Meg did it, if I recall correctly. I, on the other hand, lasted two days, until someone passed around M & Ms during English class. I know, it's embarrassing. We weren't talking Scharffen Berger here.
After my M & M meltdown, I decided maybe I just wasn't suited for making totalistic promises that would hopefully make me a better, stronger, more self-controlled person. Props to each and every one of those ladies Zumba-ing at my YMCA or to those who've resolved to spend more time with family, become involved in the community, keep in touch with friends, and so on. For me, taking a few minutes most evenings before falling asleep to think about how I'm doing in the Life Goals area seems to reap better results than a list every January.
At least, that was my mindset up until yesterday morning, when I woke to yet another day of gray skies and rain here in Nashville. It's been like this--drippy and cold, drippy and muggy, drippy and foggy--off and on for the past few weeks and whew, boy, am I tired of it. There is something about winter in this part of the country that I find more trying than winter in Chicago. There, when November rolls around, you get that electric blanket out, clean your tea pot, find your mittens, and settle in for the next five months, because honey, winter doesn't play around in that city. Here, there's rarely any snow, but you can count on weeks that sometimes begin in the 60s, end in the 20s, feature one sunny day when you don't need a sweater, the next when you spend 15 minutes scraping ice off your car, and the remaining five that may involve getting your new suede boots muddy or searching for your flip-flops. Tennessee, you sure know how to charm a girl.
All this to say that after I dragged myself to the Y yesterday morning and ellipticaled while watching said- Zumba class in all their glory, it suddenly occurred to me why New Year's resolutions are more than a good thing--they're necessary. January is quite simply a sludgy, thick-in-the-middle, get-through-it kind of month. Just like December, it's still getting dark at 4:30, and there are still no good tomatoes at the grocery, but there's also no excuse for egg nog and 12 dozen cookies. This month needs a purpose, or rather, we need a purpose, or several even, so as not to slog through the whole thing with our pants too tight and our chins down. Resolutions just might be the only thing keeping us from eating the last of the leftover broken candy canes in the kitchen junk drawer. Which would be a truly terrible thing, given that we all know candy canes aren't even worth it.
So, friends, my food-related resolution is to bite the bullet and try my hand at authentic ethnic cooking. And by authentic, I mean recipes that use the tougher-to-find ingredients rather than the slightly-more Americanized substitutes. I generally stay away from Thai and Indian cooking because I figure that whatever I can get at takeout restaurants run by Thai or Indian families is going to be much better than what I produce. But a few weeks ago, when I sent Jeff out for some Tom Yum soup and found out that it now costs $7.95 for a bowl of broth and vegetables, I decided it was time. Time to make more frequent trips to our local International food store, despite its suspicious cold-bad-fish smell, time to find out just what galangal and dried shrimp tastes like, time to settle in for the rest of my rainy, warm, icy winter and take some comfort in spicy, fragrant, steaming hot recipes.
This Curry Mee, or Coconut Curry Chicken Noodle Soup, recipe from The New York Times' January 7th issue is my first resolution achievement. I actually don't think I can call it an achievement, actually, because it's really pretty darn easy. You do have to search out kaffir lime leaves and thai curry powder, rather than the madras most groceries sell, but beyond some mincing and opening cans, this is a cinch. And man, is it good for beating the January blues. Rich with coconut milk, it's creamy but hardly guilt-inducing--the milk is thinned with chicken stock and spiked with fish sauce. And don't be intimidated by the long ingredient list--it took me about 45 minutes to make. Which is good, because, ahem, it's now rather sunny and beautiful out. January, I guess I'll stick with you after all.
Curry Mee (Coconut Curry Chicken Noodle Soup)
I am posting the recipe in its original form, but as always, there are plenty of variations. I used jarred kaffir lime leaves, as they were all I could find here in Nashville. I also doubled the amount of lemongrass, garlic, and ginger, because what can I say? I needed the extra spice. To add some vitamin-power, I also dumped a couple of cups of broccoli crowns in, and can say that they didn't detract from the (delicious) flavor.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small onion, minced
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 tablespoon minced lemon grass or pale green cilantro roots
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dark red chili paste, such as sambal, more for serving
3/4 pound boneless, skinless chicken thigh or breast meat, thinly sliced and cut into bite-size pieces
3 tablespoons curry powder, preferably Malaysian, Thai or Vietnamese
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 can (14 ounces) unsweetened coconut milk
1/2 cup half-and-half
4 cups chicken stock
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon sugar, more to taste
About 12 kaffir lime leaves or curry leaves, fresh or frozen (optional)
8 ounces dried thin rice noodles (bun or vermicelli), or other Asian noodles such as udon or lai fun
Salt to taste
1 cup bean sprouts
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
2 scallions, cut into thin rings
2 shallots, thinly sliced and deep fried in vegetable oil until brown (optional)
Quartered limes for serving.
1. Heat oil in a medium pot over medium heat. Add onion, ginger and lemon grass and cook, stirring, until softened, about 10 minutes. Do not brown; reduce heat if necessary. Add garlic and chili paste and stir until fragrant. Raise heat, add chicken and stir-fry one minute. Add curry powder and paprika and stir to coat. Then add coconut milk, half-and-half, chicken stock, turmeric, fish sauce, sugar and lime or curry leaves. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until chicken is cooked through, about 7 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, cook rice noodles in boiling water according to package directions (about 4 minutes). Rinse and drain.
3. Taste broth and adjust seasonings with salt and sugar. Divide noodles into large soup bowls. Bring broth to a boil, then ladle over noodles. Top with bean sprouts, cilantro, scallions and fried shallots, if using. Pass limes and sambal at the table.
Yield: 4 main-course servings.