Thursday, 30 August 2012

Hot and Sour Soup

Oh my god, is soup season back already?! No, not really, but after weeks of sweltering heat, the last few evenings almost felt chilly, to my boyfriend's great relief and happiness. While he was enjoying the cool reprieve, I was wrapping myself up in scarves, took my fluffy hoodie out and decided to make some soup for the first time in months.

Hot and sour soup is my favorite Asian soup. I once worked in a very humid bookstore, and when it rained, I'd go get a huge tub of the magic concoction for lunch, and let myself be warmed up from inside. Nothing feels more awesome that this soup on cold, rainy (or snowy, but we are not there yet!) days. It cures the sniffles and the blues, and it's very easy and quick to make, so it is a very precious dish. This is the Hot Pink Apron recipe, modified slightly, and it's the most simple (and delicious) take on hot and sour soup I have ever made.

1 cup dried portobello, porcini or shiitake mushrooms
2 cups hot water
3 tablespoons soy sauce
6 tablespoons rice vinegar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 pound extra-firm tofu, cut into matchsticks

4 cups organic vegetable broth
1/2 to 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 cup fresh cremini mushrooms, sliced thinly
1 can Chinese bamboo shoots (optional)
1 to 2 tablespoons Sri Racha chili sauce
1/2 tablespoon sesame oil
2 scallions, sliced

In a small bowl, place your dried mushrooms (shiitake pictured below) in 1 1/2 cups of freshly boiled hot water. Soak 20 minutes, until re-hydrated.

In a second small bowl, blend soy sauce, rice vinegar, and 1 tablespoon cornstarch. Place 1/2 the tofu strips into the mixture and stir.

In a medium-large soup pot, mix the re-hydrated mushrooms and their hot water-broth with the vegetable broth. Bring to a boil.

Reduce heat, add cornstarch/tofu mixture and simmer 3 to 5 minutes. Season with the red pepper flakes, black pepper, and white pepper. Mix remaining cornstarch and remaining 1/2 cup of water well so there are no lumps.

Stir into the broth mixture until thickened. Mix remaining tofu and fresh mushrooms into the pot.

Bring the heat back up to medium and return to a boil, and stir in the bamboo shoots, Sri Racha chili sauce, and sesame oil. Garnish with scallion to serve.

I loves me some mushrooms and some tofu, but traditionally, pork is often added to hot and sour soup. If you want to try it, stir-fry about 5 ounces of cubed pork tenderloin in a bit of peanut oil, reserve, then add to the stock pot along with the second half of the tofu and the fresh mushrooms. Yes, tofu AND meat. In the same pot! This is 2012, and it's a free country: go nuts. The only real rule with this soup is to not be tempted to over-crowd the pot: cut your ingredients thinly, and make sure to leave plenty of space for the amazingly flavored broth to be enjoyed.

My friend Sam came up with a tasty version of this soup: he substituted the tofu for 2 cubed chicken breasts that he sauteed before tossing them in the broth, and added some Ramen noodles to his pot. It looks super-tasty, and his roommates greatly appreciated it... I will try it and throw in some udon noodles instead of the Ramen... to be continued...

By the way, dried mushrooms are something you should try to keep in your pantry! They are cheap, and soups and risottos can go from good to fabulous after you soak some of those babies up and add them to your dish. Get a couple of different kinds and experiment! Portobello and porcini will be more meaty, and shiitake will be chewier. Most grocery stores carry their dry mushrooms around the bulk section, but hit gourmet or vegetarian stores if you have trouble finding them. Soak them in boiled water for 20 to 30 minutes, and save the "broth" you'll get to flavor your dish.

Keep this recipe close-by as the weather gets cooler: it's virtually fat-free and full of immune-boosting mushrooms! True to form, it's just as good reheat as it is fresh from the soup pot. I tried a Thai soup with mushrooms and tofu when I got sick last spring, and even if it was good, this one has a richer flavor, and the thicker texture makes it more comforting somehow. When life sucks, few things make it better than a bowl of steaming, spicy comfort.

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