January 10, 2008

Delicious and Befuddled

Several moons ago, there was a popular Pan-Asian restaurant in Bethesda, Md., called Oodles Noodles. As its name implied, noodles were the house specialty, and they were done well. [Sadly, the restaurant is no longer there, replaced some time ago by a New Orleans-themed restaurant that itself may have already closed – ah, the dangerous lives of restaurants.]

At one point, my wife and I probably ate there once a week, rotating our meal choices around a few favorites, among which included peanut noodles, which featured two different types of long noodles in a warm peanut sauce; mee goreng, a somewhat fiery, curry-infused dish with noodles reminiscent of traditional spaghetti in thickness, but not length or texture; and, one of my all-time favorite soups, Siam noodle soup.

The first slurp of Siam noodle soup was always an adventure, because no matter how I approached it, the broth’s spiciness would reach up through my nose and steal a breath. This soup truly was a circus in your mouth, full of tang and fire (and shrimp and squid and, of course, noodles!), begging you to not abandon a single slurp to the depths of the huge bowl in which it was served, and always leaving a dripping ring of perspiration underneath each of my eyes.

With a hankering for a spicy Asian soup, I recently went searching through a few of our cookbooks and found one in Barbara Kafka’s Soup: A Way of Life that sounded like just the ticket. The recipe, borrowed from Jean-Georges Vongerichten, called for ginger, lemongrass, curry paste, onion, garlic, lime juice, fish sauce, and an ingredient that has taken a hold on whatever part of my brain controls appetite and flavor desire, coconut milk.

It also called for kaffir lime leaves and probably my least favorite meat, boneless chicken breast. I didn’t have easy access to the former and Ms. Kafka, in the commentary accompanying the recipe, suggested the lime leaves weren’t an absolute necessity, a claim of which I was dubious, but in no position to challenge unless I wanted to spend my lunch hour trekking down to the Strip District to pick some up at one of the several Asian markets there, which was just not in the offing. I had some Bell & Evans chicken breasts in the freezer, and, honestly, I didn’t think much of their inclusion at the time I was making the soup.

I brought up Siam noodle soup earlier because this recipe, despite its inclusion of coconut milk, immediately made me think of it, meaning that it had to be made, kaffir lime leaves or not.

The end result, topped with chopped cilantro and green onion, was quite good and quenched my hankering. That said, one thing about it truly bothered me: the chicken. Its only purpose, from what I could tell, was to add some protein in the case that it would be served as the main meal. The chicken had no flavor and, consequently, was a taste distraction—a roadblock through which the other robust flavors had to bust through.

A Thai cookbook we have contained a similar soup recipe: No curry paste, a lot more lime leaves, and, to my disbelief, boneless chicken breast. Here it was again, this flavorless intrusion into a soup that, in all other respects, is a celebration of robust flavor.

Then I thought back to the book Heat, by Bill Buford, which I recently finished reading and highly recommend. In the book, Buford, who, through means that aren’t fully evident to me (or, at the least, aren’t explained enough to truly make sense of it) quits his life as a magazine editor to serve as Mario Batali’s “kitchen slave” at MM’s famous New York restaurant, Babbo.

At one point, Buford discusses the publication of the Babbo Cookbook and dishes some inside dirt on how restaurant offerings are transmogrified into a hopefully easy to follow recipe for the home cook. In short, what’s in the cookbook does not recapitulate what happens at the restaurant. It can’t be done.

And I have to wonder if the same general concept applies to these recipes. I doubt there's much boneless chicken breast used in traditional Thai cooking. In my experience, it’s more likely to be the dark stuff. But average Joe and Jane Cookbook Buyer, for reasons I can’t fathom, prefer the tasteless boneless chicken breast (usually breaded and fried on a Kaiser roll), so cookbook authors toss them a bone here and there, just to keep them happy.

In any case, I plan on making this soup again fairly soon. Next time, I’ll have the lime leaves, but the chicken will be replaced by shrimp. And, in honor of a long-lost friend, I suspect some noodles will find their way in, too.

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