– Thai Coconut Milk Soup with Sweet Potatoes for when you’re having one of those lives… –
The original tagline for this blog, when I started it all those years ago, was “When all else fails, cook.” I was very, very ill at the time, up to my cheekbones* in an autoimmune disorder that was threatening to take me out once and for all. Back then, I cooked as a form of self preservation. It was a sanity-saving measure that distracted me from everything else that was going on. When things go wonky in life something drags me to the kitchen, even if I have no energy and the lethargy is thick enough to wear like a scratchy, overbearing wool scarf. It’s incredibly satisfying to rewire the badness, shaping whatever dark momentum has swept me away into something positive: creation. Kind of like telling myself that I’m not stressed out, I’m excited! See, brain? That pulse-pulse-pulse in my temples is a good thing.
It might not be perfect, but it’s my coping mechanism of choice.
Taking care of a brother with Unknown Psychosis (I’m calling it UP for short) has been so, so hard. He’s got the support of half of our family, and the rest seems to have vanished into the folds of this god-awful dust storm. Finding an anchor has been challenging — to say the very least — and a lot of the support system I thought was in place has dissolved. I guess I understand; this is a difficult time and no one wants their life in upheaval. But for every person that backs away, hands up in a protective stance, it doubles the load on the rest of us who are intent on not going anywhere. Or rather, the one person who is intent on not going anywhere (which would be me). I’m over-the-moon grateful for the friends of mine who call me to see how I’m doing, ask about my brother, and just generally insert themselves in my life when they feel me withdrawing into my dark little den of leave me the hell alone, I’m never coming out. Thank you, thank you, thank you for your support.
For a while we were putting my brother up in cheap motels. Not because we don’t want him living with us. No, it’s not really that at all. The nature of his UP is that he believes he is under attack by unseen forces, which makes him prone to tirades; black, swelling clouds of anger and terror that engulf everything within a thousand foot radius. Unfortunately, the blast zone is larger than the average city apartment – meaning that neighbors and landlords have a say in the matter. We’ve exhausted all of our own living situations as places for him to stay, and for a while it was a game of musical rooms as we shuffle him from motel to motel, trying to dream up a permanent solution. We were lucky to have worked with a handful of understanding motel managers, but no matter the level of patience they lend us, these places must also care for their other patrons, folks who don’t appreciate the knocking on imaginary doors and late night cries for help. It’s fine. We totally understand why they ask him to leave. What can you do?
It would be much easier if we could just bring him home, but that’s just not a possibility. And he doesn’t want that, either. He gets agitated when he’s in the presence of other people for too long. He demands his alone time, but he’s also dripping with a profound loneliness that touches us every time we see him. “When are you coming back? How long will you stay? Do you promise you’ll come back? You swear? Ok, good. Right now isn’t a good time. I need you to go. I can’t tell you why. I love you.”
And the door closes.
It’s times like these I need simplicity: simple foods, simple nutrition, simple pleasures. I’m done with draining activities for the foreseeable future, and as much as I love cooking, for me it can be a full-contact sport. Around the time my brother got sick, I discovered a fun little series of cookbooks called ShortStack Editions. These diminutive paperbacks – only about 50 pages each – are full of straightforward, one-page recipes that deliver big flavor without a huge energy investment. I bought a few on a whim, and fell in love.
Each little book is written by a different celebrated food writer. There are six editions as of this writing, and I’ve bought them all. I adore these little books because they are the epitome of simplicity — they only take five minutes to flip through, and most of the recipes require less than half an hour to prepare. I’m most impressed by the fact that the editors were able to uphold such a creative standard, even within the confines of the small format they’ve chosen. I’ve made several recipes from several of the editions and I have yet to be disappointed.
The recipe below, for a Thai coconut milk soup with sweet potatoes, can be found in the Sweet Potatoes edition by Scott Hocker. This soup is both luxurious and comforting, for those times when your heart and body need tending. It’s a smooth-blended soup with a touch of spice and velvety texture that can only be found in coconut milk, celebrating the parade of flavors that Thai food strives for: sweet, salty, tart, and sour. They’re all here, dancing joyfully.
* Can I just chuckle at the fact that I typed out the word “cheesebones?”
- 1 small Thai chili, seeds removed, chopped
- 1 large shallot, thinly sliced
- 1 clove of garlic, diced
- 3 cilantro roots, scraped with the edge of a knife to remove dirt (see head-note for alternative)
- 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
- One 14-ounce can of coconut milk
- 1 medium sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 3/4 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon tightly packed light brown sugar
- 4 teaspoons fish sauce
- 3 to 4 tablespoons fresh lime juice, plus more for flavoring (from about 3 limes)
- 1/4 cup coarsely chopped cilantro leaves
- With a mortar and pestle, pound the Thai chili, shallot, garlic, and cilantro roots together until you have a coarse paste. You can also pull a few times in a small food processor, or chop together finely with a sharp knife.
- In a large saucepan, bring the stock and coconut milk to a simmer. Add the sweet potatoes, salt, and the chili-garlic paste you just created. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the sweet potatoes are extremely soft, about 15 minutes.
- Pour the soup into blender and puree until completely smooth. (My Vitamix is perfect for this, but any blender will do if you let it run for 1 to 2 minutes). Strain the soup through a sieve, pressing hard on the solids to get out all the delicious liquid. Discard the solids and return the soup to the saucepan.
- Bring soup to a simmer and add brown sugar, fish sauce, and 3 tablespoons of lime juice. Stir well and add more fish sauce and lime juice as you see fit -- the flavor should be boldly sweet, salty, and sour, ringing the bell of all your tastebuds.
- Divide the soup among four soup bowls and top with chopped cilantro leaves. Serve immediately.