After the feasting — or between feasts, at any rate — there is solace and sanity in a bowl of soup. This has long been my strategy for counteracting the annual bouts of overindulgence and aiming once again for moderation in all things, edible and otherwise.
A soup, whatever its ingredients may be, is always a restorative meal, and the process of making it has a nurturing effect as well. I’m not suggesting you open a can. Rather, I’m encouraging you to get reacquainted with your soup pot. Put on some lentils or black beans to simmer, with or without a ham hock. Perhaps a mushroom soup with miso or a bright green leek purée.
In some cases, it’s hard to say whether to call a dish a soup, or to call it soupy, souplike or brothy. All those terms are positives, in any case. Take steamed clams, for instance. For my purposes, a big bowl of clams bobbing around in a broth of their own qualifies as soup. Yes, we appreciate each little sweet clammy morsel as we suck it from the shell, but ultimately it is the clams’ savory juices, enjoyed spoonful by spoonful or slurped from the bowl’s edge, that really satisfy. With clams, the more broth the better.
There are countless approaches. Garlic, parsley and a splash of wine make the simplest sort of soupy clams. Whether you use large cherrystones, littlenecks, diminutive Manila clams or briny cockles, the technique is the same: Put them in a pot, clamp on the lid and turn the heat full blast. In a matter of minutes, the clams are open and ready to eat, swimming in a tasty sea.
That’s a perfect go-to option, but today I’m making a highly aromatic Thai-style version. It requires very little in the way of advance preparation or chopping, but you may need to make a small detour for a few key aromatic ingredients to perfume the soup. Most Asian groceries will have them. Lemon grass, galangal, lime leaf, hot pepper and coconut milk are among the classic Thai seasonings for shellfish; using them is dead simple (and all can be stored in the fridge for a week or more). To release their flavors, crush or bruise them. Bash the lemon grass, tear the lime leaf and slice the galangal before they go in the pot. If you want it especially piquant, smash the hot peppers and add them whole. Otherwise add thinly sliced Thai chilies to taste.
Spicy and refreshing, the bright-tasting broth is a mix of sweet, salty, sour and herbaceous. If you added mussels, scallops or prawns to the clams, no one would complain. But I still maintain it’s the glorious soupiness of this dish that is the real reason to make it.
Fragrant Thai-Style Clams in Coconut Broth
Yield: 2 main course or 4 appetizer servings
Total time: 30 minutes
1 tablespoon coconut oil
1 red onion, peeled, halved and sliced into 1/4-inch half-moons
2 cups chicken broth
1 stalk lemon grass, pale bottom part only, smashed and cut in thick diagonal slices
3 slices galangal, 1/4 inch thick
3 slices ginger, 1/4 inch thick
3 or 4 small hot Thai chilies, thinly sliced
4 makrut lime leaves (kaffir leaves), torn
1 tablespoon palm sugar or brown sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 cup coconut milk
Salt, to taste
2 pounds small clams
1 cup roughly chopped cilantro, leaves and tender stems
1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions, white and tender green parts
Lime wedges, for serving
1. Heat coconut oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add chicken broth and bring to a simmer.
2. Add lemon grass, galangal, ginger, chilies, lime leaves, sugar and fish sauce. Simmer for 20 minutes. Add coconut milk, then taste broth for salt and adjust. (You may prepare up to this point 1 to 2 hours in advance and leave at room temperature.)
3. Bring mixture to a boil over high heat and add clams. Cover and cook for 5 to 8 minutes, stirring once or twice, until all clams have opened.
4. Transfer clams to soup bowls. Strain broth if desired and ladle over clams. Sprinkle with cilantro and scallions. Squeeze lime over each bowl and serve with lime wedges.
And to Drink ...
Unlike a Mediterranean clam preparation, with which you would want an incisive dry white, this Thai-style dish demands a wine that will stand up to the rich, assertive Asian ingredients that will flavor the clams. That’s a job for a white with lively acidity and discernible sweetness: You guessed it, spaetlese riesling from Germany. It’s an all-purpose tool for many spicy dishes. Alternatives include sparkling wines with modest sweetness, like Bugey-Cerdon from Savoie, or any number of pétillants naturelsthat have a little unfermented sugar in the wine. You should not fear sweet wines, but if you prefer something dry, I suggest gruener veltliner from Austria or perhaps a sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley. And if you steadfastly want a red, I’ve enjoyed Loire cabernet francs, like Chinon and Bourgueil, with Thai food.
— ERIC ASIMOV