Penny's Noodles in Chicago serves good sorta-Thai food fast. The noodle dishes are certainly not 100% authentic, but they are very tasty. One dish they make that I used to love is a citrusy spicy coconut milk based soup known as tom kha kai.
Unfortunately the "kai" in tom kha kai means chicken, so since my conversion to vegetarianism I've been tom kha kai deprived.
I am deprived no more. This last week, I took advantage of the ethnic groceries in my new neighborhood and put together a reasonable vegetarian facsimile of the tom kha kai with tofu instead of chicken.
Now I'll admit the recipe for this soup may be a little bit rough. I didn't do a whole lot of measuring, preferring to work by taste, so many of my measures here are guesses as to what went in the pot. Give the recipe as written a try, but don't be afraid to add a little more of this, or a little less of that. You won't hurt my feelings.
If you're not vegetarian and you've never had tom kha kai, go out and get a bowl tonight. Go! In my opinion, it's one of the world's great soups, up there with mulligatawny, leek-potato soup, and gazpacho.
Ideally, you should use that wonderful red Thai chili sauce that comes in a bottle with a rooster on the side. I did not have any on hand when I made this batch, so I used chili pepper and tabasco. In any case, the heat should come on slowly as you eat the soup, at first almost imperceptable, until by the end of the bowl your mouth has a continuous pleasant mild spicy sting going.
Tom Kha Tofu - Thai Coconut Citrus Soup
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup Chinese black vinegar (or use an Asian fish sauce)
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
3 tablespoons sesame oil
1 quart vegetable stock
2 14 oz. cans coconut milk
3 cloves finely minced garlic
1/2 cup lime juice
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 pound tofu - not silky, but the kind in the container filled with water
1/3 cup thinly sliced galanga root (or substitute ginger), bruised
2 lemon grass stalks, trimmed and cut into 3-4" lengths.
1/4 cup fish sauce
2 tablespoons cayenne/red chili powder or to taste
2 tablespoons tabasco or to taste
2 tablespoon mustard powder
2 tablespoon onion powder
1/4 cup bruised kaffir lime leaves or 1 tablespoon grated lime zest
black pepper to taste (I doubt you'll want salt)
1 cup fresh cilantro leaves, no stalks
12 oz. straw mushrooms (I can only ever find these canned)
ideally two thinly sliced Thai red peppers should also go in the soup
Press the block of tofu under a weight between folded up paper towels to extract water from the tofu for 20 minutes.
Cut the tofu into 1/2"-3/4" cubes. In a container with a lid or a big sealing plastic bag, add the soy sauce, black vinegar, sesame oil, nutritional yeast (different from baking yeast - you can find it in a health food store) and the tofu. Shake the container up to coat the tofu and let it sit for ten minutes. Preheat your over to 350 F
Spread the tofu cubes out in a single layer on a baking sheet and put into the preheated 350 F oven for fifteen minutes.
While the tofu is cooking, combine all the other ingredients except the mushrooms and cilantro together, stirring well. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer.
After the tofu has been in the oven for fifteen minutes, take it out, flip the cubes and put the tray back in the oven.
Taste the soup. The lemongrass and galanga/ginger flavors will be developing, but test the balance between the veg/coconut milk and the citrus. If the soup feels too bland, add more lime juice and/or spicy stuff. If it tastes too spicy - well, tom kha tofu ain't beanball.
After the tofu has been in the oven for a total of thirty minutes, take the tray out of the oven and add the tofu, mushrooms and cilantro. Cook until the mushrooms are warmed through and the cilantro has wilted.
Eating the soup is interesting. You can't really eat the woody lemongrass and galanga root or the waxy kaffir lime leaves (certainly not in large quantities) , but they do add flavor in the pot. You can either strain the soup before adding the cilantro, mushrooms, and tofu, or you can deal with having a little pile of debris at the bottom of your soup bowl. I've always had it with debris at Thai restaurants, but your kitchen, your rules.
Serve with coconut rice and a Thai iced tea.