- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 6, 2004

Around this time of the year, I find myself staring at the calendar, which has proudly proclaimed the arrival of spring, but just because it’s official doesn’t mean nature has taken the message, particularly in New England where I live.

Days are still chilly here, and our yard is far from the vibrant green it will be in another month. I’ve come to think of the beginning weeks of the new season as a transitional time when winter hangs on with a touch of cold while spring gently tries to make an appearance with longer days and by coaxing the arrival of early bulbs and herbs, now peeking through the ground.

My cooking always reflects this in between time, especially when it comes to entertaining. I search for dishes with ingredients that hint of spring but are still warm and hearty enough to stave off the cold.

A good example is the Thai soup with shrimp and lemon grass that follows. This simple preparation includes simmering chicken stock infused with chopped lemon grass and lime. The broth is strained, then sliced mushrooms, snow peas, scallions, red bell peppers and whole shrimp are quickly cooked in the mixture.

Hot red pepper flakes and a generous sprinkling of cilantro make assertive accents. The potage is light and refreshing with its citrus accents, but served piping hot, it will satisfy the coldest guest on a cool spring day.

I’ve served this soup as the main course for lunch (perfect for weekend company) accompanied by a salad of mixed greens tossed in a sesame dressing. It would also make a beautiful starter for a spring dinner party. You could follow it with roast racks of lamb, grilled chicken or flank steak. And, as the season’s new produce arrives, you could stir in additional vegetables. A handful of fresh peas or maybe a few sliced asparagus spears could enhance the soup’s goodness and make it even more redolent of spring.

Thai soup with shrimp and lemon grass

3 lemon grass stalks (see note)

2 limes

4 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth

1 large red bell pepper, cored and cut into ½-inch pieces

8 ounces thinly sliced mushrooms

½ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

1 pound large shrimp (30 count), shelled and deveined

1 cup (3½ to 4 ounces) snow peas, ends trimmed, peas cut diagonally into ½-inch slices

2 scallions, including 2 inches of green stems, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons chopped cilantro

1 teaspoon kosher salt, or more if needed

Remove tough outer layers from the lemon grass stalks and discard. Also cut off and discard about 1 inch of the woody base from each stalk. Then, starting at the bases and cutting up to where the leaves begin to branch, slice stalks thinly to yield ⅓ cup.

Cut one of the limes into 6 thin slices and juice remaining lime to yield 2 tablespoons.Place chicken broth in large, nonreactive saucepan and add sliced lemon grass and lime slices. Bring mixture to a simmer over medium heat and simmer gently 10 minutes to flavor the soup.

Then strain broth and discard lemon grass and lime slices. (The broth can be prepared a day ahead; cover and refrigerate. Reheat when needed over medium heat. Cover and store the squeezed lime juice in the refrigerator.)

Return strained liquid to pan and place over medium heat. Add red bell pepper, mushrooms and hot red pepper flakes. Simmer 5 minutes. Then add shrimp, snow peas and scallions.

Cook until shrimp is curled and pink, 2 to 3 minutes. Do not overcook or shrimp will become tough. Remove from heat and add 2 tablespoons lime juice. Season with salt, adding more if needed.

Ladle soup into 6 soup bowls and garnish each serving with a generous sprinkling of cilantro. Makes 6 1-cup servings as a first course or 4 1½-cup servings as a light main course.

Note: Lemon grass — long, slightly woody, grayish-green stalks about the size of scallions — can be found in the produce section of many groceries and in Asian and Thai markets. This herb with its slightly sour-lemon taste is an important ingredient in Thai and Vietnamese cooking. Store it in a plastic bag for up to two weeks in the refrigerator.


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