Asian soup menu in minutes

Due to a busy week and bad planning, I had virtually no fresh vegetables for making supper, and no time to run to the store.I thought of a friend’s solution: three-can soup.

crouton soup 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
crouton soup 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I always found it surprising when friends mentioned they had no vegetables in the house – until it happened to me. Due to a busy week and bad planning, I had virtually no fresh vegetables for making supper, and no time to run to the store.
I thought of a friend’s solution: three-can soup. Years ago, when we were guests at her home in New England and we came in from walking in the snow, she produced a virtually instant soup: a can of chowder and a can of cream of potato mixed with a can of cream of mushroom soup. I almost gasped when she told me the combination but I have to admit, we appreciated having the warm, creamy soup.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not an anti-can snob. I do use canned items to supplement my menus, such as canned tuna, sardines, broth and tomato products. I especially like the canned forms of certain Chinese vegetables that are hard to find fresh, like water chestnuts and baby corn.
After looking through my freezer and pantry, I found enough frozen, canned and dried items that, together with the few fresh vegetables I still had, provided the makings of a vegetarian supper with a taste of East Asia.
For the main course, I made a superfast mushroom and vegetable stew seasoned with chilies and mint leaves. In this terrific Thai flavoring combination, the mint’s clean, fresh taste balances the heat of the peppers and the pungency of the garlic and soy sauce. The chilies are left in large pieces so they can accent and garnish the dish and can easily be removed by those who do not want to eat them.
Before the entree I served a light, easy, slightly peppery vegetable and tofu soup with bean threads, which are made from mung beans and resemble thin rice noodles when dry. They contribute substance and a pleasing, springy texture to the colorful soup.
Although this menu might appear exotic, most of the ingredients are available in good supermarkets. The Asian section features ingredients that are ideal for cooking on a hectic day. To stock my pantry I buy bean threads, jasmine rice, dried shiitake and canned straw mushrooms, as well as sesame oil, rice vinegar, hot pepper sauce and, naturally, soy sauce.
This savory supper is not only fast and easy to fix, it’s low in fat as well. The quick-braised mushroom and baby corn medley needs only a touch of oil for sauteing the mushrooms. Asian-style toasted sesame oil has an intense flavor, and so a little goes a long way; use it to season a salad of mixed greens with water chestnuts and bean sprouts.
Follow the meal with fresh lychees, or mix canned ones with diced pineapple. Another pretty and tasty combination is lychees, orange segments and kiwis.
• Vegetable soup with bean threads, tofu and cilantro
• Mushrooms and baby corn with mint and hot peppers
• Steamed jasmine rice
• Green salad with water chestnuts and sesame dressing
• Kiwis, oranges, pineapple or lychees, or a mixture
Bean threads are made from mung beans, the same beans that the Chinese use to make bean sprouts. They become transparent when cooked, and therefore are sometimes called silver noodles, cellophane noodles or glass noodles. Usually they are soaked in hot water until they are soft; this takes about 5 to 15 minutes, depending on their thickness. Next they are cooked in boiling water for about 2 minutes; to save time, you can cook them directly in the soup, as in this recipe.
If you don’t have bean threads, substitute thin rice noodles or rice sticks, which are soaked and cooked the same way. If you don’t have bok choy, you can substitute spinach.
If you prefer a soup with chicken instead of a vegetarian one, replace the tofu with 280 to 340 grams diced boneless skinless chicken and cook it in the broth and water with the pepper flakes for about 10 minutes or until just tender before adding the remaining ingredients.
3 cups vegetable or chicken broth (total 31⁄2 cups)
1⁄4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1 cup shredded carrots
2 cups shredded bok choy or other Chinese cabbage
300 gr. to 350 gr. firm or medium tofu, cut in 2-cm.  cubes
100 gr. very thin bean threads
1⁄4 cup fresh coriander leaves
Salt to taste
Bring broth and 2 cups water to a simmer with pepper flakes in a medium saucepan. Add carrots, bok choy, tofu and bean threads. Cook over low heat about 2 minutes or until bean threads are just translucent. Stir in cilantro. Taste and add salt if needed. Serve using tongs and a ladle.
Makes 4 servings.

For these Thai-flavored quick-braised vegetables, you can use fresh basil instead of mint leaves.
If you have a can of straw mushrooms or other Chinese mushrooms, you can substitute it for some of the fresh mushrooms, or simply add them to the dish as well.
11⁄2 to 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
225 gr. medium-size mushrooms, halved
2 fresh red or green jalapeno or other hot peppers, 
   halved lengthwise
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1⁄2 cup vegetable or chicken broth
1 cup frozen peas
2 tablespoons soy sauce
350 gr. to 450 gr. canned baby corn, rinsed
4 green onions, cut in 7.5-cm. pieces
1 cup whole fresh mint leaves
Heat oil in a large skillet or wok over medium heat. Add mushrooms and hot peppers and saute over medium heat, stirring, about 3 minutes or until mushrooms brown lightly. Stir in garlic, followed by broth, peas and soy sauce. Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over medium heat for 3 minutes or until peas are tender. Add corn, green onions and mint leaves and heat gently for 2 minutes. Taste, and add more soy sauce if needed. Let stand, covered, until ready to serve.
Makes 4 servings.
Prepared the traditional Chinese way, rice is cooked only with water; the salt and other seasonings come from the stews and sautes served with the rice, or from separately served condiments.
If you don’t have jasmine rice, use long-grain white rice. Steam it with only 3 cups water.
With brown rice, use 3 cups water and increase the cooking time to 35 minutes.
11⁄2 cups jasmine rice
33⁄4 cups water
pinch of salt (optional)
Combine rice and water in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat. Cover and cook over very low heat for 15 minutes or until rice is just tender and water is absorbed. Let stand, covered, for 5 to 15 minutes before serving.
Makes 4 servings.
Water chestnuts add a pleasing flavor and texture to this Asian-inspired salad. If you don’t have any, substitute thin, small slices of kohlrabi or of mild radishes. For extra pizzazz, sprinkle the salad with toasted sesame seeds just before serving.
2 to 3 tsp. Asian sesame oil, or more to taste
11⁄2 tsp. rice vinegar, or more to taste
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 cups romaine lettuce, torn in bite-size pieces
2 cups coarsely chopped iceberg lettuce
1⁄3 to 1⁄2 cup fine shreds of red cabbage (optional)
1⁄3 to 1⁄2 cup shredded carrot (optional)
225 gr. canned water chestnuts, rinsed, drained and sliced
1 cup bean sprouts, rinsed (optional)
In a small bowl whisk sesame oil with vinegar, salt and pepper. Mixlettuces in a serving bowl, add dressing and toss until greens aremoistened. Add cabbage, carrot, water chestnuts and bean sprouts andtoss again. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Makes 4 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Thirty Low-fat Meals in 30 Minutes and Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home.