Anyone who knows me or read my article challenging consumers to be more conscious about packaging knows that I am always trying to use less and less. I suppose until I see more people hauling around coffee mugs and saying no to unnecessary bags, I will always be encouraging more thoughtfulness. I was thinking along these lines the other day as Kadin (my 6 year old son) and I were riding the bus and had to stop at the grocery store.
It was one of those moments when you aren't prepared for a shopping trip (I had a handle bag with me, but no other containers or sacks). Dinner time was fast approaching and there happened to be a grocery store on the bus route. I knew I wanted to make some Thai style coconut soup, but what I put in it was still up for negotiation. I love this type of spontaneous shopping. Especially with my son. He always ends up influencing the meal in an unexpected way.
We walked into the bright shiny store and proceeded to wander around the produce section. This wasn't my local food coop or my favorite Asian market and I quickly remembered how different some things are in a commercial supermarket. For example, the lemongrass was sold in a plastic clamshell container. One piece of lemongrass needs that much plastic? I decided to challenge myself to make some menu decisions based on packaging. The lemongrass stayed on the shelf.
For the most part, the veggies are easy. You don't actually need plastic bags for all of your produce. I'm not sure how this trend to use plastic bags for each and every veggie and fruit started. I, for one, have no problem stuffing all of my veggies together into one grocery bag. I suppose that I have no fear that the broccoli and apples might co-mingle. I'm not worried if a little cilantro gets into the kale. Of course, if I have time to premeditate my shopping, I will bring a few bags just for the convenience of having a few handfuls of potatoes or mushrooms in one place instead of loosely rolling about in my cart or bag. Either way, I can always sacrifice a little convenience if it means there is one less plastic bag in my life and the landfill.
I digress...back to the store. I loaded up a couple of limes, a bunch of cilantro, a couple of onions, a head of garlic, a piece of ginger root, four bulk carrots, one yellow squash and a red bell pepper into my bag. No packaging so far. Then I came to the mushrooms. It was tempting to pick up one of those prepackaged containers of mushrooms, but I fought the urge. Mushrooms thrive in paper bags and tend to rot in plastic because they need to breathe a bit. Some stores put paper bags by the mushrooms for this reason, but not this store. My boy and I decided it would be best to go ask a cashier for a small bag, which although confused, they proceeded to give to us. Success! Plus, the paper bag can go in my curbside compost bin instead of the garbage.
Next, we wandered over to the meat counter. Buying from the butcher seems to always have less waste than buying the prepackaged meat with a styrofoam tray. We wanted some protein for the soup, but would it be chicken, pork, tofu, or mock duck. This is always a hard decision for me. Not for Kadin. He immediately went over to the seafood and picked out some mussels. Ok, one pound of mussels went into a paper boat, wrapped in butcher paper. I said no to the proffered plastic bag. I still wanted tofu, so we found some. It is one of those things that always has plastic with it. I know no way around it and I was really craving fried tofu, so in it went.
Coconut milk and fish sauce were the last two things we needed. One can and one jar. I had homemade chicken broth in the fridge, so I was able to avoid buying packaged broth. When all was said and done, I thought we had done really well. I decided to up my nerd quotient and compare how we did to how we could have done had we not cared or simply not been thoughtful.
- 1 paper bag
- 1 paper boat with butcher paper
- 1 plastic tofu tub
- 1 tin can
- 1 glass bottle (I include this even though the bottle of fish sauce will last for months)
We could have used:
- 9 plastic bags for the veggies
- 1 plastic bag for the mussels
- 1 paper boat and butcher paper
- 1 plastic tofu tub
- 1 tin can
- 1 glass bottle
- 1 aseptic box (broth)
- 1 clam shell (lemongrass)
- 2 plastic grocery bags
Just by being thoughtful, Kadin and I eliminated 12 plastic bags, a non-recyclable box and a plastic clamshell. This for just one meal! Plus, everything we bought with packaging was either compostable or recyclable. I hope that this inspires someone that they can easily make a difference with every trip to the supermarket, whether you are prepared or not.
If you are curious, the soup was absolutely delicious and Kadin was right--the mussels were perfect! Here is a recipe that I wrote in hindsight. Like any soup of this style, the measurements are loose and almost everything is done by taste and instinct. Practice makes perfect.
Thai style coconut soup with mussels and tofu
oil (I prefer coconut oil for this soup)
1 lb tofu, firm or extra firm (optional)
hot thai chilis (optional)
3-4 cloves garlic
1-2" ginger, sliced large or minced
1 lb mussels
1 stalk lemongrass, cleaned and cut into 2-3" pieces
one lime juiced
1-2T fish sauce
1T maple syrup or sugar
1-2T tamari or soy sauce
1 can (13-16 oz) coconut milk
3-4 cups chicken or veggie broth
salt and lime to taste
-Cube or slice the tofu and fry in plenty of oil (1/4" in the pan). Only turn it once or it will fall apart and be sure not to add it to the oil until the oil is quite hot. Be very careful as tofu's high water content will cause the oil to splatter. Once tofu is browned on both sides, remove from pan and place on a plate with paper towels.
-Check out your mussels. Separate any open ones and tap them on the counter. If they do not close when tapped, throw them out.
-In a large wok, heat some coconut oil and add the onions, carrots, mushrooms, squash and peppers and saute on fairly high heat for just a couple of minutes. Add the fish sauce in this process.
-Add the garlic, ginger, lemongrass and mussels and stir for a minute or so. While stirring, add lime juice, syrup, and tamari. As soon as the mussels have all opened up, feel free to add the can of coconut milk and broth. Bring to a gentle boil and simmer for 10-15 minutes.
-Salt to taste and add more lime juice until you can tell its there. Add the fried tofu and cilantro just before serving.
A note about the ginger and lemongrass. If you have had this kind of soup at Thai restaurants, you probably know that you have to pull out the lemongrass and large pieces of ginger or galangal. I prefer to make my soup this way, but you could mince the ginger and leave out the lemongrass if you wish. However, it is kind of amusing to watch someone get a large slice of ginger in their mouth though!