Weeknight Wondermeal: Coconut Scented Chicken and Rice

I love Thai food.  I think.  I mean, I’ve enjoyed it for years here in Cambridge, but I admit to not being as adventurous with the menu as I perhaps could be.  I love coconut milk, I love steamed rice, I love the texture of their tender quivering chicken breasts.  Yet I suspect that the few dishes I’ve enjoyed over and over again at my 2 or 3 favorite Thai haunts are not truly representative of the wide spectrum of sensations the cuisine engenders.  So I was reluctant to call this a Thai chicken dish, even though my inspiration (more or less), was Tom Kha. Since I don’t really know the proper proportions of ingredients to really capture the scented, citrus, rich yet light, exotic flavors of true Asian cookery, until I truly study and immerse myself in their culture, I can only genuflect, and offer homage in the form of this humble platter.  Chicken breasts poached in herbacous coconut milk, served with a sweetly scented sticky risotto – an incredible edible array of fresh flavors of the East.  Oh, and it was quick and easy to make, too.

Coconut Scented Chicken and Rice

2 cans coconut milk
2 boneless chicken breasts
1 inch ginger, minced into 2 tablespoons
1 cup arborio (short grain white) rice
1/2 cup toasted shredded coconut
1 bunch scallions (chopped)
1 tbs sesame oil
1 onion (optional)
2 inches lemongrass (optional)
1 red pepper (optional)
3 cloves garlic (optional)
2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, chopped (optional)
2 baby bok choy

I’m classifying this meal as a weeknight wondermeal because it really only needs the coconut milk and ginger to make it delicious.  I happened to have complimentary ingredients on hand – like the scallions, lemongrass, garlic, red pepper, cilantro and mint – which, well hell!  They’d go perfectly with this dinner!  I mince everything up real well, and divide it all pretty much in half.  One portion goes to make the rice, the other for poaching the chicken and garnishing the plate.

I have a large saucepan that’s been swirled with a few dots of sesame oil set on medium high heat.  In go my aromatics, which I saute gently until they just sweat and soften.

To this I add one well shaken can of coconut milk, a can’s worth of water, and my rice.  I bring it to a boil, stirring every once in a while to keep the rice from sticking to the bottom of the pan, then lower the heat to simmer and cover for about 15 minutes, or until all the liquid has been absorbed into the rice.

In another pan, I float my rinsed and patted dry chicken breasts in my second can of coconut milk mixed with equal parts water and 3/4 of the rest of my aromatics.  This I bring to a boil as well before lowering to a simmer, covering, and cooking for 15 minutes.  I planned it well — getting both courses, the chicken and the rice, going at the same time so they’d be ready at the same.

After my 20 minutes, my chicken breasts are fully poached through, so I remove them to a warm dish while I bring their sauce to a roiling – and reducing – boil.  10 minutes will bring it down to a nice thickness.

My rice is, in a word: perfect.  But it can hold forever, and will stay warm like molten lava, so I allow it to rest and thicken while I pull the final components together.

Said final components are some bok choy, the rest of my garnish, and a lime I found in the fridge, too!  I mean – why not?

The bok choy leaves and the majority of my cilantro gets thrown into the thickening milk in the pan, just to wilt and soften.

Finally, I toast some coconut in a dry skillet over medium high heat for a few moments.  This is the piece of resistance, people.  That crunch, that texture, that unique sweet… it perfects the plate.

The chicken is so tender, so sweet, so trembling white and innocent, it can be sliced with a ravenous look.  The sticky sweet coconut risotto bursts on the tongue like the tropics after an arctic exile.  Lime and lemongrass, nut and leaf, bird and grain, freshness and light and aroma and pleasure.  A simple, delicious meal, inspired by Bittman (thanks, sensei), but interpreted by Lolita.

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