Two years ago, I was living in Jackson, Wyoming while writing my book Help Yourself. There, winter days regularly dip below zero degrees Fahrenheit. This was a week of those days, and I waited for the sun to break tentatively through the clouds before going for a long walk along a boot-packed, snowy river path. I headed out, telling myself to go a bit further, then a bit further. Until, that is, I’d made it two miles out, which meant two miles back. By now, the sun had curved toward the mountain ridge, so what little warmth its rays afforded was quickly dissipating. And worse: I was really hungry.
I spent the two miles trudging back through the snow imagining what would not just satiate my appetite but also warm me through to the core. Something brothy was the ticket, but I didn’t want a clear soup. Too wan. I needed something hearty. I craved a rich, silky broth, so coconut milk seemed like a good idea. I always have a jar of Thai red curry paste in my fridge, and its combination of warming spices and chile-based heat seemed like a wise way to double down on my goal of beating back the chill.
Chicken was a natural addition for its comfort-food vibes and because it’s relatively quick cooking, too. I wasn’t coming up with the dish as a recipe at that point, simply thinking about what would taste best for dinner. That’s where most of my best ideas come from, actually. When I create from a craving, it tends to be more delicious than creating from a predetermined idea. That being said, since I was writing a book about eating with gut health, I knew veggies and whole grains had to figure in significantly, since it is plant fiber (found in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and legumes, and nuts and seeds) that the beneficial microbes in your gut thrives on. Napa cabbage was a natural fit in keeping with the traditions of Southeast Asian cuisine, while brown rice would offer a fiber-rich alternative to white rice. As I began to simmer the flavorful broth—spiked with a generous amount of curry paste and fish sauce—I decided to stir in a bag of cauliflower rice. It’s not the sexiest ingredient, and let’s be real, it’s not a sufficient substitute for the nutty deliciousness of rice, but alongside grains, it adds an additional vegetable that your gut microbiota will love.
There are two methods for cooking the chicken to offer flexibility: start with raw thighs or add in already cooked rotisserie or roasted chicken. You could also use tofu, too, or even shrimp instead. It’s an adaptable dish that comes together in one pot, which for me, counts almost as much as great taste.
Once the stew was ready, I topped my bowl with another shake of fish sauce (it’s worth seeking out Red Boat or another high-quality variety), a heap of kimchi, and a shower of chopped cilantro. It not only rescued me from frostbite (okay, too dramatic), it earned a place in my kitchen and eventually in my cookbook, Help Yourself.