It was my last morning in Pensacola. Its arrival heralded lightheadedness, sniffling and watery eyes for yours truly. You guessed it, I was sick. The last time I was sick was years ago, during the dreaded campus housing days. I don’t do sick very well. Then again, who does?

But as with most things, sickness has its upsides as well. In this case, a boyfriend who, bless his heart, wants nothing more than to make you feel better again. He planned to make us a peach-cinnamon sugar dutch baby a la Molly’s Jimmy for a proper send-off breakfast. I, sadly, didn’t think my sore throat and woozy head could handle a buttery baby, so he made me hot lemon water and a warm bowl of steel cut oats instead. With a Vitamin C pill and Robitussen chaser on the side. Cherry cough drops as digestifs.

With momentary symptom relief and all my packing done, I felt the need to soak up some final Florida rays, possibly blind the sickness out of me. Or burn it out with hot coffee. We drove to the nearby cafe, grabbed a brown sugar cinnamon americano and frozen chai latte, and sat outside.

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[Okay, so this isn’t the view from the coffee shop. The little outdoor seating area was cute, but I’d rather post one last picture of the white sandy beaches!]

For a little background: Our “getting-to-know-you” stage was an uncontrollable frenzy of emails centering around food: Would you eat this? Have you tried this? What’s your favorite [insert food/gadget/etc. here]? Like many of the food-crazed, I stumbled upon the Omnivore’s Hundred, and immediately completed my own; forwarding it to him to do the same. While I was generally interested to see his list, the competetive side of me wanted to beat him on number of foods tried. [Whomped him: 37* to 35. Finally I win at something!]

Tom Yum is on the list, but I argue Tom Kha is far superior. It’s one of those dishes I order at every Thai restaurant, for comparison purposes. So far the best Tom Kha was at a divey little cookery in the outskirts of Seattle. Aromatic buttery coconut broth, hinting of chilli, cilantro and lemongrass, with chicken, straw mushrooms and bamboo shoots tucked inside, served in the incredible sterno-warmed tureen. I was deeply saddened he had never tried Tom Kha, and vowed – among many, many other foods – to introduce him one day.

This recipe being fairly quick, we decided it would make a good pre-flight lunch. Now Pensacola is by no means a “foodie” town; however, there is a large population of Filipino and other Southeast Asian in the area, so we were able to find a tiny mom and pop Asian market. Unfortunately they didn’t have any fresh galangal, Kaffir lime leaves or lemongrass. Shame. But as improv seemed to be a theme throughout the trip, we ran with what we had.

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Shrimp Tom Kha [serves 2]

Printable recipe

325 mL vegetable stock

3 pieces galangal, finely sliced [or 3 thin slices of fresh ginger]

6 kaffir lime leaves [or ~1 t lime zest]

4 stalks lemongrass, finely sliced [or ~2 T combination of lemon zest and grated ginger]

20 stems cilantro, finely chopped [we used ~1/3 c cilantro leaves and stems]

6 shallots, chopped

2 small green chillies, thinly sliced [we used Serrano chillies]

250 mL coconut cream, well-stirred

16 shrimp [20-30 count size], peeled [you can substitute chicken or tofu; if using chicken, be sure to cook all the way through]

1 T fish sauce

1 t sugar

3 T tamarind juice [or substitute with apple juice]

2 T freshly-squeezed lemon juice

2 T chilli oil [or any spicy oil or Asian chilli paste; he made a quick version by heating olive oil and crushed red pepper flakes, allowing that to steep for 30 minutes or so]

Put the stock to a large saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the galangal [or ginger], lime leaves [or lime peel], lemongrass [or lemon zest/ginger combo], cilantro, shallot and chilli; simmer for 1 minute.

Add the coconut milk and simmer for 1 minute more.

Add the shrimp, fish sauce, sugar, tamarind [or apple] and lemon juices. Bring back to a boil and cook until shrimp are done; 3-4 minutes depending on the size. Remove from the heat and serve with chilli oil to drizzle on top.

A modification of this recipe.

A piping hot bowl of shrimp tom kha is unspeakably delicious. Creamy and complex, aromatic and clean, rich but not the least bit heavy; a slight kick from the chilli oil at the end of each spoonful. The juicy shrimp providing protein, selenium, vitamins D and B12, iron and omega-3 fatty acids – exactly what the doctor [ahem, dietitian] ordered!

After lunch I packed together an avocado, tomato and mozzarella sandwich on foccacia and a peach for supper on the plane. And a large stash of Kleenex.

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With a massive snowstorm wreaking havoc over the Midwest, it was a miracle** my flights weren’t delayed or canceled. Immediately upon landing, the 50+ degree temperature drop was apparent as I walked through the jetway and could see my breath. I flew into Milwaukee this time – a brief stop-off at home before heading back west to “real life” in Minne. Ironically, I met my parents at the baggage claim, who were also flying in from Florida only an hour or so after me. My intrepid sister braved the dark, messy roads in her new car to pick up the weary travelers.

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In the morning light, I could fully “appreciate” the 8 inches of snow blanketing the ground. Karma for taking a warm holiday?

*After this trip: me 39 [oysters + fondue], him 36 [fondue]. Still winning, baby!

**Although, were the flight canceled, I could’ve stayed longer……

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