Sunday Laksa January 2011
A long weekend presented itself for a gathering of friends and with that always comes food!
We call it an 'Open Door' but the principle is simple. Pop in, stay for a while, stay all night.....its come as you are, when you can and catch up. Busy lives don't have much time for such things it seems these days so what better way to reunite than over good food with good friends both new and old.
We like to be able to theme our eating-a habit that has formed from being way to involved in the food industry, so most occasions revolve around a dish or a desire to eat something rather specific.
We decided as we are on a South East Asian stint still that why not make a communal Laksa.
Laksa has two formats. One is the classic Singapore Laksa or Laksa Lemak that most people who think Laksa will think of. Thick and enriched with coconut milk, it a spicy and wonderfully warming with a heap of rice noodles and prawns thrown in for good measure and extra flavour.
The second format is a Penang Laksa which is a thinner but more fragrant broth made from fish stock and has strong sweet sour qualities. It's a soup that feels restorative with all of those intense flavours.
I like both but I think for fun interactive food I like the Singapore version as it can be a build your own creation.
I start with the basics of South East Asian which we know to be a balance of sweet, salty, sour. I also have over time made some changes that I enjoy and whilst not at all traditional I feel they work for me and for the palates of those I cook for. I use two chicken frames to make my base stock as I find most people can find a fish stock quite confrontational. Sometimes I will add fish stock or a fish frame to the mix but again I find that the taste can taint the cleanness of the chicken. Totally personal, but what part of cooking isn't?
Cheating is another way of getting this beautifully comforting dish down to a mere twenty to thirty minute mid week meal. Using a good quality Laksa paste is not shameful at all and the enhancements you can make then go a long way to giving it your own flavour. Good for good quality pastes with no preservatives or colourants and I suggest one made in Singapore is a good start.
Yes I know this looks like a typical Michal recipe with ten thousand ingredients but bear with me. The base is the easiest part and as there are three components to this you can do each separately and then bring them all together. Make a triple batch of your paste when you have time and have it in the fridge in a jar ready to go as that is the messiest and time consuming part really.
Laksa Lemak or Singapore Laksa
2 chicken frames, washed
2 sticks lemon grass, ends bashed and tops trimmed
1 lemon, halved
1 onion, peeled and halved
3 tomatoes, halved
3 cm piece of galangal, grated
3cm piece of turmeric, grated
Place all ingredients into a large saucepan and cover with 2 litres of water.
Bring to a simmer and reduce the heat to low. Cover and simmer for at least 1 hour.
Drain through a colander to collect all the liquids and set aside. Discard the solids.
This step can be done well in advance and even frozen to use as needed.
Make a paste in a food processor of:
Bunch of coriander leaf and roots, well washed
2 cm piece lemongrass, trimmed and chopped finely
2 tablespoons powdered turmeric
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 onion, peeled and quartered
1 red chilli, chopped
2 tablespoons dried shrimps, re-hydrated in warm water for 20mins
3 tablespoons fish sauce
Combine all ingredients in a food processor till it forms a paste using a little water to make a thick paste.
In another heavy based saucepan, heat a little oil and add the paste.
Fry the mix till it just begins to brown and is smelling very aromatic.
Add the chicken stock and mix well.
Simmer for 20 mins at least, stirring occasionally.
Add 1 can of coconut milk and simmer very gently.
Taste and season as needed-a little sugar, salt, more fish sauce and a dash or two of fresh lime juice goes a very long way. Balance is the key so you should be able to taste all elements.
This is the fun part where you can use anything you like to top your big bowl of Laksa.
Classic Lemak Laksa has two vital toppings. One is fish balls-finely minced fish rolled into balls and steamed and dried tofu puffs. Both make such great toppings as they have very different textures. The tofu puffs soak up loads of flavour so every mouthful is a complex and textural experience. These you can get where ever you get fresh good quality tofu. The fish balls I admit I don't bother making myself anymore. We are lucky enough to have them available at any Asian supermarket made with fresh fish and they are the perfect firm, bitey texture that I can never achieve at home. At $4 odd dollars a pack you can buy them for far less than the cost to make them.
1 pack fried tofu puffs, each puff sliced thinly into strips
1 pack fresh fish balls, each ball halved
Handful fresh coriander, chopped well
Bunch fresh mint, chopped well
2 spring onions, trimmed and sliced finely
Handful Vietnamese mint, chopped finely
3 cups peanuts, toasted and crushed roughly (do this in the food processor for speed rather than a mortar and pestle)
Fresh or defrosted raw prawns (I stir-fry these in a heap of garlic, ginger and sesame oil first but you can add them raw as they will cook in the soup quickly)
Chicken-again I stir-fry this in the same wok as I have done the prawns so there is a heap of flavour in there caramelising its way into my chicken
Laksa noodles are a particular round noodle rather than flat but these are hard to find. I use vermicelli, softened in boiled water for 20 mins or so. You could also use a nice fresh soft rice noodle.
Short of having some cart you can push out to your diners you can make just as much theatre in the kitchen by laying out all your toppings in bowls and bringing your diners to the kitchen. A little explanation may be needed but basically it is a free for all so let them work it out.
Bring your laksa soup back to a boil. The soup must be super hot otherwise all your toppings will be cold.
You can ask each diner to make there own by starting with vermicelli then add whatever they feel on top. Finish each bowl with a ladle or two of soup to heat all the toppings. You could heat the fish balls and the tofu puffs through first if you like here whether it be in the microwave or in the soup then having them in a bowl ready to add.
Eat with a squeeze of lemon, drizzle of chilli oil if you wish or sesame oil infused with chillies.
Unfortunately it still means at the end of the night you are usually the only one left to clean up but its a holiday tomorrow so another chnace to cook something delicious!!