After a request from one of the weekly regulars to do something vegetarian the next time we had dinner, I had to seriously put my thinking cap on. What is it about vegetarian food that just seems, well, difficult? I’ve chowed down on many vegetarian meals in the past, quite often actually, and have enjoyed them a lot. But for some reason when it came to constructing a concept for my next dinner I was just stumped. My initial thought was curry: tasty, can do it by the truck load, pretty satisfying. But for some reason the idea just wasn’t settling with me. Something to do with the lentils. Next I thought of doing a kind of veggie extravaganza - you know, gratin of fennel, cauliflower cheese, stuffed peppers, braised greens etc. But I actually thought it would be nice this week to not have my face so shoved into the stove watching the zillion dishes I’d be trying to prepare and actually be available to talk to my guests, which have been very dedicated guests and who without these weekly occurrences would cease to exist. And then out of nowhere came an idea... laksa. Creamy, spicy, easy to do vegetarian, and with the right preparation not too much of a fuss. And with an amazing asian supermarket right near my university it seemed pretty perfect.
|the yellow culprit|
Shopping for the ingredients was an interesting experience. I ventured into a place known in Footscray as Little Saigon, an all-out mini Vietnam where if it exists in Asia it exists here. It has everything, from every cut of meat to things you don’t even recognise from the sea. And the aisles of sauces and pickles and cans of funny fruit stretch way into the dusty corners of the back. It was definitely a fish out of water experience. Two of the ingredients that the laksa recipe called for were fresh galangal and turmeric. Now for someone not too familiar with these things, and with no signs in English to guide me, I had to use my instinct (!) After shuffling around the mounds of very unrecognisable objects I went for a pile of ginger-looking root things hoping they were what I needed. Turns out they weren’t as the girl at the checkout informed me. But they had it, both of them, and any doubt I had of the place not housing everything I needed immediately vanished.
I came home with bags full of chilli, bok choy, shrimp paste, tofu, lemongrass, bean sprouts, coriander, Vietnamese mint, shallots, coconut milk, noodles, galangal, turmeric, snow peas, and two giant-size granny smith apples that I just couldn’t get over. They were huge. With my dad’s trusty spice collection reliable as ever I also had coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cloves, cardamom pods and fennel seeds to add to the concoction. It was a good start. Now laksa I think is a pretty simple dish that can bring extra satisfying results. It really is just a matter of heating up the paste, adding coconut milk and stock and then throwing in all your extras. I figured I could steam the greens before hand, soak my noodles, fry my tofu and then have a nice assembly line to put it all together at the end. That worked pretty well actually. The paste in the end was probably the hardest bit. More for its fiddly-ness than anything. I know that in this day and age it is very easy to buy some ready-made pastes that to be honest are very good and capture the flavour you want. But that wouldn’t be very challenging now would it! So I made it from scratch. It basically involved combining all the fragrant items and spices together and whizzing them up into a paste. My only error was I completely forgot to link the fact that the lovely yellow powder you get as ground tumeric really is that colour in its fresh form. And I am still getting the yellow out of my fingers (and off the bench). A note of warning to you, don’t do it!
For dessert I thought we needed something to cut through the creaminess a bit, so anything too dairy or chocolatey was out. Fruit was on the mind, so I decided to do a pear and ginger cake with pecans. It actually went along the lines of a sticky toffee pudding in the end – lots of dates, melted with milk and butter, added to the flour etc. The ginger came from a ginger marmalade and ground ginger and I bought these three beautiful red Bartlett pears at my local organic grocer that were crying out for good use. The cake came out soft and sticky and pretty tempting. I made a syrup with some rum in it (alcohol is always welcome) and served it with some ice-cream. One of guests whose opinion I always value commented on it saying it was the best of the desserts so far. I believe she even used the phrase ‘this takes the cake’. Gotta love a good pun. Funnily enough it definitely wasn’t the most complex of puddings to make. But perhaps that’s where the lesson lies – the simplest things are often the best.