Monday, January 5, 2009


In our household, we eat plenty of hot soups and stews during the winter months.  One reason is that our house is freezing, which may seem crazy since we live in Los Angeles, but it's true.  I grew up in Northwestern Pennsylvania, so I'm accustomed to the cold.  For some reason though, the cold of our house affects me differently.  Enough so, that sometimes I have worn socks, pants and a hooded sweatshirt to bed.  Well, you get the idea.  A hot bowl of soup helps the situation immensely, and if you commit a small bit of time, you can easily prepare enough to freeze for a couple dinners later when your time is short and you're feeling cold.  

Along with soup, another benefit of the winter season is pumpkins and winter squash.  Delicious, satisfying, and easy to prepare, pumpkins can find their way into more dishes than you would think.  Roast them and add them to salads, pasta dishes, macaroni and cheese, dips, and in this case, soup.  Sweet or savory, roated or steamed, riced or mashed.  Very Nutritious.  Plus, they keep well as long as you don't cut them open.  Nature's perfect packaging.

This brings us to the soup, Laksa.  Laksa is a southeast asian soup that has many forms from region to region.  Some are coconut milk based curries and others are more of a sour fish stock made with tamarind.  All are spicy and contain some kind of noodle.  The variations from there can include anything from pineapple, cucumber, sprouts, tofu, chicken, fish or hard-boiled egg.  I used Nigel Slater's recipe from "The Kitchen Diaries" with some adjustments and additions.  His recipe isn't a purist's laksa.  It incorporates more vegetables than most authentic laksas.  Regardless of authenticity, it's a very tasty soup and is perfect when you feel like you may be catching a cold.  Healthy, fragrant and healing.

adapted from Nigel Slater's The Kitchen Diaries
serves 4
Kabocha squash - about 3/4 lb unpeeled weight
6 Thai chiles
5 cloves garlic
1 shallot
fresh ginger - 1 thumb
2 fresh stalks of lemongrass
6 lime leaves
1 bunch fresh cilantro
olive oil
2 cups vegetable stock
1 cup coconut milk
1 cup fresh young coconut water (I used this to make a lighter version of the soup - you can use more coconut milk for a richer soup)
cherry tomatoes - 24 or 1 14oz can of organic chopped roasted Roma tomatoes
3 tbsp Thai fish sauce (Nam Pla)
juice of 1 lime
dried laksa noodles or rice sticks - about 1/4 lb.  cooked as directed
fresh mint leaves - large handful torn into pieces

Cut the pumpkin into large chunks and place in a steamer.  Steam until tender, about 12-15 minutes.  Remove from the heat.

Chop the chiles.  Remove the seeds based on how spicy you want the soup.
Peel the garlic, shallot and ginger.  Chop them roughly.  Discard the outer leaves of the lemongrass, roughly chop the inner section.  Finely cut the lime leaves.  Roughly chop the stems of the cilantro along with half of the cilantro leaves (reserve the other half for later).  
Combine the chiles, garlic, shallot, ginger, lemongrass, lime leaves, cilantro stems and leaves, and shrimp paste in a food processor.  Process into a paste.  Add a little oil if needed to help the processing.

Start a large deep pot over medium heat on the stove.  Add half of the spice paste and fry it, constantly stirring to prevent it from scorching (keep the other half in the fridge to make more soup or double the recipe and use it all).  Fry for a couple of minutes, then add the stock, coconut milk, coconut water and bring to a boil.  Immediately lower the heat to a simmer.

If using the cherry tomatoes, cut them in half and add them to the pot along with the Thai fish sauce, and lime juice.  Otherwise add the canned tomatoes.  Cook for about 10 minutes.  Add the Kabocha squash and cook for another minute or so.  Divide the already cooked noodles (based on noodle package instructions) into each of 4 bowls.  Pour the laksa over each bowl of noodles and add the mint and remaining cilantro leaves.