There has been a lot of bowl food going down in our flat recently – plenty of stews, soups and curries packed with deep, fragrant spices traditional to countries much closer to the equator yet, thankfully, abundant on Brixton market*. A few gratings of galangal and some lime leaves, a heaped spoon of harissa and some smoked paprika, or a big pinch of garam massala and some tumeric and one is momentarily removed from this relentless cold greyness and plonked somewhere slightly more temperate. A simple supper really can have transformative powers.
I’ve made Nigel Slater’s pumpkin laksa so many times now I know it off by heart and I used it as the base for this dish but with a few added extras: generous helpings of cod loin and tiger prawns, lime leaves, galangal, spring onions and green beans just because they took my eye at the market and I fancied it.
Get the annoying job of peeling and cubing the pumpkin out of the way first (or feel free to use butternut squash if you prefer). Steam the pumpkin over a pan of boiling water until it reaches your preferred level of tenderness. Add a handful of chopped green beans to the steamer for the last 2 minutes then set everything aside. To make the spice paste, blend a thumb of peeled ginger, a finger of galangal, 4 peeled garlic cloves, 2 lemongrass stalks, a handful of coriander (leaves, stalks and roots), 2 lime leaves (you can buy these in big bags and they keep really well in the freezer), 2 small red chillies and a tablespoon of sesame oil until you have a coarse paste. Add a few drops of water if it looks too dry.
Heat a glug of groundnut oil in a wok or high-sided pan, add 2-3 finely sliced spring onions and the spice paste and fry gently for a few minutes. Pour in 300ml of vegetable stock and a tin of coconut milk, bring slowly to the boil, stir and simmer. In another pan cook some dried noodles in boiling water until soft then drain, refresh and set aside with the pumpkin. Roughly cut 2 cod loins (from a sustainable source of course) into large chunks ready for the pan. After 20-30 minutes of simmering add the juice of a lime, 2 tablespoons of fish sauce and 1 of soy sauce to the broth – have a taste and add more soy if under seasoned. Now throw the noodles, pumpkin and cod into the pan and give it all a good stir and heat until the cod is opaque and cooked through. At the very last minute add some raw tiger prawns. As soon as the prawns have turned pink, ladle the laksa into deep bowls, top with coriander, squeeze over some lime and slurp it up greedily with chopsticks and a spoon.
* For amazing deals on spices, vegetables, tinned beans and middle eastern sundries go to Nour Cash and Carry on Electric Avenue. For all your oriental needs try Wing Tai a little further up towards the station – it can be pricey but there’s an amazing choice of noodles, sauces, pastes and other curiousities and the pak choi, galangal and lemongrass in the fridge is always wonderfully fresh and potent.