Friday, February 22, 2013

Luang Prabang Salad

I've been in Southeast Asia since early February, retracing some of my past footsteps and setting down new ones, too.  It's my first time in Laos, a land-locked country that has been open to western tourists only 10 or 15 years.

Luang Prabang, the most popular tourist destination in Laos, is a low-key, provincial capital city and former home to one of the old monarchs of Laos.  Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Luang Prabang is likely to remain a small, walkable city between the Mekong and Khan rivers with a lovely mix of traditional and colonial architecture.

The cuisine of Laos is similar to, but also distinct from its Southeast Asian neighbors.  And there's French influence in many popular dishes, a vestige from the days when Laos was part of the French colony of Indochine.

The Lao have always eaten lots of greens and a wide variety are farmed in the countryside surrounding Luang Prabang.  But probably the most popular leafy green in these parts is watercress.  We saw watercress growing outside of the hillside village of Ban Long Lao about 25km from Luang Prabang.

Many restaurants serve a dish called Luang Prabang Salad which is a tossed salad consisting of a variety of fresh mixed greens and fresh herbs along with cucumber, tomato, spring onion, and sliced hard-cooked egg.  The salad is often garnished with crushed peanuts and/ or crispy-fried sliced garlic and shallot.

I enjoyed three versions of the Luang Prabang Salad during my visit.  All included a refreshing mixture of tender lettuces, watercress, mint leaves, dill, and young cilantro but each was dressed differently. One had a creamy, egg-y dressing like hollandaise.  Another had a slightly sharper version of this dressing.  But the one I like best was a chili-flecked, sweet and sour dressing similar to the dipping sauce that accompanies spring rolls served at the Coconut Garden restaurant on Sisavangvong St.

You can make your own version of Luang Prabang Salad easily enough, though tomato and cucumber are not currently in season in Los Angeles, they are grown in hot houses in California and trucked in from neighboring Mexico.  Be sure to use a good variety of fresh greens and herbs, and don't forget the watercress.

Luang Prabang Salad

For 2 servings:

4 C watercress leaves and mixed fresh lettuces, broken into pieces and loosely packed
1/2 - 1 C loosely packed leaves of fresh herbs like mint, dill, and cilantro
1 medium tomato sliced
1/2 cucumber, sliced
2-3 T chopped green onion
2 hard boiled eggs, chilled, peeled and sliced
2-3 T crushed roasted peanuts
1-2 T sliced and crispy fried garlic and/ or shallot, optional

For the dressing, you can make the more traditional egg-based dressing by finely mincing a small clove of garlic with 1-2 hard-boiled egg yolks, then add 2 T canola oil, 2 T lemon juice, 1-2 t sugar (or your favorite sweetener), a few drops fish sauce and salt to taste.  Blend until smooth.  Thin with a little water if desired.  Or try a sweet and sour dressing if you prefer.  Just about any dressing would be delicious on  Luang Prabang Salad.



Friday, February 1, 2013


Lasagna is one of those hearty classics that never goes out of style.  There are countless variations including vegetarian, creamy (vs. tomato sauce), and deconstructed versions.  But good, old-fashioned lasagna made with meat, cheese, tomato sauce, and lasagna noodles is a crowd-pleaser among omnivores.

Making lasagna is a bit of a production, as it requires several time-consuming steps, like making a good tomato sauce.  The good news is that you can do much of it in advance, then assemble and bake before serving.  You can even prepare lasagna entirely in advance, as it keeps well in the fridge for a few days and is great re-heated.  Lasagna also freezes fairly well, but the cheese can become slightly granular.  Going light on the cheese minimizes this problem.

Speaking of tomato sauce:  I prefer to use my own slow-cooked tomato sauce.  You'll find the recipe on this blog way back on September 24, 2010.  You can make slow-cooked tomato sauce with fresh or canned tomatoes.  Maybe you have some in your freezer from last summer?  Or you can use your favorite tomato sauce, even a prepared one from a jar.  In any event, this recipe starts with a quart of your best prepared tomato sauce.  If you like to serve your lasagna with a little extra sauce, you might want to make more.

As for the meat, you can use ground beef and/or sweet or spicy bulk Italian sausage.  I prefer a mixture that's about half ground beef and half Italian sausage, either sweet or spicy.  You can always add red pepper if you want to spice it up.  If you can't find bulk Italian sausage, buy the links and remove the casings by slicing lengthwise through the casing with a sharp knife and pushing out the sausage.

My recipe includes spinach, which I mix into the ricotta layer, and a bechamel or white sauce (in addition to tomato sauce) for the top.  Feel free to omit these steps if you prefer, but I think they contribute greatly to a more interesting, delicious, and nutritious end product.

A word about noodles:  I've made lasagna using traditional dried noodles; sheets of fresh pasta, both store-bought and home-made; and dried, no-boil noodles.  Personally, I prefer sheets of fresh pasta.  I think they have the best texture and flavor; and you don't have to pre-boil the noodles, like traditional dried pasta.  However, it's considerable extra work to make your own and I've found only a few places in LA that carry sheets of fresh pasta.  The no-boil noodles are super easy, but they are noticeable less toothsome than a good quality dried noodle.  If the toothsome-ness of the noodles is not important to you, you might like the no-boil noodles.  They are widely available at many grocery stores.

Lasagna noodles tend to be rectangular, but they come in different shapes and sizes, as do lasagna pans.  This recipes calls for three layers of lasagna noodles.  You'll have to figure out exactly how many noodles that will be for your lasagna pan.  However, a one pound or 12 ounce box of noodles should be more than enough.

The recipe below is for a 8-9" square baking dish which will feed four to six hungry people.  Feel free to double this recipe for a 9x13" baking dish or something roughly equivalent.  A deep baking dish is best.

To make lasagna, you'll need:

1-2 t olive oil
1-1/2 lbs ground beef, bulk Italian sausage or a combination
1 qt slow-cooked tomato sauce
1 bunch fresh spinach (5-6 oz)
3 C ricotta cheese
1/4 t + 1 pinch nutmeg
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 T butter
1 T flour
1 C whole or evaporated milk, slightly warmed
1 C grated mozzarella cheese
Lasagna noodles to make 3 layers
Black and white pepper
Red pepper flakes (optional)

1.  Make the meat sauce:  Heat 1-2 t olive oil in a large, non-reactive skillet.  Add the ground beef and/or Italian sausage and cook over medium heat, breaking up the chunks into small pieces, until cooked through (no pink).  Remove the meat from the skillet and wipe out the skillet.  For a more uniform consistency, break up the chunks of meat with a fork or transfer the slightly cooled meat to a food processor and pulse a couple of times.

2.  Return the meat to the skillet.  Add about 2 C of slow-cooked tomato sauce.  The consistency of this mixture should be thick, not runny.  Heat over low heat and simmer for about 10 minutes or longer, if you need to cook off some of the moisture.  Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt, black pepper, or red pepper flakes, if you prefer.  Turn off the heat and set aside.  If you're planning to assemble the lasagna later, this thick meat sauce can be cooled and refrigerated for later use.

3.  Make the ricotta-spinach mixture:  Trim the stems off the fresh spinach, compost the stems, and wash the leaves well.  Cook the wet spinach over low heat in a cover non-stick pan until completely wilted.  Transfer the spinach to a strainer and press out the water.  Turn the cooked spinach out onto a cutting board and coarsely chop.

4.  Put 3 C ricotta cheese in a medium bowl.  Stir in the cooked and chopped spinach.  Add a few tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese and 1/4 t nutmeg (or to taste).  Season with salt and white pepper to taste.  Set aside or refrigerate for later use.

5.  Make the bechamel sauce:  In a small saucepan over low to medium heat, melt 1 T butter.  Add 1 T flour and cook for about 1 minute.  Slowly add the warmed milk, whisking briskly to prevent lumps from forming. [If you do get lumps, you can strain the lumps out of the sauce.]  Add about 1/4 C grated mozzarella cheese.  Stir until melted.  Season white sauce with 1 pinch of nutmeg, salt and white pepper to taste.  Set aside or refrigerate for later use.

6.  To assemble and bake the lasagna:  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Prepare lasagna noodles (if necessary) according to package instructions.

7.  Spread about 1 C slow-cooked tomato sauce in the bottom of the baking dish.

8.  Put one layer of lasagna noodles on top of the tomato sauce.

9.  Put the thick meat sauce on top of the lasagna noodles.  Sprinkle about 1/4 C grated mozzarella cheese over the meat sauce.

10.  Cover the meat sauce with another layer of lasagna noodles.

11.  Spread the ricotta-spinach mixture over the second layer of lasagna noodles.

12.  Cover with the third layer of lasagna noodles.

13.  Cover the third layer of lasagna noodles with 1/2-1 C slow-cooked tomato sauce.

14.  Stir the bechamel and pour over the tomato sauce.  [You may not need to use all of it.]  Sprinkle some grated mozzarella cheese and/or grated Parmesan cheese on top, if desired.

15.  Place in preheated oven and bake until the lasagna is hot and the top is bubbly, 30-40 minutes or longer if you started with cold ingredients from the fridge.

16.  Take the lasagna out of the oven, cover it with a foil tent, and allow it to rest for about 10 minutes before serving.

This week's bounty included:

From County Line Harvest South:  Chard, arugula, and kale;

From Jimenez Family Farm:  Japanese turnips, onions, acorn squash, russet potatoes, broccoli, spinach, cherry belle radishes, and cabbage;

From Drake Family Farm:  Chevre;

From K and K Ranch:  Pink Lady apples and navel oranges;

From Silver Lake Farms:  Rosemary and sage.