Tuesday, March 22, 2011
A Laos-y Feast: chicken baguette sandwiches with hot chile-garlic sauce, and turkey lemongrass lettuce wraps
When I lived in Los Angeles I had a ritual of ordering Thai yellow curry and Tom Yum soup every Sunday exactly at 5:00, when the Thai place down the street opened its doors. Even though that was years ago, I still find myself craving spicy Asian cuisine on Sunday afternoons.
This past Sunday, I decided to get exotic after reading an article in February's Food and Wine Magazine about the cuisine of Laos. I don't know much about Laos, but since it's wedged in between Thailand, Vietnam, and China, I figured the food there must be good. Almost all of the dishes in the article used a combination of some of my favorite ingredients, including lemongrass, cilantro, chiles, shallots, fresh lime juice, and garlic. The photos of the food and scenery were equally gorgeous, and while my weed-filled backyard doesn't quite compare to the plateaus, floodplains and thatched homes in Laos, I figured I could at least attempt to replicate some of the foods in the article.
Despite what the title may connote (I'm just a sucker for bad puns), this was actually a delicious meal. The first recipe I made was called "Ground Turkey Laap," which is a Laos-y name for lettuce wraps. These differ from the type of lettuce wraps you'd find at a Chinese restaurant (or the Cheesecake Factory for that matter) in that the sauce is herbal and fresh-tasting instead of covered in a sweet soy glaze. The laap was pretty simple to make, except for tracking down lemongrass. Usually it will be in the same area as the herbs, but not all grocery stores carry it. Even Whole Foods only had a few stalks which were shoved in an unlabeled bin.
Using lemongrass was an exciting experiment for me because I've never used it before, and it scared me a little. Turns out lemongrass isn't scary at all. If you want to use it to flavor soups or curries, you can chop up the stalk and let it simmer in the broth--just make sure you remove it before eating. The other way to use lemongrass is to peel the tough outer leaves until you find the tender white core in the middle (about the same diameter as a thin straw). Then you can finely chop or puree that core and mix it into just about anything.
Here is the recipe for Ground Turkey Laap (courtesy of Food and Wine). It makes a great appetizer or a light lunch; it's easy to store and reheat later too.
1 tbsp long-grain white rice
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 lb ground turkey
1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp chicken stock
1 tbsp plus 1 tsp Asian fish sauce
salt & pepper
1 tbsp fresh lime juice
2 large stalks of lemongrass--tender inner core only, minced
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1 medium shallot, thinly sliced and separated into rings
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1/2 cup chopped mint
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper
small romaine or Belgian endive leaves, for serving
In a small skillet, toast the rice over high heat, shaking the skillet a few times, until the rice is golden brown. Transfer to a spice grinder (or coffee grinder) and let cool completely. Grind the rice into a fine powder.
In a large skillet, heat the oil and cook the turkey over medium heat, breaking up the meat evenly, until no pink remains. Add the stock and cook, stirring, until bubbling. Remove from heat and stir in fish sauce. Season with salt and pepper and stir in the lime juice. Let stand for 5 minutes, then stir in the lemongrass, scallions, shallots, cilantro, mint, crushed red pepper, and rice powder.
Arrange the lettuce leaves on a platter, and spoon the turkey mixture on top.
Lao-Style Chicken Baguette Sandwiches (courtesy of Food and Wine Magazine)
While my husband and his friend lapped up the laap (see - I can't help myself!), I got to work on the main course: the baguette sandwiches. Food and Wine named this dish "Lao-Style Chicken Baguette Sandwiches with Watercress," but unfortunately I wasn't able to find any watercress. I just used plain old green leaf lettuce, which worked perfectly fine.
At first glance this looks like any old chicken sandwich: sliced chicken breast, tomato, carrot, mayo and lettuce on a baguette...the key ingredient that makes it Laos-y is the chile-garlic sauce. I have to admit, I was tempted to just buy the jar of chile-garlic sauce I saw at the store when I was hunting down the ingredients for my recipe. But I decided to take on the challenge of making an Asian condiment on my own. I'm really glad I did--the sauce was definitely a little labor intensive, but the flavors were well worth the work.
1/4 cup plus 3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 large shallot, thinly sliced and separated into rings
3 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
2 1/2 tbsp minced fresh ginger
1/4 cup Korean coarse red pepper powder*
2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 tbsp Asian fish sauce
*I couldn't find Korean coarse red pepper powder at the store, so I found the closest thing to it: some sort of Indonesian chile powder. If you live near an Asian grocery store, you could probably find the Korean stuff there. But my substitute seemed to work perfectly fine so you can also experiment with any other type of powdered chiles or red peppers.
In a small skillet, heat 1/4 cup, plus 2 tbsp of oil. Add the shallot rings and cook over moderate heat, stirring a few times, until golden brown and crisp. With a slotted spoon, transfer shallot rings to a bowl. Add the garlic to the oil, and cook over moderately low heat until golden. Transfer the garlic to the bowl. Add the ginger to the skillet and cook until fragrant, about 2 minute. Add red pepper powder and sugar and cook, stirring for 30 seconds. Scrape the sauce into the bowl. Stir in the fish sauce and the remaining tbsp of oil.
To make the sandwiches:
Season chicken breasts with salt and pepper, and saute in some oil until no longer pink inside. Let rest on a cutting board for a few minutes; then slice crosswise into 1/4 inch strips.
Spread the chile-garlic sauce on both halves of a sliced baguette. (How much you slather on will depend on your tolerance for spice). Then spread mayo on top of the chile-garlic sauce. Add a layer of chicken, thinly sliced tomato, lettuce, and shredded carrot, and close the sandwich. Enjoy!
Make sure you use the best, freshest baguette you can find...as my husband loves to say: A sandwich is only as good as the quality of the bread.