A Lao feast

August 10, 2010 § 3 Comments

The sun was still shining overhead and the mosquitoes were out in full force when we set up for dinner around two tables on the backyard patio. A huge bamboo bowl brimming with Nam, spicy red curry rice salad, sat on the center of one table and we gathered round, our plates already filled with Mok Pha, steamed fish in banana leaves, and summer cucumber salad. We were exhausted after spending the day in the kitchen, though excited at the prospect of eating these dishes of which many of us had never heard before. On August 7, I hosted a Lao cooking class with one of my fellow interns as a fundraiser for our organization, Legacies of War.

The day started at 9 a.m., when the hosts arrived to start organizing tables, setting up information booths and prepping the food. We chopped onions, peeled cucumbers, folded napkins and arranged detonated cluster bombs for display. We put together goodie bags with Lao cooking starter kits, including a can of red curry paste, a small bottle of fish sauce and a container of purple sticky rice, all tied up with curled red and white ribbon. By the time the guests arrived, the house in Cleveland Park had been transformed into a festive kitchen, with ethnic cloths on the tables and individual workstations each featuring a cutting board and large chopping knife. The guests came from all over the DC area and included students, church friends and former Foreign Service representatives. We introduced everyone to our organization — which is dedicated to raising support and funding for unexploded ordnance in Laos dropped by the U.S. during the Vietnam War-era — and then we all got started cooking.

Using our hands, we tossed cooked rice with red curry paste and fish sauce, giving the rice a warm sunset color and spicy kick. We added two eggs and formed the rice into small patties about the size of half a tennis ball and dropped them into a boiling pot of oil. Minutes later, they emerged crusty and golden brown. After they cooled, we would toss the patties back into the bowl, crush them in our fingertips and toss them with lime juice, more fish sauce, finely chopped green onions and diced shrimp.

Then we got started on the Mok Pha. Laos is a land-locked country; hence, most of the seafood used in its cuisine is bottom-feeders found in its rivers. We tossed small strips of tilapia and fresh mint leaves with a puree of sticky rice, green onions and lemongrass. Then we loaded small piles of the fish onto banana leaves, sprinkled them with very finely sliced Kaffir lime leaves (the more finely sliced, the more handsome your husband will be, according to our teacher) and placed a chili pepper on top, like a small present. The final step was to wrap up the leaves and put the little fish packets into the steamer.

While the fish was steaming, we shredded cucumber and pounded it with a mortar and pestle with lime juice, fish sauce and halved cherry tomatoes to create a fresh and summery salad. Then we put sticky purple rice — soaked overnight to get the deep, purple color — into the steamer and set up outside for dinner. After dinner, we gathered around the table inside to cut mangoes to go along with the sweet, coconut sticky rice for dessert.

Dessert conversation turned to the current, devastating situation of people in Laos. With all but one province of the country contaminated by active bombs dropped over thirty years ago, most villages live with the daily risk of accidentally setting off a bomb while working in the fields. Each year, there are about 300 new casualties, including amputated limbs and deaths, and 40 percent of the victims are children, who are drawn to the toy-like objects. It was a sobering discussion: while we could all gather around a table in America and enjoy Lao food, which in itself is hard to find at restaurants, the real life in Laos is not nearly as carefree. Laos remains one of the poorest countries in the world, as it is incredibly hard to develop on its dangerous land. When we all packed up, laden down with bamboo baskets filled with leftover sticky rice, we were reminded that food is not as plenty in Laos and that the Lao people take great risks to make enough food for the family.

Photo Credit: Diane Greene Lent


Very lemon tart

August 3, 2010 § Leave a comment

Once upon a time, there was a lemon tree in my backyard. It was short and planted along the walkway to the stairs leading to the basement. I am not sure why, but I don’t remember it ever growing any lemons. Maybe it did, but I do know it had difficulty with the lack of sunlight in our backyard, due to the overshadowing of the huge cedar tree.

The failures of other plants in the garden I remember more vividly. I was disappointed for weeks when my potted vegetables — lettuce, carrots and tomatoes — all failed to become edible, with only the carrots looking remotely like they should, and even then they were about a quarter of the size of my pinkie. The only plant in our backyard that produced was our white peach tree, which produced ripe, fuzzy peaches late in the summer. And then our kitchen and friends were flooded with peaches for a few weeks until our garden went back to being its usual unproductive self.

Both the lemon and peach trees are gone now; I’ll have to remember to ask my parents what happened to them. But lemons and peaches are still two of my favorite fruits to eat. I remember cutting up lemons into wedges and eating them dipped in white sugar. Lemons also bake exceedingly well in cakes and tarts; lemon loaf cake is a huge favorite in our house, as are simple lemon tarts (without the meringue).

Today, I finally managed to get David Lebovitz’ lemon curd into a tart shell. Creamy while still undisputedly tart, this curd was perfect for a delicate almond shortbread crust. I baked it in my new rectangular fluted tart pan, reminding me on the lemon tarts my brother and I used to buy by the slice at La Boulangerie Bay Bread in San Francisco.

Tart Shell
From COOK, a oui chef journal by Connie

8 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup flour
pinch salt
3 tablespoons ground almonds

Preheat the oven to 375˚F with the rack in the center.

Combine the flour, salt and ground almonds in a medium mixing bowl.
In a medium saucepan, melt the butter. Add the sugar and vanilla and mix to combine.
Add the butter mixture into the dry ingredients and combine until a dough is formed. If the dough is too hot to handle, allow it to cool slightly.
With your hands, press the dough into a 9-in tart pan. When it comes to working up the sides, a measuring cup can help.
Bake the shell for 15-18 minutes, or until golden brown. Set aside to cool.

Fill with Lemon Curd
You can find the original recipe here, or see my post on it here.

Lao Cooking Class, August 7th!

August 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

I am helping to organize a Lao cooking class as part of a fundraiser for my job. I know my blog usually centers around desserts, but I think this is a great opportunity to learn a new cuisine and mix up your dinner menu a bit. Even better, you will get to learn how to make sweet sticky rice with mango, which is one of my favorite desserts. I would really appreciate it if any of you who live around the area would come by for a fun afternoon and lots of delicious food! RSVP by commenting on the post or to me at legaciesofwar1@gmail.com!

Sap Lai

Lao Cooking Class

to benefit

Legacies of War

“Sap Lai” means “very delicious” in Lao. Join us for this unique
opportunity to learn about Lao cuisine and support a great cause.

Saturday, August 7th
Learn 1 p.m. – 3 p.m.
Eat 3 p.m. – 4 p.m.

Hosts: Heather Hammel & Leila Pree
3681 Upton Street, NW
Washington, DC 20008
A couple of blocks away from Van Ness-UDC metro
At Upton and 37th Street

$40 for students
$75 for non-students
* Add $25 to have a guest join the “Eat” portion only
* Space limited to 12, all materials provided (BYO knives if you prefer)

Tum bak dang Summer cucumber salad
Nam Spicy red curry rice salad with shrimp
Mok Pha Steamed Fish in Banana Leaf
Kao Neo Mak Muang Coconut sticky rice w/ fresh mango

The class:
Learn the key utensils & ingredients
Test out the recipes
Take home a Sap Lai Starter Kit

Legacies of War is the only U.S. organization dedicated to raising awareness about the history of the Vietnam War-era bombing in Laos and advocating for the clearance of unexploded bombs, providing space for healing the wounds of war, and creating greater hope for a future of peace. The organization uses art, culture, education, community organizing and dialogue to bring people together and create healing and transformation out of the wreckage of war. Funds raised will go to support its education and advocacy programs.

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