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


A lemon-lavender loaf for the whole family

August 8, 2010 § 2 Comments

When I was younger, our family spent a summer at family camps in France. I was ten years old, shy, incredibly picky about what I ate and a little intimidated about spending a couple weeks solely in the company of French kids. We spent our first week at Les Lavandes, in the town of Rémuzat near Nyons. We had a small sunny room by the field, where teenagers and young men played soccer and smoked cigarettes, and we dined in a large room at communal tables. During the daytime, I went off with the other kids my age for organized hiking and swimming. My brother was too young to leave my parents in a strange new country, though there were camp activities for his age group. So instead, I was the one of the family shoved off to do all the traditional camp activities. I played name games, learned about different trees and animals native to the region, and on the last day, accompanied the family of a new friend on a daylong hike. We packed crusty bread and cheese and set off with several other families, though not my own. At the end of the hike, my mother drove out to pick me up, because my ten-year-old self refused to camp out without my parents.

At the end of the week, we drove to a second camp called Pont-Les-Bains. There, I feasted on M&M Ice Cream Pops and played boules (bocce in Italian, which is the name most Americans know it by) with the girls my age. There, we ate at smaller family tables, much like at a restaurant. I don’t remember liking much of the food, which would explain why the M&M ice cream stands out so clearly in my mind.

Though the premise of the camp — complete immersion with real French families — made me nervous at times and I was forever self-conscious of my slight English accent which the girls my age called “adorable,” this summer stands out from any other vacation I have taken. I had never seen France quite like this before, though I had been on a couple of occasions, and I made some friends with whom I kept in touch with for many years afterward. Indeed, as a child, I was big on snail mail, with penpals in France and Australia. We would send friendship bracelets enclosed in letters decorated with colorful stickers back and forth across the oceans and I collected the cutest notecards for such occasions.

Real memories of this summer are fuzzy for me, though blurry images of cobblestone roads and small bridges remain in my mind, alongside more vivid images of vibrant purple lavender. When I got home, I collected long stalks of lavender from the farmers’ market and colorful fabrics, fashioning small lavender pouches. They smelled lovely, though I think I made more pouches than anyone in the family ever needed or wanted. Now, I know there are other uses for lavender; it can be used in many baked goods, giving classic cakes and cookies a fragrant lift. Lemon loaf is a huge favorite in my house and this is probably the best one I have ever made. The loaf is wonderfully moist, with lavender and lemon zest in the batter, and glazed with thin lemon juice icing. A light garnish of lavender is a pretty touch on top of the loaf.

Meyer Lemon Lavender Cake
From the Former Chef

1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup melted butter (the original recipe called for oil)
2.5 tsp lemon zest
2 tsp fresh lavender flowers

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Mix the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl.
In a medium sized bowl whisk together the eggs, milk, oil, lemon zest and lavender. Add the egg mixture into the dry ingredients and stir to combine.
Pour the batter into a greased and floured loaf pan. Bake at 350 for 50-55 minutes, or until a wooden skewer comes out clean.
Once the cake is done, remove it from the oven. Using a long wooden skewer, poke holes in the top of the cake, all the way to the bottom, about 1″ apart.

You can see the original recipe for the lemon glaze, which called for heating the sugar and lemon juice to make a syrup. I simply combined the lemon juice with confectioners sugar to make a very thin icing, which I used to coat the top of the loaf.

Stars’ Black and White Brownies

August 4, 2010 § Leave a comment

Finally, after a summer of working of 9-5, I understand the concept of the late afternoon crash and the need for a sweet pick-me-up. There are times when you want food that pushes you out of your comfort zone, food that tantalizes and shocks in a perfect interplay of contrasting textures and flavors. And then there are those times when all you want to do is sink your teeth into the dense chew of a brownie. When you crave that moist slice of coffeecake or the soft center of an oatmeal cookie or the whipped cream on top of some sinfully sweet coffee concoction. That time is 2 p.m.

These cheesecake brownies are here for you then; “these black and white are very popular at StarMart, where office workers often stop by for a mid-afternoon snack,” former Stars pastry chef Emily Luchetti writes as an introduction to the recipe. These are perfect when you need a sugar rush: a high that gives you a sense of calm and satisfaction for the last few hours of work without the highs and lows of the usual sugar rush (though I must say, I think I’m immune because I have never been affected by too much sugar). Once you eat one of these, you’ll never go the candy and caffeine route again.

Black and White Brownies
From Stars Desserts by Emily Luchetti

5 ounces bittersweet chocolate
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate
7 ounces (1 ¾ sticks) unsalted butter
2 cups sugar
5 large eggs
¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon flour
Pinch salt
20 ounces cream cheese
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter a 9 by 13-inch pan. Melt the chocolates over the stove and allow to cool slightly. Combine the butter and 1 ¼ cups of the sugar in a bowl and cream until light and fluffy. Continuing to mix, add 3 of the eggs and beat well. Stir in the melted chocolate and mix until smooth. Now add the flour and the salt.

Spread the chocolate batter in the pan, setting aside about 1 cup for later use.

Combine the cream cheese and the remaining ¾ cup of sugar in a clean bowl. Beat until smooth. Add the remaining 2 eggs and the vanilla extract and beat until smooth.

Spread the cream cheese mixture in an even layer over the chocolate batter. Scatter spoonfuls of the reserved chocolate batter over the cream cheese mixture. With a knife, swirl the chocolate batter into the cream cheese mixture, creating a marble pattern.

Bake the brownies for 50 to 55 minutes until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out with a moist crumb. Let cool for at least ½ hour before cutting.

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.

Bites of sunshine: Mini mango cupcakes

August 2, 2010 § 2 Comments

The Washington D.C. metro stations are located deep underground, requiring long escalators to transport you into the depths of the tunnels. For the eternity you are in the tunnels, packed in like sardines with the other commuters — and tourists depending on the time of day — all other life seems to stop beneath the fluorescent lighting. And then, you emerge on the other side, the sunlight hits your face from the top of the escalator, and for a moment, you stand there blinded until your eyes adjust to the new streets.

Ascending from the escalator of the Eastern Market Metro station was like arising into a different city; it projected me back to my hometown of San Francisco, where street vendors, farmers’ markets and flea markets are in full force on Saturday morning. Buckets of plump, juicy blackberries, soft enough to crush between your fingertips, and wooden crates overflowing with fuzzy peaches, both yellow and white lingered in the sun as we made our way past the first tables of the market. Our eyes were drawn to the glittering silver earrings, paintings of the city bursting with color and bright friendship bracelets in patterns I would never have attempted in 5th grade. One man sat behind a wide array of baking dished painted with bright blue and yellow flowers, inducing child-like delight in me.

On the corner, a photographer brought her lens up close to an old man strumming a guitar and a younger, slightly worn-down, man peddled the Street Sheet. We sat down for lunch at the Montmartre Bistro, where we ordered buckwheat crepes stuffed with prosciutto and cheese and fluffy omelets filled with spinach and fresh tomato. I finally saw crates of summer heirloom tomatoes, brilliant reds and oranges swirling together on their smooth skins. People sat on the sidewalks, eating grilled crab cake sandwiches and sipping lemonade, each poured over an entire lemon. We bought marbled soaps, made in a woman’s home kitchen, cut off of long slabs, in scents of African earth and pure peppermint.

When we finally descended back into the Metro tunnel, we were exhausted, stuffed and bearing several packages. It would only be fitting now to leave with a recipe made with fresh, seasonal fruit. These mango cupcakes are like tiny bursts of sunshine; the cake is studded with pieces of caramelized fruit and the frosting is a light buttercream, folded with mango purée. I actually preferred them without the frosting, when they are just barely sweet, much like those of the original author of the recipe. This is a special post, for the simple reason that the recipe is written in French. I am moving to Paris at the end of August and, over the next few weeks, I will be transitioning a lot of my baking to French to gain a fuller immersion experience. For this recipe, I used mango instead of apricots, for which the original recipe calls, though I am sure these cupcakes are equally good — or better — with apricots. Apricots bring to mind childhood summers spent in the south of France, though I am unsure of whether the apricots are real memories or ones I have sentimentally fabricated over the years.

Original recipe reprinted here, can also be found at Les Gourmandises d’Isa


Pour 8 personnes :
12 abricots
12 noyaux d’abricots
1/2 tasse ( 125 g ) de beurre fondu
2 cuillères à table de miel
3 oeufs
3/4 tasse ( 150 g ) de sucre
1 cuillère à thé d’extrait de vanille
1 et 1/2 tasses ( 180 g ) de farine
1 et 1/2 cuillères à thé de poudre à pâte ( levure chimique )
1/2 tasse ( 60 g ) d’amandes en poudre

Préchauffer le four à 400 F ( 200 C ).
Préparer un moule à muffins en les garnissant de 8 caissettes à cupcakes.

Dénoyauter les abricots en réservant les noyaux et coupez-les en petits dés.
Fondre 2 cuillères à table de beurre, prélevé sur la quantité initiale dans une poêle et faites-y revenir les abricots avec le miel durant 10 minutes, en remuant régulièrement pour qu’ils caramélisent de tous côtés.
Casser les noyaux d’abricots afin d’y récupérer les amandes. Plongez-les une minute dans de l’eau bouillante, puis enlever la peau qui les recouvre.
Hacher grossièrement les amandes et réserver.

Blanchir les oeufs avec le sucre, au batteur électrique puis ajouter la vanille.
Ajouter la farine et la poudre à pâte, puis le reste de beurre fondu, les amandes en poudre, les amandes d’abricots hachées et les abricots.

Séparer la préparation dans les moules préparés et enfourner pour 25 à 30 minutes ou jusqu’à ce que les petits gâteaux soient dorés et qu’un cure-dent inséré au centre, en ressorte propre.
Sortir du four, et laisser refroidir sur une grille.

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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