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


Unbaked bread

May 27, 2010 § 1 Comment

I really suspect you’re tired of hearing about whole grain flours by now. Rye, corn, barley, it all starts to sound the same after awhile. Your eyes start to a glaze over and you start to think, oh no we’re descending into San Francisco hippie territory again. Next thing you know, I’ll be telling you to cook everything by sunlight on the roof. But I swear that day hasn’t some yet. And I swear this really isn’t my fault. In fact, these multigrain flatbreads were actually my brother’s idea. His 13-year-old, just barely teenage boy and still clinging to his picky-eater notions, idea.

We started making these on a weekend afternoon, right as my mother decided she was making whole wheat bread. We set up two simultaneous stations in the kitchen for the baking, the two doughs came together at the same time, and then I was given the task of kneading them. Whenever the opportunity arises, I love working dough with my hands. Like shortbread? I mix the butter in with my hands. But working with yeast gives a whole new level of fun to playing with dough. The dough almost rises in your hands, giving gentle resistance to every push into the countertop. It slowly absorbs the heavy dusting of flour you put down to prevent sticking, becoming more and more sticky until you throw down more flour. Finally, when the dough almost seems to be bursting and can take no more flour, it develops a glossy texture. A quick dusting of olive oil and you leave it to rise. It’s like abandoning a child in a playground. Except when you finally come back, it’s big and puffy without a trace of tears. And then you throw it in a pan and fry it.

Kim Boyce’s flatbread is left to rise twice. The first time for two hours, the second time covered in a towel for 1 ½ hours. Once fully risen, you divide the dough into 8 equal parts and roll them out to about a 9-10 inch diameter. Lightly paint on some olive oil and sprinkle with the spices (fresh or ground) of your choice before throwing in the pan, oil side down. Repeat this process on the other side while the dough circle bubbles.

The original recipe uses amaranth flour. But both the brother, who shies away from strange new foods, and the mother, who has bought far too many new flours for me in the past week, weighed in and we decided to go with a mixture of white, whole wheat and corn flours. We used Stonehouse California Extra Garlic Oil, one of those oils you can pick up at the wonderful bread and olive oil tasting station in the Ferry Building, some variations of chili and curry powders and paprika alongside fresh rosemary and a quick pinch of sea salt.

Eat them plain straight off the skillet or later with something like hummus. Or these would make a great accompaniment to a salad — green or quinoa, you decide how much of a hippie you are.

Decadence and excess: Salted Caramel Bacon Brownies

April 28, 2010 § 1 Comment

Decadence and excess is the name of the day. After one of my teammates enlisted my help — or surveillance — in making fudge for her French class, I decided today was a good day to try out one of the recipes that has been in the back of my mind for awhile: Salted Caramel Bacon Brownies. There are no words to describe these…rich, gooey, the base brownie tastes like pure melted chocolate and the caramelized bacon adds a smoky, salty note. That said, more than a couple bites of this is enough to make you feel quite guilty, and more than a little sick. I did cut a couple corners on this recipe; I stole the bacon from Cloister breakfast, neither wanting to fry the bacon myself or make the caramel using the leftover bacon fat. And we invited a couple of the swimmer girls over to eat them. Who, unfortunately, seem to exercise more restraint than lightweight rowers. Come on, don’t tell me you’re on a lawnparties diet too!

Some poor, depressed, heartbroken soul needs to come take these off my hands because these are the brownies hell is made of.

The brownie base is adapted from my favorite, David Lebovitz. The rest of the recipe is the creation of Kate from Savour Fare. See the recipe here or go to her site here.

Bacon Salted Caramel Brownies

Adapted from David Lebovitz

For the Bacon Caramel:
2 slices bacon
1/2 c. heavy cream
1 c. sugar
6 T. salted butter

In a small saucepan, fry two slices of bacon until crisp (I find it’s easiest to do this when the bacon is cut in half). Remove bacon, set aside, reserving bacon grease in the pan. Add cream to hot pan and let cool. When bacon is cool, crumble or chop finely.

In a larger pan, heat the sugar over high heat until the mixture is liquid and a deep amber color. Add the butter and the cooled bacon cream all at once, and stir until the butter is melted. Add the chopped bacon and let the mixture cool thoroughly.

For the brownies:
8 T salted butter, cut into pieces
6 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/4 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
3 large eggs
1 c. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 c. flour

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Line an 8 inch square pan with two sheets of aluminum foil that covers the bottom and sides of the pan. Grease the foil with butter or a little Baker’s Joy.
In a large microwaveable bowl, melt the butter and the chocolate together in the microwave (start with 30 seconds, and stir thoroughly, then microwave for 10 seconds at a time, stirring between each bout of nuking, until the chocolate is melted and incorporated into the butter) (You can also melt them together over the stove). Add the cocoa and whisk until smooth, then add in the eggs, one at a time, and the sugar, vanilla and finally the flour. Stir only until combined.

Scrape half of the batter into the prepared pan. Then drop about a third of the bacon caramel, evenly spaced, over the brownie batter in the pan. It doesn’t have to cover the whole batter, but should be in splotches. Spread the remaining brownie batter over the top, then drop spoonfuls of the remaining caramel sauce over the top of the brownies and swirl.

Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, but err on the side of underbaking. Remove from the oven and cool completely.

Sweet and savory: Strawberry chevre corn muffins

April 13, 2010 § 1 Comment

I used to be the pickiest eater ever. Just ask anyone in my family. Or any of my friends’ families, who were charged with feeding me on all my play dates. I used to hate going over to my friends’ houses because I knew I’d face the challenge of having to eat some strange, unknown dinner. Even spaghetti with tomato sauce was ruined if the sauce had a chunk or two of tomato or was speckled with green herbs. Cheese was ruined if it wasn’t grated finely enough. I imagine I was quite a hassle to deal with.

Luckily I’ve grown up a bit since then. Not only do I now like chunks in my tomato sauce, I also heartily embrace most of the food crazes of the blogsphere, even the weird ones. Take bacon infused chocolate for instance. I would never have touched bacon with a ten-foot poll much less as a dessert; coated in milk chocolate? That is such a weird combination, not to mention counterintuitive. But now I’m sitting on a 5-hour plane ride happily making my way through a Vosqes Vo’s Bacon Bar (I swear it’s only half gone…). I have been meaning to bake with bacon and chocolate forever, but have never quite been able to bring myself to do it. As a former vegetarian, the thought of mixing bacon fat into cookies and watching the grease sizzle on the frying pan still makes me a little sick. But I have answered the calls of other blogsphere crazes, like the savory quickbread.

This isn’t the same quickbread you’ve seen floating around other blogs, you know the one with the olives and the cheese and the herbs. Rather this one has roots in my childhood. Early weekend morning, my mother used to cook up a batch of cornbread in a black cast iron skillet. It was wonderfully old-fashioned, making for crisp and curved outside edges and a rich, slightly sweet crumb. I used to cut large slices from the middle and eat it still warm with a fork. Later in the day, it was great toasted with some butter and honey or jam. The recipe comes on one of those worn down recipe cards, written in my grandmother’s handwriting, which can be found in the old wood recipe box (which I hope will someday be passed down to me). It’s for Johnnycake, a funny name I have never actually heard to modern talk. I baked it up in muffin tins, topped with a couple sliced strawberries that were reaching the end of their good days and a couple crumbles of chèvre.

My mom uses all brown sugar instead of the mixture of white and brown. I cut the brown sugar down to ½ a cup in order to make it more of a savory cornbread. My mom likes to use half-white flour, half whole-wheat, which I prefer to using all white flour. However, the whole-wheat flour bin was empty, so all white it was. When I ran out of strawberries, I sprinkled the few remaining muffins with cinnamon-sugar, which my brother happily delegated for himself.

Recipe to come in a few days.

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