Friday, November 14, 2008

Serious withdrawal

I come to you today with a confession: I really miss cooking.

Perhaps this is not that shocking to some of you, but since I recently spent an entire day on a bus, staring out the window and daydreaming about the different dishes I'm going to try and old favorites I will be pulling out immediately upon landing in the States...well, it's on my mind.

Luckily, today's entry includes a cooking class that I took in Hoi An, so I can at least reassure myself that I still remember what a kitchen looks like.

I only spent about two days in Hoi An, and was sick for most of one of them. However, I did get to wander a little ways around its streets, and the architecture was beautiful. If I'd had the time and money, I would have spent a bit more time there and had some clothes or shoes hand made (Hoi An is reknowned for this, you see shop after shop after shop of tailors), but unfortunately it was not to be. I think my dad described it as akin letting an alcoholic into a liquor store and not letting them buy anything. How well he knows me.

I did get the chance to take another cooking class here, one recommended by both my sister and father when they were in Vietnam just a few months ago, so all was not lost.

The cooking school was reached by a quick boat trip up the river, which, when there's yet another torrential downpour, makes for quite an interesting trip.

The venue itself was quite beautiful, an open-air outdoor kitchen with individual work stations set up with wok and cutting board. Our menu varied from a seafood salad with fresh herbs to tomato roses to fresh rice paper spring rolls.

The fresh rice paper spring rolls were quite fun to make. I've told you before about the lovely fresh spring rolls I've had throughout my time in Vietnam, but those were always done with dried rice paper. This time around, we actually made the rice paper ourselves, by preparing a sort of rice crepe batter which we steamed over cheesecloth. I did my best, but mine ended up a bit too thick, and since we were only able to try one each, I wasn't able to redeem myself. Eh, maybe next time. To be honest, I liked the dried rice paper better anyway.

I'm going to share a recipe with you today that's surprisingly good, and incredibly easy. The only "exotic" ingredient you need is lemongrass, which you can find easily in regular grocery stores or Whole Foods nowadays, so you have no excuse.

Asian Eggplant in Clay Pot
Adapted from Red Bridge Cooking School, Hoi An, Vietnam

2 Japanese eggplants (the long, thin kind, not the ubiquitous plump American version)
1 stalk lemongrass
1 1/2 tsp salt
4 cups water
1 1/2 Tbs tomato paste
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp or more chili sauce (to taste)

Place two cups of water and 1 tsp salt into a heavy-bottom pot.
Peel the outer stalks from the lemongrass, then bruise it (crush the thick bottom part slightly with the side of your knife) and add it to the pot of water. Bring to a boil.
Cut the eggplant into 1/2 inch thick rounds and add to the now boiling water. Continue to boil for 3 minutes, or until the eggplant is beginning to get tender and change color slightly.
Drain the eggplant, discarding the water and lemongrass.
Return the eggplant to the pot, then add the tomato paste, the remaining 2 cups of water, remaining 1/2 tsp salt, sugar and chili sauce.
Simmer this mixture for 7-10 minutes, stirring periodically, until the eggplant is completely tender.
Serve hot with steamed rice.

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