Tuesday, January 27, 2009

You know the one I mean

I had heard about Delfina before I moved to San Francisco. It's the kind of restaurant that is periodically given rave reviews in all the top food magazines, not because of a change in chef or a radical new cooking technique, but because the food is so good.

The Italian menu changes seasonally, so you'll always have different choices, but there are a couple of standbys that make consistent appearances. These are the ones that you have to watch out for. These "standbys" include a particular salad and pasta that I made sure someone in my party ordered every single time. In fact, my SF restaurant guru insisted that I order this particular pasta, all the while warning that I might not be able to order anything else ever.

And she was so right--their pasta with tomato sauce is a lesson in simplicity and perfection. The pure, clean (and addictive!) taste of that sauce is unbeatable.

Sadly, I only had the opportunity to dine at Delfina twice, once for an anniversary and another occasion when a close friend came to town. On the latter visit, we also had an amazing dessert: pear sorbetto with ricotta gelato and candied walnuts. Whew...but, that's for another time and place when I have an ice cream maker make to play with.

Because of how much Jimmy loved this particular pasta (he always ordered it and I always stole half. See why I love the guy?), I made a mental note to try and find a suitable substitute. It wasn't until I read this particular entry from the lovely Molly at Orangette that I figured out where to start my search.

After clicking on the link above, you'll notice that Molly does a fabulous job of describing a luscious tomato sauce, even going so far as to compare it to Sophia Loren. You're probably wondering why you're even still reading this particular post, since Molly has obviously already found the ultimate recipe.

Now, I fully beseech you to try that tomato sauce, made with tomatoes, half an onion and butter. It is a lovely recipe from Marcella Hazan, one of my two favorite tomato sauces, in fact. I refer to it as my "winter" tomato sauce because the rich flavor is makes me want to curl up in front of a fire, a blanket over my legs and slurp away.

However, Ms. Hazan has another stellar tomato sauce tucked into her pages that brought me much closer to Delfina nirvana.

Her tomato sauce with garlic and basil has you chuck six cloves of garlic, a few good glugs of olive oil and a can of good quality tomatoes into a pan. You let it bubble away for about half an hour until the tomatoes "release the fat", in Ms. Hazan's lovely words--which makes perfect sense once you stand over the store and watch it happen. Add some salt and pepper, fresh basil and you're set.

This is one of those go-to dishes. You know the one I mean: the dish that you crave all the time, yet seem to make every other week and is, in fact, delicious enough that you would serve it to company.

Tomato Sauce with Garlic and Basil
Adapted from "The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" by Marcella Hazan

6 medium-large cloves garlic, peeled and diced
4 Tbs. olive oil, divided
1 28 oz. can good quality whole tomatoes
crushed red pepper (optional)
fresh basil, chopped (optional)
1 lb. spaghetti (I've also used fettuccine and linguine here)

Fill a large pot with salted water and bring it to a boil.

Put the garlic and 3 Tbs. of olive oil in a large pan. Using your hands, crush each tomato before adding it to the same pan. Set aside the juices left in the can for another use.

Place the pan over medium heat, add salt, pepper and crushed red pepper (if using), and allow to simmer heartily for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. The sauce will be done once there are droplets of olive oil floating on the top of the tomatoes.

Taste the sauce for seasonings (I find that proper salting is particularly important with tomato dishes).

Cook the spaghetti until al dente and drain. Add it to the tomato sauce and toss to thoroughly combine. Add the remaining 1 Tbs. olive oil and mix once again.

Plate the spaghetti and top with the fresh basil, if using, and plenty of parmesan.

Serves 2-4.

An apple a day

As some of you may or may not know, I am going to be traveling to France in February to help assist the woman who runs the cooking school On Rue Tatin, Susan Herrmann Loomis.

Now, you may be wondering how I got so lucky as to be able to score such a killer, and yes, I do mean, killer opportunity.

It's an amazing tale, so sit back, relax and prepare to be envious:

I wrote her an email...and she wrote back.

I know, I know, that could quite possibly be the most boring story ever, but sometimes that's how fabulous opportunities fall into your lap--you make it happen by simply asking the question.

Still in the planning stages of this adventure, I was wandering around a secondhand bookstore in San Francisco when I stumbled upon her memoir: On Rue Tatin.

Figuring that it might induce good karma or something, I went ahead and bought it, along with another cookbook that lies lonely in a storage shed in Iowa.

As I read through the memoir, hoping for a little insight to this lovely woman and her charming school, I couldn't help but appreciate her talents as a writer. Hers is the sort of memoir that makes you feel as if you're sharing stories over tea with an old friend. Exciting, romantic stories about moving to and living in France, but friendly, warm stories nonetheless.

I loved the book, and it got me even more excited to learn from her in her own kitchen.

Until that happens, though, I thought I'd brush up on my skills by tackling one of the recipes sprinkled throughout her memoir. Quite a few caught my eye, but one in particular stood out, and I sincerely believe that I'm not the only one susceptible to recipe titles that include the words "goat cheese" and "leeks".

At least, I hope not, for all of your sakes.

Baked Apples Stuffed with Goat Cheese and Leeks
Adapted from On Rue Tatin by Susan Herrmann Loomis

4 large apples, cored
1 cup white wine, preferably dry
1 bay leaf
2 Tbs butter
2 large leeks, white and light green parts only (She calls only for the white parts, but I used a bit more)
1 Tbs water
4 ounces goat cheese (She calls for 7, but I only picked up 4 on accident, and thought it worked fine. Choose whichever you'd like)
2 Tbs milk (She calls for creme fraiche or heavy cream. I didn't have either on hand and substituted milk with no problem)
Black pepper
Sea salt
Parsley (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Peel one strip of skin around the outside middle of each apple (The apple should look like it has a pale sash tied around its waist). Place the apples in a baking dish and pour the wine in. Toss the bay leaf with the wine.

Cut the leeks in half, then rinse them well under a faucet or in a large bowl of water. Dice the leeks, then put them and 1 Tbs of butter into a large saucepan. Cook, taking care not to let the leeks stick, until the leeks begin to turn transparent. Add 1 Tbs water and stir. Cover the pan and allow leeks to continue cooking until tender about 10 minutes. Keep an eye on the leeks, and if they look like they're beginning to stick, add a bit more water.

Once the leeks are cooked, put them in a medium bowl. Add the goat cheese and the milk and stir until thoroughly combined. Season with a bit of salt and pepper to taste.

Lightly salt the inside of the apples. Stuff each apple with a quarter of the leek mixture, taking care to press it all the way down into the cavity of the apple. You'll have enough to mound some of the mixture on top.

Top each apple with 1/4 of the remaining 1 Tbs. of butter.

Bake the apples in the middle of the oven until the apples are tender and the leek mixture is dark golden, about 40-45 minutes.

Transfer apples to plates, garnish with parsley if you like and serve.

Serves 2-4.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Half a starter

I thought that I was going to come to you today with a recipe for homemade yogurt, the most delicious yogurt I had ever tasted.

I tried said yogurt last weekend at a "Let's eat up my leftover Northern Indian food" impromptu dinner party that a friend threw the day before his parents were about to drop off another supply. Poor guy, hunh?

Alas, there sits on our counter a sad puddle of milk that swirls in a distinctly un-yogurt like way.

I do have half of my starter left (the kind soul who gave me the recipe apparently suspected I wouldn't have perfect luck on my first try), so I promise you that I will attempt to achieve delicious yogurt nirvana again and soon, so that I can pass it along.

In the meantime, will you accept a baked good instead?

One involving chocolate and frozen bananas, oh, and a cinnamon and sugar, chocolate-studded crust?

I thought you might, and hope you will, because this one is not to be missed!

Personally, I was never a big banana bread fan growing up. It was never something my parents baked, so my only experiences with it were the walnut-stuffed, overly sweetened versions that I tried at school cafeterias and bake sales.

I just never understood the love.

Now, pumpkin bread, on the other hand, is a completely different story. My mother makes the best pumpkin bread this world has ever seen. I gave her one of those baking pans shaped like a pumpkin one year just to try and see if I could increase her output, but instead got teased mercilessly by my sisters for such a "lame" gift. It turns out, the stuff just tastes better in loaf form.

But pumpkin bread is for another time. We're here today to talk about banana bread. My first ever banana bread, in fact. I don't think I'd mentioned that.

Yes, my friends, my first ever banana bread was baked last year in my SF apartment, when I had a bunch of frozen bananas in the freezer and three more sitting on my counter turning darker and darker.

I quickly turned to some of my favorite food blogs for inspiration, and hit the jackpot with banana bread-loving Molly. This lady has four different recipes for the stuff in her archives, so I knew I could count on at least one of them to take care of my browning bananas.

Oh, and I was so right, and so sad to have missed out on such a lovely treat for so many years. Please don't let the same thing happen to you. Go, bake it, then sit there, torturing yourself with the smell, as I am at this very moment, waiting for it to be done.

As perfect timing would have it, the timer went off just as I finished that sentence.

Now I just need to go warm up my coffee and wait for my requisite 30-second cooling period before I jump in.

Before I give you the recipe, I want to let you know that I ended up using Ghiradelli baking chips this go-round, because that's what I had on hand. I've used both, and they're both delicious, though I think I prefer chips, if I have the choice. That way you get a bit more of an even spread.

Banana Bread with Chocolate and Cinnamon Sugar
Adapted from Orangette and Everybody Likes Sandwiches

3 very ripe medium-large bananas*
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup bittersweet chocolate chips

2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
Additional ground cinnamon
1/4 cup bittersweet chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F and butter an 8x8 baking pan.

To Make Batter:
In a large mixing bowl, mash the bananas with the back of a fork until fairly smooth. Add in the eggs and mix well. Add the flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon and vanilla extract. Stir well to combine. The batter should be lovely and smooth at this point.
Stir in the chocolate chips and pour the batter into the prepared pan.

To Make Topping:
Put the sugar in a small bowl and add a couple of dashes of cinnamon. Stir briefly to combine, and sprinkle generously over the batter. Finish by sprinkling the remaining chocolate chips on top.

Bake for 35-45 minutes, until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean of batter (there may be melted chocolate on there, but don't worry, that's a good sign).

Slice and enjoy ASAP.

*I've always used frozen for this recipe. When the bananas are get quite brown, just slip them out of their skins and into a plastic bag. When ready to use, defrost them on the counter a few hours before you're planning to bake them.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The end of an era

For how lovely Phuket and Khao Sok were--and yes, I will begrudgingly admit that even Bangkok had some highlights--it was Chiang Mai that stole my heart.

How could it not when the first people I met were extremely generous and extremely drunk English people who offered us the use of their shower until a room opened up at the hostel?

Maybe they should give Chiang Mai a new city slogan: The City of Hospitality or maybe The Hospitable City. Hmmm...not doing very well with the original name thing. Oh well, if need be, I can attest that every person I met was incredibly gracious and cordial. Aside from the English people, the owner and staff of the hostel we stayed at asked us to join them for drinks and music one evening. And by music, I mean Thai pop songs performed on a classical guitar. It was more than a little hilarious.

Katie had been jealous of my Sapa trekking ever since she'd read my post. Doing some serious research before meeting me out in Thailand, she decided (and I concurred) that Chiang Mai was going to be our best bet in the short time we had in Thailand.

Happily, our hostel's trekking service had a Lonely Planet stamp of approval, so we decided to go with their one-day option that combined hiking, elephant riding and bamboo rafting.

Now, before you ask me if I'm not nearing the saturation point of elephant riding, I beg you to keep in mind that I love riding elephants, and, to go back to my seemingly ever-repeated mantra: One never has enough opportunities to ride elephants (or swim in waterfalls or what have you). Besides, it was part of the package.

The trekking was not the best I've had, since it consisted of an hour and a half on a trail next to a concrete-lined stream, nor were the elephants treated nearly as well as they had been in my previous experiences. Harumph.

On the positive side, the bamboo rafting was a blast.

Remember the bamboo train I told you all about a few posts ago? The one that was essentially bamboo poles lashed together? Well, just transfer those to the water, and you've got the raft that a guide, three other girls and I used to float down a river with rapids. Safety first, I always say.

The highlight of Chiang Mai may not have been our trekking adventure, but I did love the city itself, and had a lovely time at the cooking class we took on Thanksgiving. What better way to celebrate the American tradition of sharing and eating lots of food than to take a cooking course?

Katie and I chose to make reservations at The Chiang Mai Thai Farm Cooking School, after asking advice from this amazing lady.

We were picked up from our hostel, then taken straight over to a market for a Q&A about Thai food products, plus plenty of time to wander and explore. I doubt that I will ever tire of these now ubiquitous but entirely necessary market tours.

Once our marketing was finished, we piled back into the tuk-tuk to head out to the school's organic farm, where we were led on a tour, catching glimpses of about a hundred different kinds of basil, as well as eggplant, banana flower and mint.

We then prepared about five different courses, with Katie and I choosing different dishes from each course to maximize our Thai cooking knowledge with one glaring exception: there was absolutely no way that either of us was missing out on the beauty that is mango with sticky rice.


Other highlights included hand-pounded green curry paste and resulting green curry with chicken, papaya salad and pad thai.

The day after the Thai cooking class, I caught a plane to Jakarta to spend my last few days with my sister before heading back to the States. I managed to have an absolute blast drinking Amaretto cocktails at an amazing jazz club, as well as a disgusting display of over-indulgence in Western delicacies like wine, Steak Diane (with wagyu beef and pumpkin seed brioche, best still my heart!) and cheese at the Ritz's $30 Sunday brunch. My stomach was not nearly as pleased as my tastebuds: it took my stomach about a month to be able to digest dairy and cheese again after my accidental 3 month hiatus.

Katie finally made it home, though the Bangkok protests and subsequent airport closure made it much more of an adventure than she'd ever bargained for.

I'm still not sure if her parents will ever let her vacation with me again.

As for me, I made it back to the States, bleary-eyed and exhausted, but stepping out into the blustery Chicago weather and catching my first glimpse of snow in years put a spring right back into my step as I caught the El over to meet Jimmy.

The dishes I mentioned in the cooking class are incidentally all of the things (plus red curry and fresh spring rolls) that Katie and I decided to recreate once we got home and had a celebratory Thai dinner party in Houston over the holidays.

And yes, it was a big hit.

I'll have to share the pad thai and sticky rice techniques with you all at some point, as well as the green curry recipe, but I thought I'd start you off with a green papaya salad recipe.

Delicious and fresh tasting, it's also surprisingly filling. It may not be exactly what many of us are craving at the moment (it was 8 degrees below 0 yesterday!), but it could make a great counterpoint to a warming Thai-spiced soup.

Oh, and one more note: if you can't find green papaya, cucumber, cabbage, carrot or granny smith apple would be great substitutes.

Green Papaya Salad or Somtam
Adapted from the Chiang Mai Thai Farm Cooking School

2 cups of shredded (peeled and seeded) green papaya -- this is easy to do on a box grater, or you could try it out in a food processor and let me know how it goes
2 Thai hot red chillis, thinly sliced
3 peeled cloves of garlic
1 Tbs. lemon juice
2 tsp. sugar
1-2 long beans, cut into 1/2 inch pieces (if you can't find them, just leave them out)
1 tomato, sliced into 4-6 pieces (can be left out if not in season)
2 Tbs. crushed peanuts
1 Tbs. fish sauce
1/4 tsp. salt

Mash chillies, garlic and long bean pieces in a mortar and pestle until crushed into small pieces.
Add lemon juice, sugar, tomato and salt, then lightly crush until incorporated.
Toss dressing with shredded green papaya.
Serve topped with crushed peanuts.

Serves 1-2, depending on accompaniments.

Note: If you don't have access to a mortar and pestle, just finely chop the garlic and chillies, then whisk in the lemon juice, sugar and salt as if you're making a normal viniagrette. Toss with the veggies and enjoy!

Monday, January 12, 2009

A tree grows in Bangkok

I love being reminded of the extremes in life. Take the long weekend I split between Bangkok and Khao Sok National Park. On the one hand you've got a crazy city, overwhelming and loud, and on the other hand you have this:

If you ever have the opportunity to spend the night in a tree house, I fully recommend it. Of course, let's be honest, the sleeping arrangements aren't that different from other places, insofar as there's a bed and a bathroom. But the huge staircase and tree through the middle of your deck...well, those are unique.

It was lovely to play Swiss Family Robinson for an evening. In fact, it was lovely to be able to feel cut off from the "real world" again, after a week in resort-land.

Our Jungle House brought me back to the land of lanterns and flashlights. After dinner, Katie and I stayed up, drinking Singha, while she taught me how to play rummy. I suppose there is hope for me in my old age.

I've always thought it would be fun to be one of those grandmothers who has friends over for card games or board games, chit-chat and cocktails. I'd also like to be a grandmother who can whip out a gorgeous pie at the drop of a hat (my own grandmother is a prime example), but I think I need a bit more practice on both the card games and the pies.

The following morning, after gobbling down a bowl of rice porridge with poached chicken, flavored with ginger and fish sauce, Katie and I took an elephant tour out in the jungle that included some time in a waterfall. As I said in my last post, there aren't nearly enough opportunities for waterfall swimming, so I helpfully forced Katie in.

The elephant guide also helped, dragging both of us up to the top of the waterfall to jump into the pool below.

I also find that there aren't nearly enough opportunities to sit up on the elephant's neck and walk with him through the jungle for an hour, pretending that you're a queen. You can bet that I took advantage of this one.

After getting back to the tree house and packing up, Katie and I decided to take our chances in catching a bus over to Surat Thani in order to find space on either an overnight bus or train to Bangkok for the next day.

We waited by the side of the road with our backpacks for a couple of hours before a minibus pulled over and the driver hopped out, waving us in.

We exchanged a look and a shrug, then threw our packs into the back of the bus and boarded, laughing. After a few exchanges of "Surat Thani?" "Yes?" "We need to go to Surat Thani?" "Yes, yes, okay", we were sufficiently comfortable to sit back, enjoy the rest of the ride and wonder where in Thailand we were going to end up.

Two hours and about 20 additional passengers later, we made it to Surat Thani, where a travel agency had an overnight bus to Bangkok set to leave in a few hours.

Hungry beyond belief, Katie and I asked for the nearest market, set off in that direction and found decent pad thai at the food stalls.

The next morning, at 5:30 a.m., we disembarked in Bangkok. After various inquiries and a bit of bargaining around the train station and the bus agency located on its top floor, we secured tickets on an overnight bus up to Chiang Mai for that evening. That, of course, meant we had an entire day to kill in Bangkok with no shower, a terrible night sleep from the previous evening, and another terrible night sleep to look forward to.

How did we get through it?

By walking the streets of the city in the early morning, stumbling across fruit vendors and markets.

Even the biggest, craziest cities have a period in the early morning when few people are out, and those that are, are quietly setting up their stalls and straightening their stores.

The rest of our day in Bangkok is a bit of a blur, to be honest. I remember stopping frequently for coffee and snacks to keep energy up and mutual frustration to a minimum.

I also remember heading to the city zoo only to be warned away by a riot signing detailing a policeman shooting a protester. It's certainly one way to discourage protesters. Didn't work, of course, but it kept us away from the area.

We wouldn't even have noticed the sign were it not for a motorbike driver hanging out on the side of the road. He looked us up and down, glanced down the road in the direction that we were going, caught my eye and slowly shook his head "no". It was that friendly intervention that brought my attention to the rather graphic warning sign, and in turn caused our abrupt aboutface.

After the zoo fiasco, we decided that a Thai massage and a friendly neighborhood hookah bar were in order. The massage was easy to find, but we had to deal with a conniving tuk-tuk driver who had us stop at two different stores (so that he could get a commission and we could get a free ride), and then dropped us off over a mile away from where we wanted to go!

We finally found the hookah bar and promptly collapsed into our metal chairs. An hour later we were off and running again (though not literally, thank goodness), heading to the train station for our bags.

I cannot say that Bangkok was my favorite place on my trip, but I made it through alive, and sometimes that's all you can ask for.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

"Deep and slowly your breathing"

After backpacking for months and staying in hostels with cold water showers and ant-covered walls*, I think that anybody would be ready for a change of pace.

Luckily for me, my parents have a vacation time share and offered me a week in the Marriott Phuket Resort in southern Thailand. I couldn't say "yes" fast enough, and neither could my good friend Katie, who took a two-week vacation to join me on the Thailand segment of my trip.

What a looker, eh?

By this point, I was long overdue for some indulgence, and I treated myself.

I woke up each morning in time for 8 o'clock yoga. After an hour class en plein air, Katie and I grabbed a smoothie, then headed to one of two plunge pools in the locker room of the fitness studio. We sipped our drinks and chatted for about an hour or so before heading up to our room to grab a book and some sunscreen.

The rest of the day was spent lounging by the pool under an umbrella, reading, sampling the free fresh fruit popsicles offered in big metal tubs and taking a dip whenever the heat got unbearable.

One afternoon brought an introduction to an adorable baby elephant named "Yum Yum". This cutie walked around the resort with its handler at the ocean's edge, and even allowed me to hop up on its neck and walk around a bit. The kids were enchanted, as was I.

Oh, and every once in a while Katie and I would head to the swim up bar for a quick cocktail. Not every day, mind you, but once or twice. As I said, I was ready to indulge.

We changed up the lunch and dinner routine every day, alternating between room service, the cafe or the official Thai restaurant at the resort. Our culinary highlight of the week was at the proper restaurant: shrimp poached in coconut milk with lime juice, red onion and hot red chilies.

I had to restrain myself from licking the bowl clean. Let's just say that it's a dish I plan to recreate at some point in the future.

Our last day at the resort, Katie and I decided to dive at nearby Ko Phi Phi Island.

Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate, and the morning dawned gray, misty and a bit windy...and that was on land.

Once we got on the boat, Katie and I both turned green and I spent the rest of the ride holding on to the boat edge for dear life, praying feverishly that I would be able to keep my breakfast down.

Due to the incredibly choppy weather, our boat rerouted itself towards a nearer and calmer dive site Raja Yai (or Racha Yai). Once we got in the water, my stomach calmed down a bit and I was able to enjoy the vibrant colors of the fish, a sight that I still find unbelievable.

Since I already gave you a rough outline of my favorite dish from my week in Phuket, and I haven't yet developed a concrete recipe, I thought I'd give you some ideas for fresh fruit smoothies and juice that I enjoyed during my daily smoothie break.

Feel free to play with proportions and let me know if you try one! Add ice to the mango and blueberry smoothies for texture.

Blueberries, lime, vanilla yogurt, milk and honey (frozen blueberries would work well here, and be much cheaper this time of year)

Lemongrass and pineapple (make sure to chop the lemongrass before putting it in your blender--not sure how lemongrass works in a juicer)

Ginger, carrot and pineapple (make sure to chop the ginger before putting it in your blender--not sure how ginger works in a juicer)

Mango, pineapple and sweetened condensed milk

*Don't worry, not all of my hostels were that bad, but they definitely deteriorated over the course of my trip. I started out with hot water showers and beds with sheets and ended with terrible mattresses and ants climbing all over the walls and floors. Thank goodness for Phuket.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

An early breakfast

I thought that I had finally learned my lesson about cooking classes: whatever you do, do not eat breakfast beforehand. That way, you can eat more of the delicious food that you'll soon be preparing.

As a result, I stopped at a curbside coffee stand to grab a quick coffee on the way to the class, congratulated myself on remembering the above and proceeded to dump half of the coffee all over my arm and pants.

I arrived at the class in one piece, if slightly damp, and we immediately set off on the market tour. Every time I enter an Asian market, I am astounded at the colors, smells and sounds. Absolutely nothing like an American store or even an American farmer's market, it is barely controlled chaos. In other words, it is the best shopping experience imaginable.

After our marketing, we headed back to the school to start cooking. We worked on two dishes in the late morning for our lunch, and they ended up as my favorite dishes of the day.

Luang Prabang salad is a composed salad of lettuce, cucumber, tomato cilantro and hard-boiled egg, but it was the tangy vinaigrette that stole my heart.

Our other luncheon dish was chicken laap. As you may remember, I had already tried about a hundred different versions of fish laap within the past week, but chicken laap was a new one for me and a quick favorite. The different herbs make the entire dish taste fresh and clean...and undeniably delicious.

After lunch, we continued cooking, churning out an amazing sweet garlic-chili paste that is a favorite breakfast of Laotian children when paired with sticky rice, stir-fried ground chicken with eggplant, and of course, all the sticky rice you could eat.

I was stuffed after the class, and spent the rest of the evening at an amazing bookshop that shows movies every night in their upstairs lounge. Imagine stacks of comfy pillows and low tables that keep your hot tea within reach.

The following morning, my last in Luang Prabang, I got up early to observe a traditional Buddhist ritual: alms giving.

Each morning before dawn, monks sheathed in traditional orange robes walk barefoot in single file down the main street in Luang Prabang. Waiting for them are the women residents of the city, with bowls of sticky rice. A bucket in hand, the monks bend down to the seated women, exchanging blessings for nourishment.

This is the only food the monks will receive all day, every day.

If you hadn't already guessed, this place stole my heart. The combination of a gorgeous location near the misty river, stunning architecture, tremendous food, beautiful people and laidback atmosphere was seductive.

What can I say? I fell in love.

Here’s the recipe for the Luang Prabang Salad, as promised. Even if you don’t take the time to make the composed salad as I describe below, the dressing itself is delicious and a tossed salad with all of the ingredients would still be lovely. If you decide to make just the dressing, I find that it’s particularly good with salad leaves that have a bit of a bite, such as arugula and watercress.

Luang Prabang Salad
Adapted from Tamnak Lao Cooking School

2 handfuls salad leaves (arugula is good here)
2 handfuls watercress leaves, stems removed
1 sliced tomato
1 sliced medium cucumber
1 Tbs crushed unsalted peanuts (a mortar and pestle is good for this, or you can throw a handful into a plastic bag, seal it, then go to town with a rolling pin or heavy can—just don’t make peanut butter!)
1 Tbs minced pork, sauted with a little oil until cooked through (optional)
1 sliced hard boiled egg
½ bunch cilantro

2 hard boiled egg yolks
2 Tbs olive oil
2 Tbs white vinegar (white wine vinegar may be substituted here, but you will probably have to add a touch more to get the tang you’re looking for)
1 Tbs sugar
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
¼ tsp salt

To make the dressing:
Place the hard boiled egg yolks in a blender, along with the oil, vinegar, sugar, pepper and salt. Blend until smooth. Taste for seasoning.

To prepare the salad:
Wash and thoroughly dry the salad leaves and watercress. Combine them, then divide between two plates, piling the leaves high in the middle of each plate.
Drizzle half of the salad dressing over the leaves.
Overlap the cucumber slices in a circular pattern around the outermost edge of the salad leaves. Take care to cover the outer salad leaves completely.
Overlap the tomato slices in a circular pattern just inside the cucumber ring.
Overlap the egg slices in a circular pattern around the inside of the tomato rings, taking care to cover the salad leaves completely.
Sprinkle the crushed peanuts and pork, if using, across the top of the egg and tomato slices.
Drizzle the remaining salad dressing over the salads.
Coarsely chop the cilantro and sprinkle atop the salads.
Serve immediately.

Serves 2 as a main course.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Cooling off in paradise

The bus ride from Vientiane up to Luang Prabang was about 8 hours of non-stop mountains. The guidebook had warned that those prone to motion sickness should either consider another form of travel or stock up on some pills.

Now, normally, I am absolutely prone to car sickness when I'm a passenger, so I was a bit worried after reading the above. However, I did neither, and happily had no problem. That's probably due to the fact that I stared out the window the entire time, completely lost in the stunning views.

At the end of the bus ride, I ended up meeting two very sweet girls who were also looking for a hostel in Luang Prabang. We decided to try and find a place together to cut down on costs and hopped on a tuk-tuk into town.

After finding a really nice place for about $4 each per night with tv AND hot water (oh, the luxury!), we headed off in the general direction of the Night Market.

Oh, was that a terrible idea for my pocketbook.

The place was chockful of gorgeous handmade silk scarves, homemade paper, paintings and sculptures. The jewelry--earrings are my go-to presents for my sisters--was limited and not too exciting, but to be honest, initially I was too busy drooling over all of the scarves to notice. The girls literally had to drag me away from the booths in order to head over to a vegetarian buffet stall set up in an alley.

For the equivalent of one dollar, you can fill up one plate with piles of delicious vegetarian offerings, including some julienned vegetable salads, ramen noodles, rice and stir-fried vegetables (think cabbage, cauliflower). The cook then warms the pile of food with some oil and sauces in the wok behind the stall before handing it back for you to enjoy. Beer lao is, of course, available, as are spring rolls for an additional price.

My advice: Skip the spring rolls, add the beer lao, then head over to the long table down the alley. Wiggle onto the bench, grab a pair of chopsticks and chili sauce, and dig in. Oh, and don't get too freaked out when a cute cat appears out of nowhere and decides to hop on your lap halfway through the meal.

My second day in Luang Prabang, as deliciously cool as the first evening, began with a search for cooking schools in the area. I had planned to take a course at Tamarind, but ended up at the Three Elephant Cooking School, due to Tamarind's evident popularity. Turns out that I was lucky to get a reservation at the latter as well, and for good reason. But more on that later.

As I was saying, I reserved my spot at the cooking school for the next day, then met back up with the girls to plan a trip to a nearby waterfall.

Kouangxi Waterfall is a popular afternoon trip, which means entrance fees and tourists, but it was absolutely worth it. You start off walking down a path that draws you near a black bear resue center. After oohing and aahing and making comments about the adorable bears in front of you, you can head farther up through the forest to the waterfall.

And what a waterfall.

Before you even get to the main event, you pass through different levels where the ground has evened out a bit and formed lovely pools where you're allowed to swim. It was absolutely freezing, but there was no way I was going to miss out. In my mind, you just don't have nearly enough opportunities in life to swim in waterfalls. (Right, Katie?)

So in I went, freezing and unsuccessfully trying to stiffle a bloodcurling scream when my shoulders went under.

I even got up the courage to jump off of a tree into the swirling waters.

This place was paradise, without a doubt.

After toweling off and climbing back into the minivan that would take me back to the city, I dug into a delicious chicken and mayo baguette sandwich I'd packed. Now, this is just my opinion, but I found the baguette sandwiches--a staple throughout SE Asia, thanks to French colonization--to be the best in Laos. The chicken and mayo sandwich, loaded up with cucumber, lettuce and tomato, as well as chili sauce (ask for it, it's a must!), was a perfect combination of flavors and textures, the Laos version of its neighbor's more famous banh mi.

After a hot shower back at the hostel, my friend and I wandered around the main streets of Luang Prabang, admiring the French Colonial architecture.

We sat down once nightfall arrived to enjoy a Beer Lao, which turned into three, then headed back to the veggie buffet for another cheap meal.

Walking around the streets again after our meal, we were waved over by a few Laotian guys around my age. We ended up staying and drinking some more Beer Lao as they practiced their English on us. After a few hours of chatting, we joined them at a real Laos bar, and by real, I mean that my friend and I were the only non-Asians in the place. We even tried a traditional Laos bar food: boiled buffalo skin with chili-garlic sauce.

And no, I probably wouldn't recommend it.