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.

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