Thai Larb Gai
Spring is rapidly moving on toward summer around here, and warmer weather just about always makes me start thinking about light yet filling dishes, with extra credit for plates that can be served cool or cold.
Dinner salads fill this bill nicely, and best of all, there's a world of splendid salad dishes that range from Tijuana's classic Caesar to Los Angeles' Cobb, the classic Niçoise of Provence and Italy's tasty antipasto plates that bring together sumptuous selections of salad greens, salame, olives and cheese.
Nor need dinner salads be limited to the Western table. In Southeast Asia, where tropical heat makes light, cool dishes desirable year-round, an exotic realm of salads awaits the hungry diner, and nowhere more so than in Thailand, where salads and spicy soups often serve as the centerpiece for the meal.
I love all the colorful cuisines of the region with their exciting spices and flavors, and would have a hard time choosing a favorite among Vietnamese, Malaysian, Indonesian, Thai and their neighbors, perhaps basing my favorite <i>du jour</i> on which nation's restaurant I happened to be standing nearest at the time.
Today let's make <I>Larb Gai</i>, a Thai chicken salad that in my experience is a usual menu selection at Thai restaurants in the U.S. This is my second run at this dish in recent years; reviewing the archives I see that I offered a similar dish, titled with the alternative spelling "laab," about 3 1/2 years ago at the end of 2003. Feel free to compare the recipes, which are similar but not identical. Either will make a reasonably authentic version.
INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)
8-12 ounces (240g-360g) cooked chicken meat without the bones
2 tablespoons (30g) uncooked white rice
1/4 cup (60g) fresh chopped cilantro leaves (reserve the stems for garnish)
2 green onions (scallions)
1/4 cup chopped Vidalia or other sweet onion
1/4 cup mint leaves thinly sliced into a fine chiffonade
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons <i>nam pla</i> (Thai fish sauce)
Sriracha sauce or other Southeast Asian red-chile sauce to taste
Chinese red-chile and garlic paste or Indonesian <i>sambal oelek</i> to taste
Iceberg or green romaine lettuce and, optionally for color contrast, radicchio or red Belgian endive
1 tablespoon peanut oil
1/2 tablespoon lime juice
1. Tear or cut the chicken into thin shreds. If you don't have leftover chicken and prefer to prepare it fresh, I suggest poaching it in water or chicken broth with plenty of garlic, fresh ginger and black peppercorns to infuse the meat with compatible aromatics.
2. Make roasted rice powder, a Southeast Asian flavoring that's surprisingly easy to fashion at home: Put the rice in a small, dry iron skillet and put it over a high flame, shaking it occasionally and keeping an eye on it. After a few minutes the rice will start to turn golden, then brown. Shake frequently so it will brown evenly. When it's colored with no white remaining, dump it into a mortar or pestle, mini-food processor or spice grinder and grind it to a powder about the consistency of dry sand.
3. Chop the cilantro leaves and the green onions, slice the mint leaves thin, and cut the sweet onions into paper-thin slices. Mix these and your roasted rice powder with the shredded chicken in a bowl, tossing with two forks until all the ingredients are well blended. Mix the lime juice and fish sauce and use this liquid to dress the chicken and and onion-herb mix.
4. Finally, season with Sriracha sauce and red-chile-garlic sauce to taste. If you want it mild, try starting with 1/4 teaspoon Sriracha sauce and 1/2 teaspoon red-chile-garlic sauce, or even a little less; but please be brave and don't omit them entirely. Even a harmless hint of piquant fire is better than none in this dish. If you're an asbestos-mouth chile lover, try 1 teaspoon Sriracha and a tablespoon of red-chile-garlic sauce, but don't say I didn't warn you. Alternatively, make the basic dish mild but pass the hot sauces at the table so everyone can do it their way.
5. You can serve the <i>Larb Gai</i> immediately or leave it refrigerated for 30 minutes to an hour to let the flavors blend. At serving time, shred the lettuces, dress them with a quick peanut oil-lime juice vinaigrette, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Place this green salad in a large bowl, mound the <i>Larb Gai</i> on top, and garnish with the cilantro stems snipped into short lengths. We served it with white rice to make a complete meal.
<B>MATCHING WINE:</B> As mentioned in yesterday's <I>30 Second Wine Advisor</i>, I served this with an aromatic Alsatian Pinot Blanc. The wine was imperfect but drinkable, redolent of wet wool and overripe melons, but the salad was bold enough to stand up to those flavors. A good Riesling or perhaps a Cremant de la Loire sparkling wine would also make a fine match.
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