Friday, January 11, 2008

Some larb in every wok

Nearly each day I give thanks for the existence of Thai food. With its delicately balanced perfection of hot, sour, sweet and salty -- and no small measure of peanuts -- Thailand's cuisine represents all that is good about human sustenance. (Italy's, too; don't forget the Italians! But that is another post.)

It is with continual glee, then, that our car just seems to steer itself to our local favorite Thai-Chinese restaurant. Though we don't visit there as much as we used to, in 2004-2005 it's safe to say we ate there at least three times a week. Taking a seat at the curved granite bar, we enjoyed what were, to us, the restaurant's halcyon days: the beer was served in tall, tall glasses; the bartender was quick with an unbelievably outrageous story and an invitation to the neighboring American Legion for gins, tonic and karaoke after his shift was over; and the larb -- or "lard," as it was misspelled on the menu -- was spicy and crunchy and salty and limey and divine.

We would often tune the bar TVs to "Cops" while we ate, and developed a deserved reputation among the servers for our unbridled joy at the misfortune of those running from the police down a Houston alley in the middle of the night. We planned our Australian honeymoon at that bar, with the help of another bartender who was eager to guide us through all her home state of Tasmania had to offer. And once we got to Tasmania, we sent her a postcard that she proudly displayed next to the vodkas; if another bartender would move it, she'd fume around, querying in her strongly-accented voice, "Where's my map of Tazzie?!?!" We wondered what it would be like to sip from the curvy liquor bottle with the entire dead snake curled up inside it, then we decided that there was never a time when we'd truly want to find out. (Leave such pursuits to Anthony Bourdain.) We slurped and twirled our chopsticks and rolled our lettuce wraps and imbibed -- curry chicken fried rice, spicy peanut tofu, pad thai, local beer on tap.

But, like all things, the best of times had to come to an end. The bartenders departed, for one reason or another. We got married and assumed a host of "adult" expenses, such as a mortgage and house repairs. Our other favorite spot in town announced it was closing its doors, so we focused our epicurean and financial energy on that establishment, while we could. We still frequent the Thai restaurant today, don't get me wrong. Our favorite bartender of all time is working there now, and goodness knows you gotta support your bartender. It's just that the restaurant no longer represents the same strange and marvelous configuration of weird personalities and unpredictable goings-on that it did a few years ago.

But, the silver lining. Always a silver lining! The food remains. And it inspired me to recreate the larb chicken at home, just to see if I could pull it off. I found a recipe from an Australian magazine that sounded about right, and set about with my fish sauce and my lemongrass to, as my husband says, "larb it up."

If I do say so myself, my homemade version is better than the restaurant's. It has a greater range of flavor, squarely hitting all four hot, sour, sweet, salty benchmarks. It contains mint, which from what I can taste is missing from the restaurant's version. And the best part of all, with my version you don't have to beg the kitchen for more iceberg lettuce to wrap the filling. You can just saw off another hunk and have at it.

Larb chicken probably doesn't remind you of "Cops" or Tasmanian bartenders or drunken karaoke versions of "Hip To Be Square." That doesn't mean you shouldn't dig in with ravenous gusto.


Adapted from The Australian Women's Weekly

2 T. peanut oil

1 lb. ground or finely chopped chicken (ground is easier, prep-wise, though I prefer the texture of finely chopped)

3 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced

2 dried red Thai chilies, reconstituted, seeded and minced (more if you like it hotter [and I do])

1 stick lemongrass, about 6 inches long, very finely sliced

1/4 c. freshly squeezed lime juice, plus a few extra tablespoons to deglaze the wok

1/4 c. fish sauce

1/2 c., packed, fresh mint, roughly chopped

1/2 c., packed, fresh cilantro, roughly chopped

1 head of iceberg lettuce, cut into wedges

1 lime, cut into wedges

4 T. toasted and ground rice, for garnish and critical texture deliciousness

Toast uncooked white rice in a small dry frying pan until it starts to take on some color and throw off a nutty aroma. Grind it in your handy coffee/spice grinder until it's the texture of something between couscous and sand. You definitely want some larger pieces for their pleasing crunch, but you don't want entire grains of rice. I grind more than 4 tablespoons of this at a time, and store it tightly covered in the pantry. That way, I am always ready to garnish larb. The doorbell rings, and it's a neighbor brandishing larb? There I am, armed with toasted rice. I'm telling you, stuff like this happens all the time.

Reconstitute the chilies in a mug of boiling water, just to get them pliable enough to work with. Cut off one end of each chili, and work as many of the seeds out as you can. You don't have to remove the seeds if you don't want to, but I don't find their texture or flavor very appealing. Finely mince the chilies, so that their heat can be evenly distributed throughout the finished dish.

Heat wok; add peanut oil and chicken. Stir-fry until the mixture is cooked through and, as Alton Brown says, GBD (golden, brown and delicious). Add shallots, red chilies and lemongrass to the chicken mixture. Cook for 1-2 minutes, until softened and fragrant. At this point, your kitchen should start smelling a tad like Bangkok, or at least like the staged version of Chess.

Transfer chicken mixture to a large bowl. Deglaze the wok with about 1/4 c. of water. Under no circumstances should you allow those concentrated, crusty bits of chickeny, lemongrassy, shalloty goodness to languish, unused, in the wok. Add the deglazing liquid, the 1/4 c. lime juice and the fish sauce to the chicken mixture in the bowl; stir to combine. Toss in the mint and cilantro. Check seasoning and adjust accordingly -- you might need to add a little more fish sauce or lime juice; let your heavily anticipating taste buds be your guide.

Spoon the larb into a lettuce cup and serve with lime wedges. Sprinkle with ground toasted rice (technically optional, but I wouldn't go without it if I were you).

This recipe is supposed to serve 4, but good luck with that. Husband and I can eat it in one sitting if we are hungry enough.

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