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Ways to make larb, a refreshing warm salad

Do you remember playing telephone? It begins with people, typically kids, sitting around a table. One person whispers something into the ear of the next person, who in turn whispers it to the person next to them, and on and on it goes, until the person who started it hears what it has become and shares the original and end, often garbled, result. It is rare that the two have much in common.

Recipes can be like that, too. The further you get from the original source, the more changes a dish undergoes. I’m thinking of this now because I am a big fan of larb, a salad typically made of ground meat or fish, a few spices and herbs, citrus and fish sauce.

This dish in its myriad variations can be called larb, laab laap and several other similar names. It is the national dish of Laos and can be found on most Thai and Vietnamese restaurant menus in the U.S. It is always on Lao menus, though we do not have a strictly Lao restaurant in Sonoma County.

Although I love larb year-round, I find it particularly welcome in hot weather. It is light, refreshing and not overly filling. It is also quite versatile. You can serve the warm salad over almost any type of fresh green or enjoy alongside or atop steamed rice. You can wrap each bite in a piece of Romaine lettuce or spoon it, as I often do, over thinly sliced raw cabbage.

Most local restaurants that offer larb on their menus use ground chicken, but sometimes they have other options, if you ask. One of the best versions I’ve had features ground duck. Larb also can be made with ground turkey, ground beef, ground lamb, minced shrimp, minced fish and very small squid.

I have been making this dish for so long that I no longer remember its genesis, though I am pretty certain it is an American version of the classic dish. Traditional Lao and Thai recipes typically have fewer ingredients, with no garlic, ginger, galangal, citrus zest or cilantro. One of the reasons for fewer ingredients, especially in the versions from Laos, is that they use their local fish sauce, known as padaek. It is thicker, funkier and much stronger than what we have here.

Thai-style Pork Larb

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 tablespoon peanut oil or mild olive oil

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated

1 pound ground pork

½ teaspoon red pepper flakes

Zest of 2 limes

2 teaspoons toasted and ground dried galangal (available at Asian markets)

2 tablespoons roasted rice powder (available at Asian markets)

1 serrano chile, seeded and minced

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

2 tablespoons fish sauce

⅓ cup fresh spearmint leaves, cut into thin julienne

⅓ cup fresh cilantro leaves

2 teaspoons sugar

3 or 4 green onions, trimmed and very thinly sliced

1 teaspoon sesame seeds, lightly toasted

½ small green cabbage, core removed, very thinly sliced

Heat the oil in a saute pan over medium-low heat, add the garlic and ginger and saute for 1 minute. Add the pork and cook, breaking it up with a fork, until it loses its raw look. Stir in the red pepper flakes, lime zest, galangal and toasted rice and remove from the heat.

In a small bowl, mix together the serrano, lime juice, fish sauce, half the mint, half the cilantro and the sugar. Drizzle half of the sauce over the pork and toss quickly.

To serve, put the pork in a serving dish and scatter the green onions and sesame seeds on top. Divide the sliced cabbage among individual plates or bowls and let guests spoon the pork on top. Pass the remaining dressing and enjoy right away.

This recipe comes from “The Original Thai Cookbook” (Perigee Books, 1981) by Jennifer Brennan. I’ve made one change, substituting a poblano for a green bell pepper, which I do not care for raw as the flavor tends to overpower all other ingredients. If you enjoy steak tartare, you’ll love this, too. If you have a fear of raw meat, just pass it by; there are plenty of other ways to enjoy this combination of flavors.

Laap Issan (Chopped Raw Beef Salad)

Makes 3 to 4 servings

4 very small dried red chiles, seeded

1 pound top round of beef, preferably grass-fed, ground

1 tablespoon roasted rice powder (available at Asian Markets)

Juice of 2 limes

3 lemongrass stalks, fat bulb only, minced

1 red onion, minced

1 poblano, stemmed, seeded and cut into small dice

⅓ cup fresh spearmint leaves

1 tablespoon fresh cilantro leaves, optional

2 tablespoons nam pla (fish sauce)

16 to 20 small lettuce leaves

Put the dried chiles into a mortar or suribachi and use a wood pestle to crush and grind them into a powder.

Put the meat into a medium bowl; add the chiles, rice powder, lime juice, lemongrass, onion and poblano and use your hands to mix thoroughly.

Tear half of the mint leaves into small pieces, add them to the meat and mix to blend thoroughly. Add the cilantro, if using, and the fish sauce and mix again.

Mound the meat in the center of a serving plate and garnish with the remaining mint leaves. Surround the meat with lettuce leaves and enjoy right away by topping a lettuce leaf with a spoonful of the meat mixture.

The secret to making this dish successfully is to cook the mushrooms until they are fully tender and the edges have just begun to caramelize. To make this dish vegan, use a vegan fish sauce; there are several commercial versions. It is naturally gluten free, as most larb is.

Mushroom Larb

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 pound mushrooms of choice (see Note below)

2 tablespoons peanut oil or mild olive oil

2 shallots, minced

1 serrano, seeded and minced

2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger

1 tablespoon roasted rice powder

½ teaspoon sugar

Juice of 2 limes

2 tablespoons nam pla, plus more to taste

3 tablespoons fresh spearmint leaves, torn into small pieces

2 tablespoons fresh cilantro leaves

3 green onions, white and green parts, thinly sliced

Small mint sprigs, for garnish

Set the mushrooms on a clean tea towel and brush away any dirt that clings to them. Break or chop the mushrooms into small pieces, as described in the note. Set them aside.

Pour the oil into a heavy saute pan set over medium-low heat, add the shallots and serrano and saute gently until soft and fragrant, about 7 minutes. Add the ginger and cook 1 minute more.

Add the mushrooms, stir and cook very gently until the mushrooms soften and give up their liquid. Continue cooking until any liquid released by the mushrooms has all but vanished. Stir in the rice powder, sugar, lime juice and nam pla. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more fish sauce if it seems a bit flat.

Remove from the heat and stir in the mint and cilantro leaves. Transfer to a serving bowl, scatter the green onions on top, garnish with mint sprigs and enjoy right away.

Note: You can use whatever mushrooms you like in this dish, but you need to tailor your prep based on the variety. For button, white, crimini and portobello mushrooms, chop them into ¼-inch dice. For maitakes, breaking them into little pieces is best. Trumpet Royales are best diced, and oyster mushrooms should be broken into little pieces.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books, including “Vinaigrettes and Other Dressings.” Email her at michele@micheleannajordan.com.

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