There is something about the bright green heat of chiles, the tang of lime juice and the salty savor of fish sauce that I find absolutely irresistible.|

There is something about the bright green heat of chiles, the tang of lime juice and the salty savor of fish sauce that I find absolutely irresistible.

Combine these flavors with garlic, cilantro and mint and you can transform almost any type of meat or fish into a delicious salad in minutes. The flavors also work beautifully with certain vegetables, especially grilled zucchini and grilled eggplant.

This combination reaches its zenith in Thai and Laotian cuisines, especially in the salads known as larb, larp, laab and lahb. In Thai restaurants, larb is typically offered as an appetizer or a salad, though I can rarely resist ordering it as my main course. I generally prefer it made with pork (larb moo), though the version made with squid (larb pla muk) is a close second. The most common version in local restaurants these days is larb gai, made with ground chicken; it's not my favorite but it is fine when other versions are not available. Some restaurants will make larb moo if you ask, even if it isn't offered on the menu.

Larb is also very easy to make at home, especially if you stock your pantry with a few essential ingredients from an Asian market. First, you need a good fish sauce. Kasma Loha-Unchit, who writes the best Thai cookbooks I've seen and teaches cooking classes at her Oakland home, prefers Golden Boy brand; if you can't find it, read the ingredients label and buy a brand that has nothing more than fish, water and salt.

You'll also need ground toasted rice, which you can either buy or make yourself by toasting raw glutinous rice in a dry skillet until it is golden brown and fragrant and then grinding it in a clean coffee grinder. Finally, you'll need either dried galanga, which you'll need to toast and grind, or commercial toasted and ground galanga. With these ingredients in your pantry, you're all set to make some of the world's most delicious salads, perfect as the weather warms and our appetites turn from winter comfort foods to lighter and brighter dishes.

This is the version I make most often at home. We have excellent lamb in the North Bay and I find it perfectly suited to the flavors of the salad. You may use ground beef, turkey, pork, chicken, small squid (separate the bodies and tentacles and slice the bodies into thin rounds) or even minced fish without adjusting other ingredients.

Thai Salad with Lamb

Makes 3 to 4 servings

3 cups shredded green cabbage

1 carrot, preferably Nantes, cut into thin julienne

1 Armenian or English cucumber, cut into matchstick-sized julienne

1/2 small red onion, cut into very thin slices

2 green onions, white parts only, very thinly sliced

1 1 serrano chile, seeded and very thinly sliced

1/2 cup fresh mint leaves, preferably spearmint, torn into pieces

1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves

5 to 6 garlic cloves, crushed

-- Kosher salt

1 small shallot, minced

1 or 2 serranos, seeded and minced

1 fresh lemongrass stalk, bulb only, cut into thin rounds, optional

1 teaspoon peanut or sesame oil

1 1/2 pounds ground lamb

1 tablespoon toasted and ground dried galanga

4 tablespoons fish sauce (nahm bplah), plus more as needed

-- Juice of 3 limes, plus more as needed

2 teaspoons sugar, if needed

2 tablespoons ground toasted rice (available at Asian markets)

-- Mint, cilantro and Thai basil sprigs, for garnish

Put the cabbage, carrot, cucumber, red onion, green onion, sliced serrano, mint leaves and cilantro leaves into a bowl, toss and set aside.

Put the garlic into a suribachi or large mortar, sprinkle with a pinch or two of salt and use a wood pestle to begin to crush it into a paste. Add the shallot, minced serranos and lemongrass, if using, and continue to crush and grind until fairly smooth. Set aside.

Pour the peanut oil into a wok, set over high heat, add the lamb and cook, stirring constantly, until it loses its raw color. Remove from the heat and fold in the garlic mixture and the galanga. Add the fish sauce and lime juice and taste, adding more fish sauce and more lime juice until there is a good balance of acid and salt. If the flavors don't quite come together or if the mixture tastes flat, add the sugar and toss thoroughly. Add the toasted rice and toss again.

Working quickly, divide the cabbage mixture among large soup plates or other large plate and top with the lamb mixture and all of the juices that have collected in the wok. Garnish with herb sprigs and serve at once.

As with the previous recipe, you can use any ground meat you prefer in this dish.

Thai-style Pork in Romaine Leaves

Makes 2 to 4 servings

1 head Romaine lettuce, rinsed, large outer leaves reserved for another purpose

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

-- Scant 1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes

-- Zest of 2 limes

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

2 tablespoons ground toasted rice (available at Asian markets)

1 serrano chile, minced

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice (from 1 to 2 limes)

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, preferably spearmint, cut into thin julienne

1/3 cup fresh cilantro leaves

2 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon sesame seeds, lightly toasted

Separate the lettuce leaves from the central stalk and cut them crosswise into 3 to 4 inch pieces. Set aside.

Heat the peanut or olive 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, galanga 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, set the dish on a platter, and surround with the lettuce leaves. Serve the remaining sauce and the sesame seeds in small bowls, alongside.

Guests spoon some of the pork into a lettuce leaf, add a drizzle of sauce and a few sesame seeds, roll up the leaf, and eat it in a single bite.

Variation: Slice the lettuce into 1/4 inch-wide crosswise strips and divide it among individual plates or bowls. Spoon the pork on top, drizzle with the remains sauce, sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve.

This is the first Thai salad I ever tasted, in a little restaurant in Ashland, Ore., in the late 1980s. It was a revelation, and when I returned to Sonoma County, I immediately began experimenting until I captured the compelling alchemy of flavors. I've been making it ever since.

Thai Lime Beef Salad

Makes 2 to 4 servings

-- Thai Lime Chile Sauce (recipe follows)

10 to 12 ounces thick New York or similar steak, preferably local and grass-fed, off the bone

-- Kosher salt

-- Black pepper in a mill

6 cups, approximately, fresh young salad greens

1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves

1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, preferably spearmint

4 mint sprigs

1 lime, quartered

Prepare the sauce and set it aside.

Set a stovetop grill or ridged skillet over high heat. Season the steak all over with salt and pepper and when the pan is very hot, add the steak. For grass-fed beef, cook for 90 seconds, rotate 45 degrees and cook for 1 minute; turn the steak over and repeat. For corn-fed beef, cook for 90 seconds, rotate 45 degrees and cook for three minutes; turn the steak over and repeat. Transfer the steak to a plate, cover with a lid or sheet of aluminum foil and let rest about 3 minutes for grass-fed and 5 minutes for corn-fed.

Put the salad greens, cilantro and mint into a large bowl, toss gently and divide among 4 plates.

Cut the meat across the grain into 1/8-inch thick slices. Arrange the meat over the greens and drizzle with sauce, using all of it. Garnish with a mint sprig and a lime wedge and serve immediately.

Thai Lime Chile Sauce

Makes about 1/4 cup

5 garlic cloves, minced

3 to 4 serranos, minced

1 tablespoon fish sauce

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice (from 1 to 2 limes)

2 teaspoons sugar

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Set aside until ready to use.

Michele Anna Jordan hosts "Mouthful" each Sunday at 7 p.m. on KRCB 90.9 & 91.1 FM. E-mail Jordan at michele@micheleannajordan.com. You'll find her blog, "Eat This Now," at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com/

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