One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.

-Luciano Pavarotti and William Wright, "Pavarotti, My Own Story"

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Thai Chicken Lettuce Wraps a.k.a. Larb Gai


Phew. I hope everyone had a nice Thanksgiving! Mine was great fun, even though I drank a full bottle of champagne and felt kind of lousy the next day... But let's not talk about that! There was juicy turkey, mashed potatoes and apple-cranberry-maple pie and that's all that matters. Of course, now that the big feast is behind us, I have a huge craving for something light and healthy and not bloat-inducing. Larb gai is just such a dish.

Most people who have been to the popular Chinese-American restaurant chain P. F. Chang's are familiar with its chicken lettuce wraps. In fact, they have almost a cult following. I, on the other hand, cannot see the appeal of that dish, as the chicken filling is terribly bland. This Thai lettuce-wrapped chicken is much better. Imagine tender minced meat; its seasoning perfectly balanced - like all Thai dishes - between salty, sour and spicy; enlivened with a shot of lime juice and served with an exuberant shower of fresh herbs. Is your mouth watering yet?

The key to good larb is to use very fresh, crisp lettuce and herbs. Discard any browned or wilted leaves. The traditional herbs are mint and cilantro. I cannot abide the latter, so in keeping with the Thai theme of the dish, I substituted Thai basil, which tastes more anise-y than regular basil. Its stems are purple and the edges of the leaves are slightly serrated. You can see it next to the mint in the photo above. The substitution was delicious, but feel free to use cilantro if you can tolerate it. Be very generous with the herbs! The other key is to use fish sauce instead of soy sauce or salt. As I've said before, its pungent odor dissipates once it's added to the dish. Don't be afraid of it!

The ingredients for this dish can all be found at the supermarket. The only exception is the toasted rice powder, which is nothing more than roasted and ground up rice. It gives a nutty taste to the meat and thickens up the juices. of the meat Please don't omit this ingredient - you can make it in five minutes at home. Instructions follow the larb recipe. The amounts of seasoning that I've given are all approximate. You should set out small bowls of fish sauce, lime wedges and chili powder on the table so that each diner can further season his portion according to his preference. 

Larb Gai
I've substituted ground turkey for the chicken here. You can use any kind of white or red meat as long as it is not super lean. Add steamed sticky rice to each serving if you want to  make this into a more substantial meal. If you follow a gluten-free diet, make sure the fish sauce you buy doesn't include any gluten. Serves 4 as an appetizer or light main course.

1 lb (500 g) ground chicken or turkey
2 shallots, thinly sliced
Juice of one lime
1.5 tbsp fish sauce
1/2 tsp Thai chili powder (I used cayenne)
2 tbsp toasted rice powder (instructions below)
1 handful mint leaves, coarsely chopped
1 handful Thai basil leaves, coarsely chopped
12-16 lettuce leaves
Extra herb leaves and lime wedges to serve

1. Wash and dry the lettuce leaves in a salad spinner. Combine the lime juice, fish sauce, chili powder and shallots in a small bowl.

2. Heat a nonstick pan over medium heat. (If you don't have a nonstick pan, add a couple of spoonfuls of water or chicken stock before the meat.) Add the chicken or turkey and cook, stirring occasionally, until no pink shows. The meat will release its juices then reabsorb them.  Don't let it brown and don't let it reabsorb all the juices. It should be just-cooked and a bit moist.

3. Stir in the lime juice, fish sauce, chili and shallots and cook for 30 seconds. Add the toasted rice powder, stir for another 30 seconds and take off the heat. Taste and add more lime juice, fish sauce or chili powder if needed. Stir in the chopped herbs.

4. Serve with the lettuce leaves, extra herbs and lime wedges. Each diner should create his own wraps after adjusting the seasoning of his larb.





Toasted Rice Powder
The toasted rice is pulverized very easily in a spice or coffee grinder. I simply empty my pepper mill and grind it there.

1. Heat 2 tbsp of white rice in a small pan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until golden brown. Let cool, then grind to a powder. 


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