Last September, a small publishing house reached out to me wondering whether I’d be interested in creating a book about hearty, substantial salads. The easiest answer, of course, was yes. Because I love produce almost to the point of obsession, and so much of what I eat on a daily basis can be classified, loosely, as salad. But the timing wasn’t right with that book, and ultimately it was decided not to proceed.
I am glad for that. I wasn’t ready, then, to take on the monumental work of writing and photographing a book, though I did enjoy indulging endless brainstorms around creative salads. But also, there are people who were ready, and who were already at it. There is a small cluster of new salad books on the market, and among them Salad for Dinner is a standout. It’s a gorgeously produced book of classic and inventive salads, all standing up to the weight of being a meal’s worth of food.
And larb, that unfortunately named but delicious dish of northern Thailand and Laos, has been on my to-make list for ages, ever since I read about it on Orangette. Author Jeanne Kelley smartly says of the dish, “Larb is a dumpy name for a sexy salad.” And she’s right. This salad is a riot of wonderful, bright flavors: the mint and the basil, the fish sauce, the fresh lime, the lemongrass, the spicy chile and chili paste, the green onions. All the hallmarks of Thai flavors that make it so easy to be enamored with the cuisine. Even though it’s a rainy day here in San Francisco, I’ve got my sights on spring, on longer evenings and outdoor dining, and this salad is a nod in that direction.
THAI LARB CHICKEN SALAD
Adapted from Salad for Dinner
Yield: 4 servings
Note: Vegetarians can easily substitute tofu for the chicken. The fish sauce can be substituted with soy sauce, though some flavor will be lost.
For the salad:
1.5 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thigh meat, diced
3/4 cup coarsely chopped shallots
2 tablespoons minced, fresh lemongrass
3 kaffir lime leaves, thinly sliced
1 small Thai green chile, seeded and sliced
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1 red bell pepper, halved and thinly sliced
1 cup cucumber slices
1 cup loosely packed mint leaves
2 green onions, thinly sliced
1/4 cup torn basil leaves
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Bibb or green leaf lettuce leaves for serving
For the dressing:
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
3 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons chili-garlic sauce or 1 teaspoon sambal oelek (can substitute Sriracha in a pinch)
First, prepare the dressing. Whisk together the lime juice, brown sugar, fish sauce and chili garlic sauce. Set aside until ready for use.
Combine the chicken, shallots, lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaves, chile and fish sauce in a food processor. Pulse until coarse.
Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil. Add the chicken mixture and fry, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 12 minutes.
Meanwhile, combine the bell pepper, cucumber, mint, basil and green onions.
Arrange the lettuce leaves on four plates. Divide the red pepper mixture evenly amongst the plates. Top with the chicken mixture.
Serve the dressing on the side.