KC 138 – Larb in Cabbage Cups

Why hello there, and welcome to Kitchen Catastrophes the place where yada yada alliterative phrase, yada yada implication of my unstable mental state. I’m your dude, Jon O’Guin. Sorry if this post isn’t as well-put-together as my other sterling examples of authorial diligence and wit, I’m a little hung over at the moment. And since I haven’t had a drink all day, and it’s 10 o’clock at night, you can guess that I’ve been that way for a while.

 See, Saturday was my 30th birthday, and in honor of that, I held a party where, among other things, I drank copious amounts of dubious drinks until around 4 in the morning. I made a drink that looked like Luke’s milk from A New Hope, another which tasted more like a meat marinade than a cocktail, and multiple shots of Fernet Branca, and generally demonstrating that, if nothing else, I certainly have the liver for a Supreme Court Nomination. Having achieved this towering tour of terrible libations, I passed out for 5 hours, then had to get up and, you know, continue the work and planning it takes to keep a house functioning.

That “bad Idea” I’ve been panicking about in the last couple posts? We’ve been cleaning the house for the party. Which may not sound like much, but that’s because you haven’t seen my family’s “junk room”, a room where I have friends over for board games, but predominantly serves as a storage room for the accumulated debris of 33 years of a family living in one house, plus the contents of 2 one-bedroom apartments after Nate and I moved back, and all the food, treats, and other weather-vulnerable components of raising chickens. Getting the house party-ready probably took a total of 75+ Man-hours over the last few weeks, and it wouldn’t have happened if not for the tireless efforts of my mother, Nathan, and Katie from last Thursday’s post helping out!  

But it’s done now, so I can…start packing and prepping for my trip on Wednesday, where I’ll be out of town for the next 12 weeks, and in a different location each month!  So I’m hung-over, tired, and still pressed for time. And I have no one to blame but myself, since these were all MY plans!

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Then again, My bed has roughly 10 blankets and 6-7 pillows on it, so I can’t even plan SLEEPING very well.

None of which is about today’s dish, I just wanted you to understand the tier of planning potential in a leader you’re dealing with here,  so you can understand that today’s dish is actually something of an impressive feat.

Slow Carbs At Play

In an ongoing theme of my life, while I was away, important changes occurred in my life or the life of those around me. Specifically, as I was in Leavenworth back in July, my brother adopted a new diet, as I’ve mentioned several times in the last months. And, as I’ve noted before is the default status for my family, I didn’t question it, I just accepted that it was a thing that was happening, and moved on.

Specifically, he’s adopted the Slow Carb diet, recommended by a…I’m going to call him a “lifestyle guru”, Tim Ferriss. Tim has a series of books based around similar concepts, see if you can spot it: He wrote the book “The Four Hour Workweek”, then “The Four Hour Body” and finally “The Four Hour Chef”. Tim’s work is quite interesting, and often can be broken down into a simple pattern: If Tim becomes interested in a pursuit or idea, he finds the undisputed masters or pinnacles of those ideas, and asks them for their tricks.

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HE also makes charts like this, which I’m sure convey some kind of conversation.

He used this to go from his first Tango lesson to competing in the World Championship of Tango in around 6 months’ time. I actually own his book Four Hour Chef, and I know my brothers own Four Hour Body.

Now, if you want to understand my brother’s general attitude in life, Captain Raymond Holt of the Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a valuable case study.

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Nate is the kind of guy whose position of happiness is no one immediately talking to or needing him.

As such, once he had a series of recommended food sources from the diet, he’s essentially eaten the exact same meal 4 times a day for the last month and a half, only varying the proteins used, and occasionally the seasoning used on said proteins. As a family member NOT on the same diet, it was my sovereign duty under Narrative Law to attempt to assist him in a bumbling but well-meaning manner, wasting his time and/or undermining his goals, but ultimately having good intentions, thus preventing him even the catharsis of true anger at my unhelpful actions.

As such, I scoured cookbooks for recipes that matched his diet, and came on one I’d actually been meaning to make anyway. This was a perfect opportunity to mix business with…something more mundane than pleasure, but similar. “Busybodying satistfaction, maybe”? So Let’s launch into LARB!

 

Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls, Stick to the Rivers and the Larbs that you’re used to.

There’s a deep cross-lingual joke in that title, I assure you. Only my Thai/Lao readers, or anyone with Wikipedia is likely to get it. Anyway, Larb is the unofficial national dish of Laos, which is, of course, a country. If you don’t know anything about Laos…well, you’re not really to blame for that, as America has never really cared about Laos, which is kind of fascinating, given our respective histories.

See, Laos is the only landlocked country on the Indochina peninsula, located between Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar/Burma, Thailand, and China.

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By the way, the reason you can call Myanmar “Burma” is kind of tragic. Basically, there was a military take-over in the 80’s, and the new leaders announced “We’re changing the name!” and like, half the country said…”Nah, we’re good.”
That argument went on for almost 30 years, with multiple conflicts and brief civil wars. It’s STILL kind of going on. So the Myanmar government told the rest of the world “Look, we get it’s been confusing, just use whichever one you want until we work this all out.”

It’s also a hilarious example of exactly the kind of fear-mongering that America was into in the 50’s and 60’s that we somehow never actually got around to caring about, because Laos went through a civil war from 1959-1975, before becoming a Stalinist Communist nation. And if that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s almost the exact same timeline and reasoning that got America into VIETNAM. It’s actually PROOF of the ‘domino’ theory, since the instant we pulled out of Vietnam, the North Vietnamese army lent a bunch of their power to the Laos communists, with the result that 6 months after Vietnam turned communist, Laos followed it! …At which point the “dominoes” stopped tumbling, showing that the danger of the theory was pretty vastly overstated.

Anyway, Laos has a dish called Larb. What is it? Well, it’s a salad. Specifically, a meat salad. And yes, meat salads are perfectly valid as “salads”. As I think I’ve covered before, but I could be wrong, the origin for ‘salad’ is Latin salata, and it referred to dishes that had been ‘salted’, because they’d been covered in a salty brine/oil & vinegar dressing. (Typically a sauce called garum,  which is most like modern day fish sauce.)  Which is a great point, because guess what salty sauce is a flavoring component for Larb?

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Why did I hear so many guesses for “Ketchup”? Why is your ketchup salty?

So it’s a meat salad. What kind of meat? Well…any meat you can get. Look, this is where things get a little sad. Remember how I said Laos is a Stalinist Communist country? Remember what happened with all the OTHER Stalinist, Communist countries? …yeah, Laos was the 29th Hungriest country in the world in 2015. As such, it’s telling that this, their national dish, is really just “whatever meat you have, tossed with herbs and dressing.”

The thing is, though, despite that, it’s a pretty appealing dish. You know like, Chinese/Thai Lettuce Wraps? That diced up mixture you put in the wrap? That’s basically Larb, with different flavors to the filling. Chinese-style wraps use flavors like ginger, scallion, soy sauce, etc. Thai wraps use red onion, brown sugar, soy and fish sauce, ginger and lime, a whole host of options. The larb I made is not a fully traditional larb, but it tries to mimic the flavors involved. Those flavors are: saltiness from fish sauce, heat from diced Thai chiles, sour from lime juice, herbal from mint, and a nutty warmth. In traditional Larb, this last flavor would be achieved with khao khoua, a flour made by toasting and grinding rice. Since that ingredient isn’t super common outside of Laos, we settle for toasting redskin peanuts.

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What are peanuts if not Brown Rice for elephants?
Legumes. The Answer is Legumes.

 

Larbing Life

Now, Larb is, conveniently, a “dump recipe”, my ongoing effort to establish a new food term for “recipes whose steps are mostly just when to dump the next ingredient into the pan or pot.” This is convenient because, well, it’s easy, and also because it helps minimize the mental load of the dish: you’re probably already working with some ingredients you’re not super-familiar with, like the Thai chiles, fish sauce, or lemongrass, so the fact that the dish is simple makes it a little more palatable, natch, for a home cook to try. These kind of recipes are also interesting to weird nerds like me, because they kind of highlight the arbitrary system of how to divide the steps of a recipe.

To explain that a little better: the recipe I used when making this dish has my first step be “roast skin-on peanuts for 8 minutes, cool, chop, and wait to serve”. That’s a perfectly valid step. But you could also just write that whole step as an ingredient “redskin peanuts, toasted and chopped”, like they did with “cooked short-grain rice” for serving. And if you do, this can be written as a 1 step recipe. OR, if you break up each time you add a new THING to the pot into its own step, you can push it up to 4 steps, or MORE if you totally remove all the implicit mise-en-place, like the rice. Why write “one stalk of lemongrass, thinly sliced” instead of “one stalk of lemongrass”, and then explain how to slice it?

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Of course, my grocery store was out of fresh lemongrass, so I just used a paste and avoided the question altogether.

But, for the sake of simplicity and numerical closure, we’re going with a 3 step recipe. Step one is toast your peanuts, and cook your rice. Once the peanuts are toasted, you’re going to chop/smash them into pieces, and set half of them aside for later.

Step 2 is make the Larb. This is a pretty straightforward procedure: you fry some minced garlic, add the meat of your choice (we used beef, the recipe itself suggests to sticking to beef, pork, or lamb), and frying together. Then, add almost every other ingredient: shallot, scallions, lemongrass, fish sauce, lime juice, and half the peanuts. Toss to combine, remove from the heat, and let cool for a minute or two before adding torn mint leaves.

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This kinda looks like sloppy joe mix without the sauce.


Taste it, and season as necessary. Boom, that’s the heart of the dish. Now, the recipe we had, courtesy of Bon Appetit, served the Larb in cabbage cups, which we thought was a fun alternative to lettuce cups. You had the cabbage, some rice, and lime wedges! So Nate could eat everything except the rice, making him part of the group!

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I mean, he can eat from 2/3rds of the dishes here, so I guess that makes him about 66% of a per-NOPE NOPE NOPE, THAT NUMBER AIN’T WORKING TODAY, BUDDY.

And the dish was perfectly adequate. The lettuce cups weren’t amazing, being just a little too firm for easy consumption, so either I should have cut larger cups out of the softer leaves, or maybe stuck with lettuce or some other greenery for serving. As a fan of Thai foods, the flavors of the dish were great for me, though the others thought the balance could be improved. I will say that this is one of the few meals I’ve made that didn’t have any left-overs: we ate ALL the larb in the first sitting. Whether that was a sign that it rated on the higher end of ‘fine’ or we were just hungry from cleaning all day, I’m unsure. But the dish is pretty simple, rather cheap, and pretty good, so I’d call it a success. Feel free to tweak the flavors and meats how you prefer when making it yourself, and see if you find a satisfying salad for your home.

THURSDAY: WE RETURN TO CULINARY COMPENDIUM, AND REVISIT “DIETS”, TO SUMMARIZE AND SLANDER (WELL, TECHNICALLY LIBEL) THE VARIOUS ‘FAD DIETS’ YOU CAN ENCOUNTER.

MONDAY:  I JUST REALIZED I NEVER TOOK PICTURES OF THE FINISHED NEXT MEAL I’VE PREPPED, SO I GUESS WE’RE STAYING IN INDOCHINA WITH SOME THAI NOODLE BOWLS.

RECIPE

LARB IN CABBAGE CUPS

Serves 4

 

Ingredients

½ cup raw skin-on peanuts

Short-grain white rice

Water

½ a head of cabbage.

2 limes, cut into wedges

2 tbsp vegetable oil

4 cloves of garlic, crushed

1 lb ground meat of your preference (beef, lamb, or pork recommended)

Salt

1 large shallot, thinly sliced

5 green onions, thinly sliced

4 or 5 Thai chiles, thinly sliced

1/3 stalk lemongrass, pounded, outer layers removed, and thinly sliced (or use prepared lemon grass, about 1 tbsp. )

2 tbsp fresh lime juice (do not use above lime wedges)

4 tsp (1 tbsp+1 tsp) fish sauce

 Up to 1 cup torn mint leaves (I used ½ a cup, because Nate is sensitive to Mint.)

 

Preparation

1.       Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Fill a rice cooker or saucepan with water, and prepare rice. Toast peanuts on baking sheet in oven for 6-8 minutes, shaking once halfway through. Cut cabbage into ‘cups’. This is easiest done by just cutting the half in half again, and peeling off the leaves.  Once the peanuts are toasted, cool slightly, then chop/crush into pieces, dividing in half.

2.       Heat oil in a large skillet until shimmering, over medium-high heat. Add garlic, and fry, crushing into smaller pieces, for 2-3 minutes, until pieces are starting to brown. Clear a space, add the meat, and some salt to the open space. Begin mixing and mashing meat and garlic together, cooking until no pink remains visible, roughly 5 minutes. Reduce heat, add one half of the peanuts, and all remaining ingredients except mint, and stir to combine. Remove from heat, add mint, and stir again.

3.       Taste larb for flavors, adding salt/lime if needed, and pour into a bowl. Serve with lime wedges, rice, cabbage, and remaining peanuts, for people to build as desired.