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July 31, 2013

Food for a steamy night: Larb's spicy ground meat, toasted rice

Ever ready to put fork or chop stick to the spiciest, strangest foods most people consider yucky, Sophia Padnos is a food adventurer. When I need someone to join me in Lowell for unpronounceable authentic Cambodian food, Sophia, who has eaten pig colon in Queens, not only agrees to come, but jumps for joy.

In last week’s heat, as Sophia and I planned our Cambodian trip, conversation strayed from Lowell to what to make for dinner that night. Our minds still in Southeast Asia, Sophia called out, “Larb!”

Boy, was she ever right. Larb, the national dish of Laos, is food for steamy nights. Ground meat — I used ground turkey, but pork, beef, chicken, duck and fish are all acceptable in Laos — is dressed with a lime, sugar and fish sauce. Fundamental to larb is toasting a handful of rice, grinding it in a mortar and pestle or food processor, and tossing the toasted, crunchy bits into the meat. This adds texture and taste that make the whole dish more mysterious than mere sauteed ground turkey and fish sauce. Add the toasted rice just before serving so it doesn’t become a mushy toasted taste.

Serve the seasoned meat over jasmine or sticky rice strewn with fresh herbs — cilantro, mint, basil in any combination or try all three. Cool leaves of bibb lettuce and cucumbers hedge the platter, doubling as beauty and utensils. Scoop rice and seasoned meat into the lettuce leaves, pour some mint tea, and turn your fan to high.

That’s how to keep dinner inspired in weather meant for gazing at the Mekong.

Here’s a little sad history culled from a quick scan of Wikipedia: The North Vietnamese used the country of Laos as a covert route to South Vietnam, inviting a U.S. bomb campaign that lasted for nine years.

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