Chef Ann Redding grew up visiting her family in Ubon province in northeastern Thailand, where she learned to cook and love laab (ลาบ), the region’s famously tart and spicy minced-meat salad. When she and her husband, fellow Per Se vet Matt Danzer, opened Uncle Boons in Nolita last year, they took an omnivore’s approach to making Thai food, cherry-picking their favorite dishes from around the country—including an impressionistic ode to that funky, fiery salad she remembered as a kid.
In Thailand, laab is commonly made with ground pork, catfish, or mushrooms, but Redding didn’t want a nostalgic carbon-copy. Instead, she and Danzer opted to make the Uncle Boon’s cheffed-up version with ground lamb shoulder, which helps it stand out from the endless iterations of the dish spanning the five boroughs. “I really like lamb, and I thought it would go well with the mint,” she says. The meat is lightly fried in chili oil, then tossed with chilies, fresh herbs, toasted rice powder, and a fish sauce-based dressing. It’s eaten with warm sticky rice, as well as lime juice to help cut through the fattiness of the meat.
The best part of this recipe is that the only time-consuming elements—toasted rice powder and the dressing—can be made in advance. In terms of assembly, all you have to do is quickly cook the meat and toss everything together in a bowl. “Laab is one of the simplest dishes to make, because it doesn’t have a curry base or curry sauce,” says Redding. It’s also insanely addictive, and awesome eaten out of the fridge the next day (kind of like pizza).
Here’s a step-by-step guide to recreating Uncle Boon’s lamb laab at home.
How to Make Laab à la Uncle Boons
Makes 2 servings
For the toasted rice powder:
* 1 cup sticky rice (also called “sweet rice” at Asian grocery stores)
* 2 tablespoons thinly sliced galangal (optional)
* 2 tablespoons thinly sliced lemongrass (optional)
For the laab dressing:
* ¾ cup fish sauce (Ann recommends Golden Boy brand)
* 3 cloves garlic
* 1 teaspoon ground chili powder
* 2 red Thai bird chiles
* ½ cup lime juice
* ½ cup white vinegar
* 1 oz palm sugar
* 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro root and stems
* ¼ cup sliced galangal
* ¼ cup blended oil
For the laab salad:
* 8 oz course-ground lamb shoulder
* ¼ cup sliced shallot
* ¼ cup sliced cucumber
* ¼ cup cilantro leaves
* 2 tablespoons mint leaves
* 2 tablespoons sliced scallions
* 2 tablespoons julienned sawtooth herb (optional; see note)
* cooked sticky rice
* raw cabbage wedges
* lime wedges
NOTE: Hard-to-find Thai ingredients can be purchased at Bankok Center Grocery in Manhattan’s Chinatown.
How to make it:
1. Make the toasted rice powder. Spread 1 cup sticky rice out on a sheet tray. Roast the rice in a preheated 400°F oven at for approximately 55 minutes, or until very dark brown. “Take your time toasting the rice to make sure it’s dark enough and not raw in the middle,” says Redding. “Toasted rice is the key to this recipe; it’s a game-changer.”
Next, toast the thinly-sliced lemongrass and galangal in a 350°F oven for 15-20 minutes (or until golden and dried out). Grind the toasted rice, lemongrass, and galangal to a fine powder in a spice grinder or blender. The rice powder will keep in the freezer for months.
2. Make the laab dressing. Combine the following ingredients in a blender: fish sauce, garlic, chili powder, chiles, lime juice, vinegar, palm sugar, cilantro, galangal, and blended oil. Blend until combined, and set the dressing aside. (This keeps for one week in the fridge.)
3. Cook the meat. Heat 1 tablespoon blended oil in a skillet over high heat until it starts to smoke. Add the ground lamb to the pan. Season well
with salt and ½ teaspoon chili powder. Sear the lamb until almost cooked through and turn off the heat.
Add the cilantro leaves, mint leaves, sawtooth herb, and sliced scallion. Roughly tear the herbs with your hands as you’re adding them.
And 2 tablespoons toasted rice powder. “That’s where all the flavor and nuttiness comes from,” says Danzer.
Add ¼ cup laab dressing and mix well. Taste to determine if you want to add more dressing, lime, or herbs.
Serve on a small platter with raw cabbage wedges and a lime wedge. Eat with sticky rice. “I like to put leftovers in the fridge, and eat the cold laab with warm rice. It’s the same concept as eating cold pasta or pizza from the fridge.”
*NOTE: Sawtooth herb (also called “culantro”) is similar to cilantro, although much stronger. You can find sawtooth herb (pictured below) at Thai grocery stores or your local Chinatown.
Eat this dish from the source! Uncle Boons, 7 Spring St (646-370-6650, uncleboons.com)