Oh, Good Larb

Waves of heat ripple across the surface of the wok, a thin layer of oil shimmering in the late afternoon sun. Power dial turned up all the way to 10, intense heat emanated from the stove, setting a controlled conflagration ablaze right within reach. With one fell swoop, our fearless culinary guide and adept chef sent verdant handfuls of tender green vegetables flying, sizzling violently against the carbon steel, instantly searing upon contact. One minute later, the meal was served; blink and you’d miss the whole show.

The beauty of larb, otherwise written as laab, lahb, larp, laap, or lahp and prepared just as many different ways, is that it comes together in a flash, even if you don’t have the same kitchen confidence as bay area food guru Philip Gelb. Under his guidance, I encountered my favorite version of this Laotian and Thai dish, lightly charred by the kiss of the wok and brilliantly perfumed with a bouquet of fresh herbs and spices. Stunningly simple in composition yet impossibly complex in flavor, every bite was a new revelation. It’s the kind of combination that can never get boring, offering a fresh experience with every mouthful, and opportunities for different variations with every passing season.

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed many riffs on this timeless theme, sometimes with a delightful discovery of tender green asparagus or the unmistakable umami of chopped mushrooms sprinkled throughout. Even in the heat of summer, that man-made inferno is short lived, smoldering on only in flavor, and tempered by the cooling foil of crisp lettuce cups for serving. It’s well worth that fleeting moment in the fire.

Tempeh Larb

By Chef Philip Gelb of Sound & Savor

2 Tablespoons Raw Brown Rice

3 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
3 Tablespoons Palm Sugar
1/4 Cup Lime Juice

8 Ounces Tempeh, Cut into 1/4-Inch Cubes
Oil for Frying

2 Tablespoons Coconut Oil
1 Stalk Fresh Lemongrass, Minced
4 Cloves Garlic, Minced
3 Teaspoons Ginger, Minced
1 – 10 Thai Chilies, Minced
1/2 Cup Green Peas, Fresh or Frozen
1/2 Medium Red Onion, Diced
1/4 Cup Fresh Thai Basil, Chopped
1/4 Cup Fresh Mint, Chopped
1/4 Cup Fresh Italian Basil, Chopped
1/4 Cup Fresh Cilantro, Chopped

Crisp Lettuce Leaves, Such as Romaine or Bibb Lettuce, to Serve

In a hot frying pan over medium-low heat, dry toast the raw rice. Shake the pan continuously for 2 minutes until the rice smells nutty. Transfer to a mortar and pestle and crush it until it’s powdery. Set aside.

Combine the soy sauce, palm sugar, and lime juice and set aside.

Deep fry the tempeh until crisp and golden brown. Set side.

Place the coconut oil in a hot wok. Add the lemongrass, garlic, ginger, and as many chilies as you like. Stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add the peas and onion and stir-fry for another minute. Add all of the fresh herbs and cook for only 10 seconds before add the soy sauce mixture. Give it just 1 more minute on the stove before turning off the heat.

Add the toasted rice powder and fried tempeh and stir everything together. Serve with lettuce leaves and let diners wrap parcels of larb with the lettuce.

Makes 2 – 3 Servings

Printable Recipe

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No More Street Meat

Right now, right at this very moment, a ponderous line is snaking its way down the sidewalks of downtown Berkeley, roiling with ravenous foodies clamoring for a taste of what some have called the best Halal food in the entire country. It doesn’t matter what time you’re reading these words; I guarantee that line still persists, waxing and waning well into the darkest hours of the night, thinning but remaining ever-present even once the doors shut for a brief reset in the morning. The hype behind New York’s famous Halal Guys is no joke. Even though their first outpost in the bay area is fully accessible in downtown San Francisco, the demand for these middle eastern platters of street meat has reached fever pitch.

Rarely have I read reviews so overstuffed with outrageous hyperbole; you’d think these writers were describing lucid dreams after one too many drinks, or perhaps something a bit stronger. From the glowing golden rice, infused with a mysterious savory flavor that no one can quite agree on, to the legendary “white sauce” described as a particular excretion from an angelic source, it’s hard to believe that any real life experience could ever live up to such bold advertising.

Though halal truly refers to the method of slaughter, deemed acceptable by Muslims to eat in good faith, the concept has come to simply indicate a sort of middle eastern cart cuisine, strong on spices, quick and easy to eat on a brief lunch break, and always there for you after a late-night binge. Such culture really only exists in NYC, but cravings know no boundaries, and so that same style of food has begun to take root on the opposite coast.

Allow me to tempt you to step out of line for a meatless rendition that needs no breathless amplification to sell itself. Leave the social media madness behind and focus on the flavor here. Tempeh soaks in all the rich, nuanced spices of a deceptively simple marinade to pack all the protein punch you could ever ask for. Load it up in a generous mound over fluffy, fragrant yellow rice, lavish it with white sauce of more reputable origin, and finish the plate with a few fresh garnishes for the complete experience.

Sure, it’s no 10-minute meal, but every single second is worth the wait for this unrivaled flavor explosion. Each piece is quite winsome in its own right, but the harmony that happens when the whole platter is united is difficult to describe in words. It’s something that must be experienced to be fully understood, just like the original inspiration.

Besides, you’ll still easily work your way through the whole process in half the time it would take to arrive at the front of that interminable line.

Halal Cart Tempeh Platter

Tempeh Shawarma:

2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
1 Tablespoon Soy Sauce
2 Tablespoons Fresh Oregano
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Coriander
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Cumin
5 Cloves Garlic, Minced
3 Tablespoons Olive oil
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
2 (8-Ounce) Packages Tempeh, Cubed
1/2 Cup Finely Diced Yellow Onion

Yellow Rice:

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Turmeric
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Coriander
2 Cups Vegetable Stock
1 Cup Jasmine or Basmati Rice
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper

White Sauce:

1 (5.3-Ounce) Container Plain Vegan Yogurt
2 Tablespoons Tahini
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar
1/2 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
2 Tablespoons Fresh Mint, Minced
1/4 Teaspoon Salt

To Serve
:

Shredded Romaine Lettuce or Cabbage
Tomatoes, Sliced or Cut into Wedges
Pita Bread, Lightly Toasted and Cut into Wedges
Harissa

The longer you can let the tempeh marinate, the better, so begin preparing this meal at least 2 hours in advance, if not a full day. Start by whisking together the lemon juice, soy sauce, spices and herbs, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Mix well and add in the cubed tempeh and onions, tossing thoroughly to coat. This is also fantastic to prepare in a zip-top plastic bag to ensure complete coverage and an airtight seal. Place the mixture in your fridge and let rest for an hour at minimum, and 24 hours at best, before proceeding.

When you’re ready to cook the meal, get the rice started so that it’s hot and ready when you are. Place the olive oil in a medium saucepan over moderate heat, swirling it to coat the bottom. Sprinkle in the turmeric and coriander, sauteing very briefly just to toast the spices and allow their full flavors to develop. Deglaze the pan with the vegetable stock, stirring well to ensure that there are no spices sticking at the bottom, and add in the rice, salt, and the pepper. Cover, bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to low. Simmer gently for about 20 minutes until all the liquid has been absorbed. Let rest for 5 minutes and fluff with a fork.

Meanwhile, return your attention to the marinated tempeh. Set a large skillet over medium-high heat and bring it up to temperature before dumping in the entire contents of the zip-top bag. Don’t be alarmed if it immediately begins to sizzle and smoke; that’s what you want to see! Spread out the cubed tempeh so that it’s arranged an an even layer, with full contact on the skillet. Let cook, undisturbed, for at least 5 minutes until browned on the first side. Flip and continue to cook, repeating until all sides are golden and crispy.

For the white sauce, simply whisk together all of the ingredients until smooth.

Finally, you’re ready to serve! Layer a sturdy base of fluffy golden rice on each plate, followed by a mound of hot tempeh. Drizzle generously with white sauce and garnish with any or all of the suggested accompaniments. Offer a dish of harissa paste or any other hot sauce on the side. Devour immediately!

Makes 4 – 5 Servings

Printable Recipe

Octo-Brrr!

Forget about easing into the new month- Practically overnight, temperatures plummeted straight into sweater-and-jacket territory, wasting no time with autumn’s typically mild but brisk breezes this year. Forced to pull out my electric blanket and cranking it up to “scald,” I might as well take up sleeping in the oven at this rate!

Indeed, it looks like we’re on the cusp of a rather harsh season, with the skies growing darker earlier each day. With summer quickly becoming but a distant memory, all that can be done is to steel oneself against the cold, and for that, there is only one dish that will truly suffice: Chili.

Everyone’s got their own recipes, tiny twists on the same basic concept, but those small differences and adaptations are what really makes each fresh pot so special. I think that a bowl of red can say a lot about a cook, far beyond basic knife skills or flavor preferences.

What’s the protein? Beans are mandatory in my mind, while it may very well be sacrilege to die-hard omnivores and traditionalists. What about veggies? The more the merrier, please! My only limitations are what I happen to have in the fridge; Nothing’s safe when I’m cooking up a big vat of chili. Oh, and the spices! Are you a fan of intense, red hot, mouth-searing spoonfuls? Preferring flavor over heat, my approach may be defined as mild, and you know what? I’m perfectly okay with that. Spice at will, dump that hot sauce into your own portion, but this allows everyone the level of heat they can best appreciate.

And so it goes, my chili is unabashedly vegan, very healthy, nontraditional, and generally agreeable.

What does your chili say about you?

Yield: Makes 6 – 8 Servings

Veggie-Tempeh Chili

Veggie-Tempeh Chili
A very vegan chili that's heavy on the vegetables and unafraid of spice.
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour 25 minutes
Total Time 1 hour 40 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
  • 1 Medium Onion, Chopped
  • 2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
  • 2 Medium Carrots, Chopped
  • 2 Stalks Celery, Chopped
  • Pinch Salt
  • 1 14.5-Ounce Can Diced Tomatoes
  • 1 – 2 Tablespoons Chili Powder
  • 1 Teaspoon Ground Cumin
  • 1 Teaspoon Dried Oregano
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Red Pepper Flakes
  • 1/4 Teaspoon Cayenne Pepper
  • 1 8-Ounce Package Tempeh, Sliced into Cubes
  • 1 Medium Yellow Squash or Zucchini, Chopped
  • 1 Medium Red Bell Pepper, Seeded and Chopped
  • 1 Cup Vegetable Broth
  • Pinch Black Pepper
  • 1 15-Ounce Can Black Beans, Rinsed and Drained

Instructions

  1. In a large stock pot, heat up the oil over a moderate flame, and toss in the chopped onion. Saute for 4 – 5 minutes, until translucent, and add in the minced garlic. Let cook for another 2 minutes or so before add in the carrots and celery, along with just a small pinch of salt to help draw out the water from the vegetables. Stir occasionally, for about 5 – 8 minutes, until the veggies begin to brown around the edges stick to the bottom of the pan a bit.
  2. At that point, you can go ahead and incorporate everything else- except for the beans. I find that they get mushy if you add them in so soon in the process, but if you’re starving and can’t stand to let this thing simmer for too long, dump them in at will. I promise that the flavors will only get better with a longer cooking time, though!
  3. Stir well to distribute the new ingredients, turn down the heat to low, cover the pot, and let simmer gently for 30 – 60 minutes, depending on how long you can control your hunger. Add in the beans just 5 – 10 minutes before serving, to make sure they’re warmed through.

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

8

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 165 Total Fat: 6g Saturated Fat: 1g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 4g Cholesterol: 0mg Sodium: 447mg Carbohydrates: 21g Fiber: 7g Sugar: 5g Protein: 11g