On a recent field trip to the Hudson Valley, the TT editors had the pleasure of being joined by the one and only Ruth Reichl for lunch. Her recommendation? Heading to chef Zak Pelaccio’s Malaysian restaurant, Backbar (you may remember Pelaccio from the Fatty Crab in NYC). Floored by the dishes and flavors this restaurant is putting out, we all agreed the highlight was the pork laab, traditional lettuce cups filled with spicy fried pork. For the uninitiated, it’s the perfect dish to acquaint you with Malaysian food.
This dish has a few ingredients you may not have worked with before but fear not: Pickled green peppercorns are just as they sound. Before being dried and making their way to your spice grinder, young peppercorns grow on stems. These fresh green peppercorns are snipped and pickled, and add a tangy spice to any dish. As for the ground rice, a common ingredient in dishes like laab, raw white rice is toasted until golden, then simply ground into a powder for a slightly crunchy, nutty garnish.
The pork shoulder needs to be thinly sliced for this dish. You can typically find this already cut in any Asian grocery store; if not, just pop your pork shoulder into the freezer for 20 to 30 minutes so the shoulder is firm but not frozen, then thinly slice it.
To learn more, read “Valley Gal.”
Malaysian Pork Lettuce Wraps (Pork Laab)
Recipe adapted from Backbar, Hudson, NY
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes
For the Laab Spice Blend:
3 tablespoons whole coriander seeds, toasted
2 teaspoons whole white peppercorns, toasted
1½ teaspoons Sichuan peppercorns, toasted
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, toasted
1 dried Indonesian red chile, toasted
1 tablespoon chile powder
For the Laab Paste:
5 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
One 3-inch piece ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
½ medium shallot, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
2 tablespoons laab spice blend
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons pickled green peppercorns
1 Thai chile, stemmed and thinly sliced
For the Laab:
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
2 pounds thinly sliced pork shoulder
Kosher salt, to taste
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons cilantro leaves, thinly sliced, plus whole leaves for garnish
1 red finger chile, thinly sliced
½ small red onion, thinly sliced
24 Bibb lettuce leaves, for serving
1 tablespoon long-grain white rice, toasted and ground, for garnish
1. Make the spice blend: In a mortar and pestle or spice grinder, grind the coriander, peppercorns, fennel seeds and Indonesian chile into a fine powder. Stir in the chili powder to incorporate, then set aside.
2. Make the laab paste: In a mini food processor, chop the garlic, ginger and shallot into a paste. In a small saucepan, heat the grapeseed oil over medium-high heat. Add the paste and cook until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the spice blend, salt and sugar, and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until golden, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl and stir in the pickled green peppercorns and the Thai chile, then set aside.
3. Make the laab: In a large cast-iron skillet, heat the grapeseed oil over medium-high heat. Season the pork with salt. Working in 3 batches, add a third of the pork shoulder to the pan and cook, stirring often, until golden brown and tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and repeat with the rest of the pork.
4. Once all of the pork is cooked, toss it with the lime juice, cilantro, chile, red onion and laab paste. Stir until all of the pork is evenly coated with the paste.
5. Place the lettuce cups on a platter and spoon the pork laab in the center of each. Garnish with cilantro leaves and the ground, toasted rice, then serve.