Hosting dinner parties out of my sad grad school apartment kitchen taught me a lot about the art of entertaining. I learned about the importance of not pinning all your hopes on an oven that doesn't heat uniformly and that a (freshly-cleaned, ice-filled) bathtub works just fine as a drinks cooler. I learned that people don't care if all your plates match, though they definitely do care if there aren't enough chairs.
I also learned that nothing beats a "choose-your-own-adventure" spread, especially when cooking for a group of people with a variety of dining preferences or restrictions.
By "choose-your-own-adventure" spread, I mean the types of meals where everyone starts out with a similar base and can add or avoid certain toppings. Think of a loaded baked potato bar or a taco bar. Avoiding dairy? Skip over the cheese and sour cream. Vegan? Let me direct you to the platter of spicy, delicious soyrizo, which is the ideal vehicle for wedges of avocado and a squeeze of lime.
If you're looking for something that is a little more friendly — and incredibly flavorful — for weeknight entertaining, I really like setting out a platter or two of larb, a traditional Lao dish. Larb is typically made with ground or minced meat — such as chicken or pork — that has been flavored with thick fish sauce, lime juice, chili, mint and assorted vegetables. Often, it's served with white rice and lettuce, enabling eaters to make their own lettuce cups. It's a light, refreshing meal that is also really nuanced.
Want more great food writing and recipes? Subscribe to Salon Food's newsletter, The Bite.
For a group of six, I'll typically prepare1/2 pound of minced meat and 1/2 pound of mushrooms using the same marinade, but different pans. While fish sauce has an incredibly distinctive flavor, it's unfortunately not vegan. That said, Ocean's Halo makes a pretty stupendous plant-based dupe, or you can opt for an equal portion of coconut aminos. This will give the mushrooms a sweeter, less funky flavor.
- 8 ounces ground chicken
- 8 ounces mushrooms
- Neutral oil
- 5 tablespoons lime juice
- 4 teaspoons hot chile powder (See Cook's Note)
- 2 cloves minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 2 teaspoons brown sugar
- 1/2 cup minced red onion
- 4 tablespoons chopped cilantro
- 4 tablespoons sliced scallions
- Salt to taste
- White rice
- Lettuce leaves
- Bean sprouts
- Mint leaves
Add a glug of neutral oil to a large pan and begin to brown the ground chicken over medium-low heat. Once mostly cooked-through, add 1/2 the marinade to the pan and increase the heat to medium. Cook until the chicken is fully cooked and the marinade has been absorbed, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Using either a knife or a small food processor, mince the mushrooms to a size that is similar to the ground chicken. Add them to a clean pan alongside a glug of neutral oil and a hearty pinch of salt. You'll want to start on medium-high heat and sauté the mushrooms until the edges start to brown a bit, about 5 minutes.
Add the remaining half of the marinade to the mushrooms and cook until the marinade has been fully absorbed, about another 2 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Serve the chicken and mushroom larb with white rice, lettuce leaves, bean sprouts and mint.
Look for Thai chile powder at your local Asian grocery store, though cayenne will work in a pinch.
about this topic
Salon Food writes about stuff we think you'll like. While our editorial team independently selected these products, Salon has affiliate partnerships, so making a purchase through our links may earn us a commission.