With so many of us becoming more conscience of our carb intake, lettuce has become the vehicle for many a sandwich. Whether it is deli meat, grilled chicken or even a burger, you can wrap almost anything you would otherwise eat between two slices of bread in a lettuce leaf.
According to ifood.tv, wrapping food between leaves of lettuce was mentioned as long ago as 1894 in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, but the site of my first lettuce wrap encounter was PF Chang's in Denver Colorado a mere 10 years ago. My cousin ordered some for the table to share, and I was hooked. Bright, crisp lettuce leaves filled with a savory ground chicken mixture, although they also offer a vegetarian variety, topped with a salty and slightly spicy sauce.
Since this experience, I have made a habit of ordering lettuce wraps from other menus as well, and have been surprised at the number of variations. I found another favorite at the Cheesecake Factory featuring marinated grilled chicken breast, freshly grated carrot, and noodles, along with a pickled cucumber mixture. Ingredients come in little mounds on a large platter waiting to be assembled and topped with one, or more, of the three offered sauces.
I will be the first to admit, a cheeseburger in a lettuce leaf didn't quite measure up to a toasted bun for me, but I did find the perfect filling in my version of the lettuce wrap featuring Asian flavors and a little bit of heat.
I tried to take the things I like best from other recipes but ultimately decided to use ground chicken. I like combining one package of ground chicken breast with another of regular ground chicken containing dark meat for extra flavor. I found a combination of garlic and onion helps to round out the flavor and create the perfect base to build upon. Shiitake mushrooms and fresh ginger added, even more, flavor. Chopped water chestnuts provided some crunch and green onions add color but what about the sauce?
I love peanut flavor in Asian food. However I am not an expert by any means in pulling together the perfect, or appropriate, combination of ingredients to make an authentic Asian dish, but I know what I like. My home kitchen "sauce laboratory" tested many combinations and ultimately landed on a mix of soy, rice vinegar, a little sweetness and peanut butter as the perfect accompaniment to the ground chicken, but something was still lacking -- you guessed it -- heat! So, I took out my jar of chili garlic sauce and started adding a little at a time until I had the flavor balanced just right. The dish all came together with the addition of sesame oil, and in my case, a little chili oil too. (All of these ingredients are available in the Asian aisle of most grocery stores.)
During the "testing phase," I discovered all lettuce is not created equal, especially when it comes to serving as a wrap. I found iceberg to be too brittle, as I like the leaf to wrap around the filling in a nice little package. Romaine was just OK and was a little too boat-like, and leaf lettuce worked well but tore easily. I found perfection by using Bibb or butter lettuce, both readily available at my local grocery store. Be careful and separate the leaves gently and place in a bowl of cold water and drain on a towel before serving.
The one thing missing to my masterpiece was a sauce to drizzle over the top. Usually, the sauces, while always tasty, was my least favorite part of the wraps I had eaten. The sauce inevitably drips all over my hands making a sticky mess, so I decided to keep it simple and pulled out my bottle of Sriracha instead of creating another component to this already ingredient heavy recipe. This simple addition worked for me because of the earlier addition of the other ingredients I might have otherwise used for a sauce.
Of course, it is always OK to add more toppings. Grated carrots, bean sprouts, or other crunchy and colorful vegetables would work well. To boost the heat, add more chili garlic sauce or chili oil. I have on occasion even added a little extra rice vinegar for a punch of flavor. The choice is yours.
There is one thing I can promise. I will continue wrapping different concoctions in lettuce all summer long. I think grilled vegetables with a little drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette sound like a tasty and a refreshing summer side dish, as well as marinated and grilled flank steak topped with some grilled onions -- yum. So, try my restaurant inspired attempt at the perfect lettuce wrap, or create your own. The possibilities are endless.
• Penny Kazmier, a wife and mother of four from South Barrington, won the 2011 Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge.