Asian Lettuce Wraps

I just love “garbage can” dishes. By this I mean dishes that let me use up leftover ingredients in the refrigerator instead of tossing them into the garbage.

We rescheduled my cooking demo at Vanguard High School to this morning (thankfully in between the early morning and late afternoon downpours!). I did not want to show the Pasta with Turkey Sausage and Peppers dish that I had planned for the first time around. I had already posted that recipe, and wanted to challenge myself to come up with another quick, easy and healthy dish to share with the Vanguard students.

And so a few weeks ago I consulted the great food oracle (a.k.a. stared into my refrigerator) for inspiration. I took stock of the random ingredients on the counter: a few ribs of celery and three stalks of carrots (extras from cooking up Braised Short Ribs for a family gathering) along with a green pepper and a handful of cilantro (the last remaining evidence of the sofrito I made to test out empanadas). It was quite sad really. I stared at the counter, gazed out of the window, and drummed my fingers. That did not work. So I closed my eyes and imagined the resulting concoction if I sauteed all of these ingredients together.

I often use my imagination to test-run an idea for a recipe in my mind before investing actual time and ingredients. I envision the taste and texture…it is a great way to stimulate multiple senses at once. You know how athletes visualize running a course over and over again before the actual competition? Well, this is sort of the cook’s version for tastebud muscle memory.

After a few minutes of furrowing my brow and chomping my teeth (I am so glad that was not caught on video!), I came up with Vegetable Asian Lettuce Wraps. I just had to skip over to the store and pick up an onion and lettuce. The onion was a must to create the flavor base, and I could not make lettuce wraps without lettuce. I wanted to add some crunch to the dish to complement the crispness of the lettuce, and luckily had a can of water chestnuts in the cupboard (holy cow, who uses that word anymore??) that I was going to use to make some dumplings–but this was more important.

I was not exactly sure how to make lettuce wraps, but I borrowed some flavor concepts from making stir-fry: sweetness from sugar and oyster sauce, saltiness from soy sauce, and a savory umami all-star team of rice wine, sesame oil, soy sauce and oyster sauce.

The great thing about this “garbage can” dish is that you really can throw in almost any leftover ingredient into it. Have to use up those mushrooms before they get moldy? Not sure what to do with the extra cobs of corn from the weekend barbecue? (Just slice the kernels off of the cob to use them for this dish.) Is a pathetic looking, picked-at roast chicken not enough to serve as a full meal? (Shred the chicken and toss it in at the end.)

If you do not have leftovers, you could always saute ground meat, chicken pieces, or boca crumbles (thanks to Jennifer Seary for the vegan suggestion) in some olive oil then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Then set it aside and add it to the vegetables at the end. Just use mushroom-based oyster flavored sauce if you are vegan.

Asian Lettuce Wraps

1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
4 celery ribs, finely chopped
1/4 pound carrots, peeled and finely chopped
1 bell pepper, finely chopped
1/4 cup water chestnuts, finely chopped
1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped
salt and ground pepper to taste
1 head of iceberg lettuce (romaine is a healthier alternative, but will not be as crispy)

1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon oyster sauce
1 teaspoon rice wine
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon water

Slice off the base of the lettuce where all the leaves are connected together. Carefully peel apart the individual leaves, then rinse and pat dry.

In a small bowl, combine all of the sauce ingredients and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Set aside.

In a large pan over medium-high heat, cook the onions, celery, and carrots until they are slightly tender, but still firm about 4 – 6 minutes.

Add the bell pepper and water chestnuts. Continue to cook until the pepper is slightly tender about 2 – 4 minutes.

Add the sauce and mix well. Add salt and ground pepper to taste. Remove from the heat.

Add the cilantro (and any meat or soy protein that has been previously sauteed) and mix well.

Scoop some filling into each lettuce leaf and serve.

Hazel Sy
May 2011

Many thanks to the Vanguard students for joining me today, to Jo-Ann Grande and Charan Morris for coordinating the demo, and to Megan Domenech for your help.

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