Food wraps can be found, in one incarnation or another, anywhere in the world that people eat. They include Mexican wraps held together by tortillas of flour and corn, Asian spring and egg rolls, the contents of which are contained by rice paper or egg noodles. Middle Eastern pita flatbreads are filled with gyro meat and falafel. Italian cannoli pastry is filled with sweetened ricotta cheese and other sweet goodness, while the pasta is stuffed with savory cheese and ragu.
Part of the reason for the ubiquity of wraps is that they can be made with so many different ingredients and allow such an endless variety of perfectly optimized bites. Consider the fish taco, in which the corn tortilla packages a symphony of flavors leveraged against the the fish. Creamy sauce, crunchy cabbage, fruity salsa. All of the basic flavors: sweet, salty, sour, the dark and mysterious newcomer: umami. And fat, of course, the uncrowned king of flavors that amplifies them all. And spicy, which is not as much a flavor as the fulfillment of some deep bodily craving. Bitterness, otherwise lacking, is handled by a glass of cold cerveza, speaking of bodily cravings.
The basic flavors can be repeated in different ways. The sour acid of the tomato salsa in the fish taco, for example, is accentuated by lime juice, and hammered home by the pickled onion, creating many layers of acidity. In the construction of layered mouthfuls, such redundancy can be a beautiful thing. It adds nuance, complexity, and explosive flavor.
Wraps allow you to set up one winning combination after another, with no ceiling on the possibilities. The fact that the wrappers themselves are usually made of supple, yummy processed carbohydrates hardly hurts the cause. But there are many kinds of plant leaf out there that are bendy and tasty enough to use as wrappers as well. The shining example in this department would be the nori seaweed sheets that bind sushi together, a successful mouthful if there ever was one. Technically, seaweed is an algae and not a plant, but they both use chlorophyll and sunlight to make energy, so that’s close enough for me. In any case, seaweed is most definitely not a processed carbohydrate.
Any time you have a plant leaf, and something else that is edible, then you have a chance to make a leaf wrap. You simply wrap the leaf around the other thing,and eat it.
Like a good piece of sushi, an exceptional leaf wrap combines the textures and flavors necessary for a balanced, exciting yet manageable bite. And many of the mishaps common to others who deal in wraps also threaten the would-be leaf wrap maker, such as the all too familiar sensation of piling on more filling then your wrapper can handle. Or worse, your wrapper can handle it all, but your mouth can’t. There are also questions of sauce, the great fudge factor, adding at the last minute whatever the rest of your combination left out. A sauce can be salty, sweet, sour, bitter, umami-ish or creamy, whatever completes the flavor. The sauce can be rolled in, dipped into, or both.
Because leaves tend to be less resilient and pliable than carb-based wrappers, they don’t lend themselves to advanced preparation because they crack and leak. Stuffed grape leaves are a notable exception; the young leaves are picked in mid-spring and blanched, then stuffed or stored for later use.
The salad bites that I’ve been rocking lately have been Mediterranean-themed, built upon the sturdy stems of Italian radicchio. A member of the chicory family, radicchio and many of its cousins, like escarole and endive, make excellent wraps as well. But radicchio are special for many reasons, not the least of which is that they grow in tight heads of elegantly cup-shaped leaves, every one of which looks like it is literally begging, open handedly, to be stuffed.
One thing about radicchio, or any chicory leaf for that matter, is that you have to be OK with bitter. And you should be OK with bitter. It is good in more ways than just beer, and coffee, and chocolate. Cultivating an appreciation for bitter plants is like exercising a muscle. It can be done, and makes you healthier.
I have a garden full of Italian chicory plants of all shapes and colors, as well as romaine, an honorary chicory. But when it’s time for wrapping, the one I reach for most often is the Rossa di Treviso, an elongated variety with lanky, fleshy leaves that stay crispy when stuffed or dipped. I fill them with the likes of tomato, onion, cheese, and perhaps a chunk of salmon, wrapped and dipped in a marinade before chewing.
Some notes on bitter leaf wraps:
As with many fresh leaf wraps, they are best done one at a time, just when you are ready to eat it. They don’t always hold together well, especially after you have overloaded them with stuffing, and should be brought to your mouth quickly.
The cheese should be dense and bold, like feta or provolone picante, or perhaps shavings of Romano or Grana Padano. Whenever buying Italian cheeses, look for the DOP designation, which is Italian for the shit.
If I’m wrapping fish I use mayonnaise instead of cheese (grape seed oil Vegenaise, to be specific). If I don’t have salmon, pickled herring works well. As do anchovies, or a dab of anchovy paste.
If I do have salmon, and I do a lot these days because it’s in season, I bake it slowly with a sweet rub to balance the bitter of the radicchio. Rub it with a mix of two parts brown sugar and one part salt, with a splash of maple syrup if you’ve got it, and then bake at 215 for about about a half hour, until some milky juice starts weeping from the tight, glazed orange flesh. Allow to cool, and break it apart into chunks.
Don’t forget the sliced onion.
Capers don’t hurt.
Tomatoes should be cut so they easily give up their juices. Whole cherry tomatoes could legitimately be called cherry bombs, and without a cut surface, a tomato won’t absorb the vinaigrette.
Speaking of which, I use my wife’s radicchio dipping dressing: 1/2 cup XVOO, 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1/3 cup vinegar (half white balsamic, half balsamic).
As you dip, you may have to add more oil, as it hangs out on top and coats each leaf as you remove it (bummer, I know). You decide on a dip by dip basis how much dressing to use.
You can also marinate the onions and tomatoes in the dressing before adding them to the wrap, and skip the dip altogether.
Put the wrap in your mouth, chew, and enter a flavor warp. Rinse with water or wine, and repeat. And that, for lack of a better ending, is a wrap.