Throughout the year, I cook off-the-cuff versions of favorite dishes, such as chili, pizza, beef stew, roast chicken and vegetable soup. I employ subtle variations, inspired by dining out or ingredients and condiments on hand. Never the same dish twice.
Same goes for a dish I first made more than three dozen years ago as a young test cook for Cuisine magazine: Minced quail in lettuce leaves. The recipe was part of a feature on the cuisine of Hong Kong.
In those pre-Instagram days, the late food writer, Roy Andries de Groot, captured his eating/research trip to Hong Kong with copious photographs and notes. My co-workers and I were charged with transforming those notes into magazine-friendly recipes that matched the photos. We tested all manner of dim sum, soups, fish, fried rice and even beggar’s chicken wrapped in lotus leaves and clay.
I still cook many of those dishes, but the one I return to time and time again is that quail dish. It’s a simple stir-fry of minced meat flavored with soy sauce and sesame oil. The golden stir-fry gets wrapped in crisp, chilled lettuce leaves, which cut the richness and add a fresh crunch.
Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, in her “Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking,” tells us that wrapping foods in lettuce leaves originated in China’s Guangdong province. Lettuce, a symbol of new life and growth, even hangs over the doorways in Guangdong during the Lunar New Year, which begins this year Feb. 16.
The method of wrapping foods in lettuce, Yin-Fei Lo says, has spread far beyond one Chinese province. Indeed. We now see dozens of variations of that dish in Asian restaurants all over this country. The internet has hundreds more — from authentic versions to diet-friendly blandness. The fillings morph from minced quail or squab, to chicken, shrimp, squid, vegetables and assorted mushrooms.
A recent brunch at Dai Due Butcher Shop & Supper Club in Austin, Texas, featured yet another version: wild boar with winter vegetables, crunchy radishes, lime and chipotle. Exciting — especially with the drizzle of a chipotle sambal and a tangy wild game syrup. Everything gets rolled up in Boston lettuce. Amazing.
Thus inspired, I knew my home version would morph again. This time with coarse ground pork and oven-roasted vegetables.
The ingredients are not expensive, the cooking is easy and several steps can be done in advance, so this lettuce-wrapped pork proves a perfect dish for a crowd. For a smaller group, you can cut the recipe in half, but just know that leftovers are delicious and versatile. I reheat them in deep bowls in the microwave and then serve the bowls topped with a fried egg and a generous squeeze of hot sauce.
There’s quite a bit of chopping to do, so this recipe is a good excuse to practice your knife skills. The chopping does not need to be exacting, since everything gets mixed together in the end. Use a large cutting board, stabilized with a piece of wet paper toweling underneath. Run your knife over the sharpening steel a few times to keep the knife sharp — a dull knife can dangerously bounce off the vegetables and nick a finger.
Like most stir-fries, the higher the heat the better the browning and flavor build. You can cook the pork in a well-seasoned wok, but work in three or four batches to get nice golden edges on the meat. Alternatively, I use a very large (14-inch), deep nonstick skillet and can cook all the pork at one time. Use two skillets if you only have small ones, so you promote browning.
I serve the warm stir-fry with Boston lettuce or small romaine leaves and pass a spicy-sweet dipping sauce. A scoop of coconut rice can be enjoyed alongside or tucked into the lettuce as well. Alternatively, for appetizers, set out a bowl of the warm pork filling (no rice) with spears of Belgian endive or pita crisps. The filling also tastes great tucked into a warmed pita pocket or lightly toasted flour tortilla with shredded lettuce.
Golden Pork and Roasted Winter Vegetable Lettuce Wraps
Prep: 45 minutes
Cook: 45 minutes
Makes: 8 servings
Ground turkey, lamb or finely diced chicken thighs work well here too. So does shrimp — just reduce the cooking time in Step 5 to 5 minutes. You can prepare the recipe through Step 4 up to several days in advance; refrigerate the items covered.
2 medium golden potatoes (8 ounces total), peeled, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 medium-large turnips or section of a Daikon radish (about 8 ounces total), peeled, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 large eggplant, trimmed, cut into ¾-inch pieces
Expeller pressed canola oil or safflower oil
1 large (1 pound) sweet onion, quartered, very thinly sliced
4 tablespoons sugar
1/2 pound thinly sliced shiitake mushroom caps or cremini mushrooms
1/3 cup unseasoned rice vinegar
1/4 cup Asian black bean sauce with garlic
2 tablespoons fish sauce or tamari soy sauce
1 teaspoon pureed chipotle in adobo
1 teaspoon dark Asian sesame oil
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped, about 2 tablespoons
2 tablespoons peeled minced fresh ginger
2 pounds coarsely ground pork
1/2 cup shredded carrots
1/2 cup very thinly sliced small or halved large radishes
3 green onions, trimmed, finely chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
3 or 4 heads Boston lettuce or 2 heads small romaine, separated into leaves, rinsed, patted dry
Sweet and spicy dipping sauce, see below
1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Put potatoes and turnip onto a large baking sheet. Put eggplant onto a second baking sheet. Toss each sheet of vegetables with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 or 2 tablespoons oil. Bake in the upper third of the oven, stirring once or twice, until the vegetables are tender and golden, 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from oven.
2. Meanwhile, cook onion in 1 tablespoon oil in a very large (14-inch) nonstick skillet (or work in 2 smaller nonstick skillets) over medium heat until golden, about 10 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon of the sugar; continue to cook, stirring often, until richly browned, about 10 minutes more. Transfer to a plate.
3. Add mushrooms and another 1 tablespoon oil to skillet; cook until golden, about 10 minutes. Transfer to the plate with the onions.
4. Mix vinegar, black bean sauce, remaining 3 tablespoons sugar, fish sauce, chipotle and sesame oil in a small bowl.
5. Add 1 tablespoon oil to the skillet, along with the garlic and ginger. Cook and stir, 1 minute. Add pork; cook, stirring and breaking up the pork with a spatula into small crumbles, until cooked though and lightly browned, 15 to 20 minutes. Stir in vinegar mixture; cook 2 or 3 minutes more to coat the pork thoroughly. Stir in roasted vegetables and the onions and mushrooms.
6. To serve, sprinkle carrots and radishes over the pork, and stir gently to mix them in. Sprinkle with green onions and cilantro. Pass lettuce leaves to use as wrappers for the mixture. Drizzle each packet with the sweet and spicy dipping sauce to taste.
Nutrition information per serving: 404 calories, 25 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 76 mg cholesterol, 22 g carbohydrates, 12 g sugar, 24 g protein, 594 mg sodium, 4 g fiber
Sweet and spicy dipping sauce
Mix 1/4 cup each agave syrup and unsweetened rice vinegar with 1 to tablespoon sugar and 1 tablespoon fish sauce (or soy sauce) in a small bowl until the sugar dissolves. Stir in 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes. Use at room temperature within a week or so.
Coconut Cilantro Rice
Prep: 10 minutes
Cook: 20 minutes
Makes: 6 servings
2 cups medium grain rice
1 can (13.5 ounces) coconut milk
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 slices fresh ginger
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1. Put rice into a colander and rinse under cool running water. Put rinsed rice, coconut milk, 1/2 cup water, garlic, ginger and salt into a medium saucepan. Stir well. Heat to a simmer over high heat. Cover with a lid and reduce heat to very low. Cook until rice is nearly tender, 15 to 17 minutes.
2. Fluff with a fork and put the lid back on. Let stand off the heat for 10 minutes. Fluff again, and fold in the cilantro.
Nutrition information per serving: 388 calories, 14 g fat, 12 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 60 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 6 g protein, 397 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
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