Although the summer solstice is a few days behind us now, the vegetables in my CSA basket are still talking of late Spring: scallions, herbs, sugar snap peas and greens, greens, greens. As we do every year at this time, playing the waiting game before leafy things make way for firmer, rounder fruits from the garden, we are drowning in greens: bok choi, chard, kale, tatsoi, spinach, arugula, and more kinds of lettuce than you can shake a stick at. The hearty, leafy greens (kale, chard, choi) are easy to blanch & freeze and store very well (we ate them all winter long and there is still a supply in the freezer) but lettuce? Lettuce seems best enjoyed now, when it is young, fresh, crisp. However, there are only two of us, and lately there has been only one of us, as Tai has been away on business for most of June. Don’t get me wrong, I love lettuce, but six heads of it is too much for even the most salad-fanatic girl. When you just can’t face one more salad, yet are still staring at three heads of lettuce in the fridge (and CSA Day is only two days away), lettuce wraps are the way to go.
A lettuce leaf can be pretty big. Tear it up and you’ll find that only two or three of them make up a salad. But wrap it around some spicy stir-fried meat & vegetables, and you’ll down six of ‘em before you know it. You’ll notice that I made a lot of changes to the original recipe: while I love water chestnuts, they aren’t exactly local, and I couldn’t see going out and buying food when the fridge is packed to overflowing. Also, I’m always adding vegetables to a typical American Chinese food recipe: who can eat all that meat? Especially when there are three heads of bok choi in the fridge? The recipe as I made it isn’t difficult, but there is a lot of chopping: that’s why I think it would be fun to gather friends for an informal dinner party. Dole out the peelers, the salad spinner, the cutting boards, and get everyone to help with the prep. The actual cooking time is very short, as with all high-heat stir-fry cooking, and then you can pile everything into bowls and let people build their own lettuce wraps, spicy or sweet, pickled or fresh. In no time at all, there will be zero heads of lettuce in the fridge: for a couple of days at least.
Adapted (majorly) from PF Changs Lettuce Wraps at The Culinary Life
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1 tbsp cornstarch (optional)
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 1 tsp rice vinegar
- 3 tbsp sesame oil or butternut squash seed oil
- 3 tbsp sunflower, peanut or other neutral oil
- dash or two of hot chili oil (optional)
- 1 and 1/2 lbs boneless chicken breast, diced to 1/2-inch strips
- freshly ground black pepper
- 2 stalks celery, trimmed and thinly sliced on the bias
- 2 medium carrots, peeled, trimmed and sliced into matchsticks
- 4 scallions, white & pale green parts only, thinly sliced
- 1 cup mushrooms, diced to 1/4-inch (or 1/2 oz dried mushrooms, rehydrated in boiling water & finely diced)
- 1 small head bok choi (10 oz), stems thinly sliced on the bias, leaves shredded, separated
- 3 large cloves garlic, minced
For serving & garnish
- 1 tbsp sesame seeds
- green ends of scallions, sliced
- 1 to 2 heads large leaf lettuce
- sliced cucumber, quick-pickled in rice vinegar & red chile flakes
- harissa or other chile sauce
- plenty of napkins and cold white wine
- In a small bowl, whisk together brown sugar and cornstarch (if using). Add soy sauce and vinegar and whisk until combined. Set aside.
- In a wok or large skillet, heat oil over high heat until shimmering. Add chicken (cook in batches if you want the chicken to brown; cook at all once if you like whiter, poached chicken) and stir-fry over high heat until just cooked through, about 3 – 4 minutes. Add freshly ground black pepper to taste. Transfer chicken to a clean plate. If the chicken released any water into the wok, boil water off until only oil remains before adding the vegetables.
- Add celery, carrots, scallions, bok choi stems, mushrooms and garlic to hot oil in the wok (add more oil if necessary) and stir-fry over medium-high heat until just softened, about 1 – 2 minutes. Add the bok choi greens, stir to coat in oil, and fry until wilted, about 1 minute. Return the chicken to the wok, add the sauce and cook, stirring, for about 1 – 2 minutes, until chicken is heated through. Transfer to a serving bowl. Stir sesame seeds into chicken mixture.
- To build lettuce wraps, spoon a small amount of chicken stir-fry, with sauce, into the center of a lettuce leaf. Add harissa if desired, roll into a cigar shape, and eat, trying to keep all the stuff that spews out over your plate. Repeat as needed.
- I felt that the cooking sauce could use some thickening; cornstarch was not included in the original recipe, but I’ve recommended it here. I think you could also substitute honey for the brown sugar, although that would likely impact the texture of the sauce, and you would have a hard time incorporating corn starch. Might want to skip it in that case.
- Chicken could easily be substituted with pork, beef, firm tofu or chickpeas. Use your protein of choice.
- Even if you are mushroom adverse, I would try this with the mushrooms. I’m not a big fan, but this is one of those dishes where they are essential to the flavor.
- The original recipe contained water chestnuts and very little in the way of other vegetables. This is a pretty adaptable recipe; any veg that will stir-fry well will work. Just keep the pieces fairly small to aid in wrapping.
- Surprisingly enough, with local squash seed and sunflower oils, this dish was completely local with the exception of the sauce (soy, brown sugar & rice vinegar) and sesame seeds.
Store chicken stir-fry separately, refrigerated, for up to 5 days.
Spring into summer, when lettuce is abundant.