Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps

We belong to a great local CSA outfit called Dandelion Organic. Even though we grow produce and preserve a fair amount of that, there are plenty of things we don’t have or can’t get in winter – That’s where an outfit like Dandelion really comes in handy. We crave fresh veggies in the dreary months, when supermarket fare is often less than stellar. Seeing a box of local, fresh produce really lifts our spirits, and it certainly sparks creativity in our kitchen. When M added a head of really gorgeous lettuce to our last order, she said ‘lettuce wraps,’ and I got busy.

Are you one who sneers at lettuce? If you’re of the opinion that lettuce, like celery, is a tasteless veggie, you’re not all that wrong – far too much of what we find in grocery stores is a pale shadow of the real deal. Like commercial apples not so long ago, what you find in stores is iceberg, romaine, and one or two varieties of leaf – they’re usually not local, and they’re not grown for taste – they’re made to travel and store well, and that’s why they generally suck. The image below underlines this trend. That’s a field of iceberg lettuce – Study that and ask yourself, when was the last time the iceberg you saw in the store looked like this?

A field of iceberg lettuce

Lettuce is a member of the daisy family – Asteraceae. It was first cultivated in Egypt around 3,500 years ago, grown for seeds that produce cooking oil, (and in some places still is). It was initially a plant 2 to 3 feet tall that looked like a mutant head of Romaine. Lettuce spread quickly, courtesy of the Greeks and Romans, and by the first century AD, had taken root across the known world. China leads world cultivation these days, by leaps and bounds in fact – And yes, it’s still grown in Egypt. There are six major cultivars – Leaf, Cos (Romaine), Crisphead (Iceberg), Butterhead (Boston or Bibb), Celtuce (Stem), and Oilseed. From those big branches stem hundreds of varieties, many of which are imbued with marvelous taste and texture – And you can grow many of them, so do – Make a salad from lettuces out your own garden, and you’ll know it’s wonderful stuff.

Common Lettuce Varieties

Lettuce, (and plenty of other leaves), have played a part in cooking and eating pretty much since us apes went bipedal – Food has been cooked in, plated on, served with, and wrapped in them – and still is. Little bites of meat, fish, poultry, or starchy vegetables wrapped in leaves, especially lettuce, is ubiquitous throughout Asian cuisines. I love such things, because you get a purer taste of what you’re eating than you would with something starchy, like bread, tortillas, pancakes, masa, or any of the other myriad sandwich wrappers employed – it’s also generally pretty darn healthy and remarkably tasty.

Celtuse, or Stem Lettuce

The challenge comes in finding lettuce strong and tasty enough to do the job. Romaine will work, but it usually tastes like cardboard. What you want is something from the Butterhead cultivar – a lovely head of Butter, Boston, or Bibb lettuce. These are robust enough to handle being stuffed, are far prettier than most other varieties, and taste great. They can be a bit pricier than simpler stuff, but if you get 12+ wrappable leaves out of a head, it costs about the same as dozen tortillas.

Butterhead Lettuce, AKA Butter, Boston, or Bibb

Chicken is a great protein for doing up an Asian inspired wrap dish, but so would fresh, firm tofu, fish, pork, or beef. If you use meat, it doesn’t have to be fancy – there’s a marinating step in this recipe, so even tougher cuts will get some time and help toward breaking down tougher tissues. A lot of the chicken lettuce wrap recipes out there advocate breast, but I do not – that is about the most expensive piece you can find, and the standard American white meat chicken breast hasn’t much flavor – yes, a marinade will help fix that, but why not use something that has some? Skin on, bone in thighs are the trick – Lots of flavor, cheap, and easy to prep – and a lot more authentic to boot.

As for that marinade – Rather than go for something point specific, I built a reasonably faithful mashup that holds true to regional cuisines and is a bit exotic to us Americans. Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean cuisines all use soy sauce, albeit they have specific variations they prefer – those are worth checking out, as they’re quite distinct. Hoisin sauce also crosses several borders, it’s often thought of as a generic Asian barbecue sauce. Rice wine and sesame oil are ubiquitous as well.

Notes –

1. Since this is a marinating recipe, you’ll need to allow time for that.

2. I pickled or dressed some of the veggie filling options, because we like that sort of thing- you don’t have to if it doesn’t float your boat – I included recipes just in case, as well as for peanut sauce.

Urban’s Asian Inspired Chicken Thighs

Chicken and Marinade:

1 1/2 to 2 Pound Chicken Thighs (Bone in, skin on – if you go boneless/skinless, a pound is plenty)

1/2 Cup Light Soy Sauce, (as in, light versus dark, not ‘lite’ as in abomination)

1/4 Cup Hoisin Sauce

2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar

1 Tablespoon Sesame Oil

1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar

1-3 fresh Serrano Chiles

1” chunk fresh Ginger Root

2 fat cloves fresh Garlic

1/2 teaspoon Fish Sauce

Rinse, stem and dice chiles – you can field strip the membranes if you’re a heat weenie.

Peel and mince the garlic and ginger.

Combine everything but the chicken in a non-reactive mixing bowl, whisk to incorporate, and allow to marry at room temp while you prep the chicken.

Bone in, skin on chicken thighs – where the flavor is.

Remove skin and extra fat from thighs, then debone – the skin will pull off easily from one side, and the bones are mostly loose – a little careful paring will free them.

Field stripped chicken thighs

Toss your bones and skin into 6 cups of water with a little onion, celery, and carrot and you can simmer up some stock to have on hand for whatever – Most of the fat in chicken skin is unsaturated, BTW.

Cut the chicken into roughly 1/2” slices across the short side of each thigh.

Pack the sliced chicken into a bowl or storage container and pour the marinade over it – work it in so that everything is well coated. Marinate refrigerated for at least 2 hours, and 4 to 6 is even better.

Lettuce and Fillings –

10-12 leaves Butter Lettuce

1 Cup Mung Bean Sprouts

1 packed Cup Savoy or Napa Cabbage

1/2 Cup Carrot

1/2 Cup Sweet Onion

1 Cup cooked Thai cellophane noodles

1/2 Cup Roasted Peanuts, rough chopped

1/2 Cup Cilantro, rough chopped

Rinse and pat dry sprouts.

Slice cabbage into roughly 1/2” shreds. If you like this dressed, add 1 tablespoon of roasted sesame oil, and 2 teaspoons of rice vinegar, and toss to coat.

Slice carrot into roughly 2” matchsticks, and onion into 2” pieces

Pour boiling water over noodles in a mixing bowl and steep for a minute or so, until they’re al dente. Pour out hot water and rinse noodles with cold water, then drain. Place in a bowl with a teaspoon of avocado oil and mix by hand to coat the noodles.

Put the onions and carrots in a small non-reactive bowl, and add

1 Cup White vinegar

1/2 teaspoon Celery Seed

1/2 teaspoon Coriander

1/2 teaspoon Turmeric

Whisk with a fork to incorporate and let the mix marinate at room temperature

If you like peanut sauce, here’s my fave version –

1/2 Cup smooth natural, unsweetened Peanut Butter

2 Tablespoons Light Soy Sauce, (See above, not ‘lite’)

1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar

1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar

1 Tablespoon fresh Lime Juice

1-2 teaspoons Sriracha Sauce

2-3 Cloves fresh Garlic

1 Tablespoon fresh lime juice

1/2” fresh Ginger Root

1-3 Tablespoons Warm Water

Peel, trim, and fine grate ginger and garlic.

Combine everything but the water and whisk with a fork to incorporate.

Add water, about a tablespoon at a shot, until you each the sauce consistency you like.

Allow to marry for 30 minutes prior to serving.

Sautéing Asian marinated chicken thighs

When you’re ready to eat, set all the fillings out in bowls so folks can load up at the table.

Separate lettuce leaves, then gently wash in cold water and pat dry with a clean towel. Arrange on a platter.

Pour out most of the marinade, but leave the chicken well coated, and some of the goodies too.

In a large skillet over medium high heat, sauté the chicken until fully cooked, stirring and flipping steadily, about 4-6 minutes. This is also a great thing to stir fry in a wok, if you’re of a mind.

Urban’s Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps

Transfer chicken to a serving platter, top with a few chopped nuts and some cilantro, and dig in.

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