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.

Giardiniera – The King of Pickled Veggies

This year’s garden has been hit and miss. Some things have done nicely, others not, even with staggered plantings. That struck home when we had a look at the cucumbers and realized we wouldn’t get enough to make a winters worth of pickles and relish – That’s when inspiration struck – Why not go for a big batch of Giardiniera, the King of pickled veggies, instead?

Giardiniera, (Jar-dhi-nare-uh), is a delightful pickled vegetable mix, either done up as bite sized pieces or a relish. Redolent of fresh veggies and good olive oil, wrapped around lip smacking brininess that rivals a great cornichon – This is something we all need to be making at home.

Pickling foods to preserve them hardens back thousands of years and crosses numerous boundaries – almost every society does and has employed it. Everything from veggies, to meat, fish, fruit, nuts, and even eggs can end up in the pickle jar, much to our advantage. Pickling not only helps preserve things through the dark months, it adds a vital zip to what can otherwise be a rather bland time of year.

Giardiniera hails from Italy, and means literally, ‘from the garden, (also called sottacetto, or ‘under vinegar.’) While variants come from all over the boot, the versions we’re most familiar with has southern roots, down where the mild Mediterranean climate fosters a wide variety of veggies, the best olive oil, and great sea salt. That’s where those colorful jars filled with cauliflower, carrot, olives, onions, peppers, and chiles hailed from.

image

You’ll likely find jars of the bite sized version of giardiniera in your local grocery, with the fancy olives and other pickled goodies. While some of the commercial stuff is pretty good, none of it can match what you can make at home, and to top things off, it’s remarkably easy to do, (And frankly, the relish version of giardiniera is much more versatile, and rarely found in stores).

Seasoned with fresh herbs, maybe even touched with a little hot chile flake, giardiniera is fabulous on sandwiches, (including burgers and dogs), pizza, salads, and as a table condiment with more dishes than you can shake a stick at. Now is the time to be doing up a few batches of your own – it’s fairly traditional for giardiniera to be made in the fall, as a catch all for all those late season veggies we don’t want to lose to the first frost.

The American home of giardiniera is Chicago, where that famous Italian beef sandwich hails from. Slow roasted beef, cooked over its own jus, sliced thin and slapped onto a nice, dense roll, ladled with a generous spoon of giardiniera, a little jus, and eaten in the classic sloppy sandwich hunch – a little slice of heaven.

Italian Beef Sandwich, fueled by Giardiniera
Italian Beef Sandwich, fueled by Giardiniera

Making giardiniera is a real treat. Your first and foremost issue, naturally, is what to put into the mix. The blend I outlined earlier is generally recognized as the classic base mix, but pretty much anything goes, (I should note that peppers and chiles were not in the original Italian versions of the dish, as they didn’t show up in European cultivation until the 1700s.) firm veggies, like carrots, celeriac root, turnips, cauliflower, broccoli, and asparagus do well. Peppers and chiles will do well too, though really soft stuff like tomatoes tend to break down quickly.

Making giardiniera couldn’t be easier. While some recipes call for cooking or fermenting, (both processes are perfectly fine), the simplest version is, for my mind, best – Just brine your veggie mix for a day or two, until you reach the degrees of zip and bite that you like, and that’s it. You’ll find recipes that call for the mix to be stored in brine, oil, vinegar, and a simple vinaigrette – My money is in the latter option – that will provide a nice stable medium, and a great taste as well.

There are typically mild and spicy (AKA Hot) versions, and extensive regional variety, like the Chicago style that includes sport peppers and an accompanying degree of heat. Down south, the version that goes with a muffuletta sandwich is mild and heavier on the olives. Those are great, and worth your time to build, but really, look upon giardiniera as a launching pad for creativity – You really can’t go wrong if it’s made with stuff you love – For instance, I didn’t have celery when I made up the relish version, but I did have fresh celeriac root, and it turned out to be a wonderful substitution.

You can use any oil and vinegar you like for the base vinaigrette. Seasoning can be as easy as good salt, olive oil, and vinegar. When you feel like adding additional spices, be conservative in both number and ratio – The rule of three is a good thing here.

Unless you process your giardiniera in a hot water bath, keep in mind that this is basically a fridge pickle. If made carefully, and packed into sterilized glass jars, it will last a month or two refrigerated. Just keep in mind that they’re not shelf stable unless you go through the canning process. Accordingly, what we offer below are small batches that will make a couple of quart jars of finished product. There are cooked and fermented versions out there, and we’ll leave those for you to explore.

Giardiniera Relish

A quart of fresh Giardiniera will last a couple months in your fridge
A quart of fresh Giardiniera will last a couple months in your fridge

For the base mix

1 Green Bell Pepper
1 Red Pepper
1 small Sweet Onion
2-4 Jalapeño Chiles
1 medium Carrot
1 Stalk Celery
1/2 Cup Cauliflower florets
1/4 Cup Pickling Salt

For the final mix

1 Cup White Vinegar
1 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
6-8 large Green Olives
1 Clove Garlic
1/2 teaspoon Chile Flake
1/2 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
1/4 teaspoon ground Black Pepper

Rinse all produce thoroughly.

Stem, seed, and devein the peppers and chiles, (leave the veins in the jalapeños if you want more heat).

Cut all veggies for the base mix into a uniform fine dice, about 1/4″ pieces. It’s not important to be exact, just get everything about the same size and you’ll be fine.

Transfer the mix to a glass or stainless steel mixing bowl. Cover the mix with fresh, cold water with an inch or so to spare.

Add the pickling salt and mix with a slotted spoon until the salt is thoroughly dissolved.

Cover with a tight fitting lid and refrigerate for 24 hours.

After 24 hours, take a spoon of the mix out, gently rinse it under cold water for a minute or so.

Test the degree of pickle and softness of the veggies. If you like what you’ve got, move on – If not, give it another day.
When you’re ready to prep the final mix –

Remove the base mix from the fridge and transfer to a single mesh strainer. Run cold water over and through the mix, using your hand to make sure that the salt solution is rinsed off.

fine dice the olives, peel, trim and mince the garlic.

Add all ingredients to a glass or stainless mixing bowl and stir with a slotted spoon to thoroughly incorporate.

Sanitize two quart mason jars either by boiling the jars, rings, and lids for 3-5 minutes in clean, fresh water, or running them through a cycle in your dishwasher.

Transfer the mix to the jars, and seal. Refrigerate for two days prior to use.

Giardiniera, bite size
Giardiniera, bite size

For the bite sized version, cut everything into roughly 1″ pieces, )or larger, depending on jar size and predilection), and process as per above. A bay leaf or two is a nice addition.

Calling All Vegans & Vegetarians!

Check out this absolutely delicious post on vegan/veggie sushi by my über talented Sister, Ann Lovejoy. I may be an avowed omnivore, but these dishes are genuinely mouth watering.

If you’ve not done so, subscribe to Annie’s blog while you’re reading her latest post.

Ginger Chicken Wontons with Summer Vegetables

Well, here’s another fine mess I’ve gotten us into… So, a slight diversion from the mother sauces, again by popular demand.

Being a tease the other night, I posted some Instagram pics of dinner, and ended up with a lot of y’all asking for a recipe, so here it is. If I’m gonna tease, I gotta come across thereafter. So here’s that dish – Ginger Chicken Wontons with Summer Vegetables.

This is a recipe that I literally threw together when some amazing sugar snap peas came ripe in Monica’s garden. You can often find really nice ginger chicken wontons for sale locally, but they’re also pretty easy to make at home, if you’ve got the time – They can certainly be made in less than half an hour with store bought wonton wrappers.

Ginger Chicken Wontons

1 Pound ground Chicken
1 large Egg
1/4 Cup Spring Onions, fine diced
1″ fresh Ginger, minced
2 cloves Garlic, smashed and minced
1 tablespoon Hoisin Sauce
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon ground Pepper
1/2 teaspoon Chinese Five Spice powder
3″ to 4″ wonton wrappers
Small bowl of ice water

In a non-reactive mixing bowl, combine all ingredients and knead by hand to thoroughly incorporate.

The key to making wontons is to have a nice, open prep space; arrange all the components so that they’re right at hand, then get after the production.

Wonton wrappers are square, which messes some folks up – don’t let it, it’ll work out just fine.

Spoon a heaping teaspoon of the ginger chicken mixture into the center of a wrapper.

Dip a finger tip into the ice water, and then run the wetted finger tip along the top and right edges of the wrapper.

Now get hold of the lower left corner of the wrapper and pull it up over the filling to the top, right corner.

Smooth out the wrapper so that all the air is squished out and the wrapper is tight all around the filling.

Dip your finger tip back into the ice water and dab that onto the right corner, then grab that corner and bring it around to the left one, and give them a pinch to seal everything down – viola, you got a wonton, (or, for that matter, a tortellini.)

So, now it’s cooking time, which means it’s time to decide what to add to your wontons. We had those amazing peas as our center piece, so I chose other stuff that complimented that, and here’s the drill. If you’ve got one, use a cast iron frying pan for this.

Ginger Chicken Wontons with Summer Vegetables
Browning the wontons

Ginger Chicken Wontons With Summer Vegetables
1 Cup Sugar Snap Peas
1 Cup Chicken Stock
1/2 Cup Cherry Tomatoes, sliced roughly 1/4″ thick slices
1/4 Cup Sweet Red Pepper, rough chopped
1/4 Cup Sweet Onion, rough chopped
1/8 Cup fresh Cilantro, chiffonade
1 Tablespoon fresh basil leaves, chiffonade
1 small lemon, halved
1 large clove garlic, smashed and minced
Sea Salt
Fresh ground Pepper
Peanut Oil to coat the pan

Prep - get your mise en place
Prep – get your mise en place

Put a cast iron frying pan on medium high heat, and coat the bottom of the pan with peanut oil.

When the pan is up to heat, add the onion and peppers.

Season lightly with sea salt and pepper, and continue cooking until the onions begin to turn translucent.

Add the garlic and sauté until the raw garlic smell dissipates.

Transfer the aromatics from the pan into a small plate and set aside.

Always start with the aromatics - That's the foundation for great flavor
Always start with the aromatics – That’s the foundation for great flavor

Add oil to recoat the bottom of the pan and allow that to heat through.

Add the wontons and sauté on one side for about a minute. Use a wooden spoon or fork and flip the wontons, and sauté for another minute or so until golden brown.

Add the chicken stock and allow to heat through.

Once the wontons and chicken stock are simmering, add the peas and tomatoes, reduce the heat to just maintain the simmer, and sauté for about another 3-4 minutes until the veggies are heated through.

Add the basil and cilantro, stir to incorporate and a heat through.

Ginger Chicken Wontons with Summer Vegetables
Letting everything marry

Squeeze the juice from the halved lemons and stir to incorporate.

Taste the jus and adjust seasoning with sea salt and fresh ground pepper.

Allow everything to heat thoroughly through.

Ginger Chicken Wontons with Summer Vegetables
Ginger Chicken Wontons with Summer Vegetables

Serve piping hot.