Chicken Lettuce Wraps… oh, so good!

There are few things that I truly have some deep-rooted feelings for, things I may not be super vocal about unless engaged, but nevertheless I have a passion that will not be shaken. One of those things is lettuce. I hate lettuce.

There I said it. But just like a lot of other people, I have bought into the lie that my mom has told me all my life: it’s good for you. Ok, so it is good for you with the fiber and the vitamins, especially in the darker leaf varietals. And this has nothing to do with any aversion to vegetables. Give me the peppery crunch of a radish, the snap of a green bean, the sweetness of a beet, or the crunch of a carrot, and I love it. A large bowl of all of those with a squeeze of lemon juice, a drizzle of olive oil, and salt and pepper, and that is dinner. So find me surprised when I fell in love with chicken lettuce wraps. Sure it’s chicken cooked in a sauce, but then it’s wrapped in lettuce. And when I was introduced to the dish at a certain chain restaurant, that makes some mighty fine ones at that, I wrapped up my filling in an iceberg lettuce leaf, the biggest offender of them all, and ate with gusto. And I wanted more.

Here is what it breaks down to: The filling is minced or ground chicken cooked with a flavorful sauce, with some added crunch. The lettuce not only acts as a vessel to shove a bunch of this chicken goodness into your face, but also adds additional crunch and a juxtaposed coolness that only lends itself to the heightened spicy kick that is in the chicken mixture. All in all, this is great food. And it’s a filling and somewhat quickly made dinner when it just happens to be 105 degrees outside your door.

Here are a few notes on the recipe below…

Cook this in a cast iron skillet! – My absolutely favorite vessel to cook this in is my cast iron skillet. Granted, I cook just about everything in my cast iron skillet, but this one is so, so good when allowed to cook a little longer and the sauce gets a little more caramelized adding just even more flavor to the dish.

Canola oil – This is what I had to test the recipe with, but you can really use any flavorless oil for this recipe. You really want the flavors of the sauce to come and shine here, therefore a flavorless oil is somewhat of a necessity.

Hosin Sauce – If you aren’t familiar, this is a thick, fragrant sauce that is a staple in chinese cooking as a glaze for meats, in stir fry, and as a dipping sauce. There are a ton of recipes to make your own or you can buy a jar of it at the Asian grocer or on the Asian food aisle of many supermarkets. When I first made this recipe I made visits to three different stores, and my corner Bodega which usually has everything, and I couldn’t find a jar of this stuff. Amazon Prime Now kind of saved the day when they had hoisin sauce, but it was a “sauce & marinade” and I used it anyway. And it was spectacular. So, you can go the more traditional route and use a proper hoisin sauce or you can use Soy Vay Hoisin Garlic sauce in its place.

Butter lettuce – If there is any lettuce I like, It’s butter lettuce. It appears to be delicate, but it’s really not. Do not judge this lettuce by its appearance. Often times I will put the chicken mixture in a bowl and a pile of torn butter lettuce leaves on top and I’ve got an instant salad for lunch. This lettuce has also proven to be a worthy vessel for the delivery of food, including these wraps. When buying the whole head, there are usually several options including “live” or “living” where the root ball is still attached, or just the regular head that’s been traditionally harvested. Either one works, but if you think you’ll be keeping the head around a bit longer, and you can afford it, go for the living lettuce.

1 tablespoon canola oil
1 small or half a large onion, finely chopped
1 pound ground chicken
1/3 cup hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon grated, fresh ginger
1 tablespoon sriracha
1 can whole water chestnuts, chopped
2 green onions, thinly sliced

1 head green or red butter lettuce, leaves separated and washed

Prep your meal by finely chopping your onion and setting aside, thinly slice the green onion, drain and chip your water chestnuts, they can placed in the same prep bowl as your green onion as they will be added to the pan at the same time. Grate the fresh ginger using a microplane grater or the fine holes on your regular grater into a bowl, then add the hoisin sauce, soy sauce, rice vinegar, and sriracha. Mix the sauce well and set aside.

Heat your skillet over a medium-high heat. Add oil, wait 30 seconds and then add your onion. You do not want to brown your onion, but cook it down. Keep an eye on the onions and move them around when needed, again you are not looking for them to brown. You want them translucent, but still firm as they will continue to cook.

Next add the ground chicken. A couple of things here to help break it up into small pieces. You can add it in small clumps and chop it up with your wooden spoon and you move it around the pan as its cooking. You can also use a potato masher or pastry blender to break up the ground chicken as well. I usually dump it in the pan as a large clump, and then use my wooden spoon to break it up as its cooking. This is a bit more method, but it works. You want your chicken to cook thoroughly.

Once the chicken is cooked thoroughly, add your sauce directly into the skillet. Stir well to fully incorporate it into cooked chicken. Let this cook for an additional 5-7 minutes. You want this to reduce, but to also flavor the chicken. Add in the water chestnuts and green onion and cook an additional 3-4 minutes. Keep an eye out to make sure not to burn the mixture. If it does get too dry, add in a tablespoon of water.

Serve in the lettuce leafs. Will serve 4-5 as an appetizer, or 2-3 as for a main meal for lunch or dinner.

The First

This was the first recipe I ever made. I was fourteen, living with my dad, and pretty much done with having eggs for dinner every night. I found the Betty Crocker Recipe Box that I’m assuming was a wedding gift to my parents when they got married in the early 70’s. I remember looking through every card and fulling reading every recipe, just as I do with almost every cookbook I come across. And then I came across this gem… The Porcupine Meatballs. 
They looked fun, as much as they could in a 20 year old, faded picture on the card. And the recipe not only seemed simple enough, we just happened to have all the ingredients in the house at that very moment. I went into the kitchen, used almost every possible prep bowl I could use, created a pile of dishes for days, and ended with a finished product that I was really proud of. I don’t remember how it tasted, but I do remember taking the white pyrex baking dish, you know the ones with the blue flowers on them, out of the avocado green oven, and being utterly pleased with myself. From that moment on I knew food would be a thing in my life. 
Here I am over 20 years later and just made this recipe again the other day. With my more advanced pallet and desire for some really good flavors, I made a few adjustments to the recipe. The bones of this recipe are the same: meat, rice, and tomato sauce. But I added in some helpers to bring in a little more flavor. I also served this with some wagon wheel pasta I tossed with some butter, garlic, and parmesan cheese. Ok, a hefty amount of parmesan cheese. Also some zucchini I sauted with olive oil and garlic. It was a good meal. A quick meal. A hearty meal that also brought me leftovers for days.  

Porcupine Meatballs
(adapted from The Betty Crocker Recipe Card Library, copyright 1971, General Mills, Inc.)
1 lb ground beef, ground turkey, or other ground meat (bison anyone???)
1/2 cup uncooked long grain rice
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup chopped onion
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1/4 garlic powder or granulated garlic
2 8-oz cans no salt tomato sauce*
7 oz water
2-3 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp garlic powder or granulated garlic
1/2 tsp onion powder
1/4 tsp ancho chili powder**
1/2 tsp ground cumin
Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Combine the first seven ingredients in a bowl and mix well. In your ungreased 8×8 pan, roll the meat mixture in even sized meatballs. You should get about 16 even sized meatballs.
In a bowl combine the rest of the ingredients and mix well. Taste the sauce to make sure it is flavored to your liking, and season more if needed. Pour the tomato sauce mixture over the meatballs and cover with foil. Bake for 45 minutes, then remove the foil and bake an additional 15-20 minutes.
  • * It’s important for me to be able to control the salt in my cooking as much as possible. It’s not out of a dietary need, but out of knowing what is going into my food. On the occasion I need to use canned products I opt for organic and no or low salt when I can. This is not always an option, but I seek it out whenever possible. 
  • ** I used ancho chili powder because it was what I grabbed out of my spice cabinet. When I was putting the jar away during clean up i did find my regular chili powder and would have used that and more of it.