Try cool lettuce cups in heat of summer

July 29, 2013

With temperatures ranging between 90 and 100 degrees this week, the thought of turning on the stove is a daunting prospect (let alone lighting the oven or standing outside next to the grill). If we didn’t need more protein in our diets, I’d choose cereal for breakfast, yogurt for lunch and ice cream for dinner.

Since those are not the best options for well-rounded, healthy meals, we’ve found some cooler alternatives to add to our weekly menus. One of our current favorites is the versatile lettuce wrap, filled with all sorts of savory selections.

The dish in the photo is more accurately called a lettuce cup, as the leaf is left open instead of closed around the contents. This dish required a brief moment of stovetop cooking: I used thin chicken cutlets cut into bite-sized pieces. If you started with a store-bought rotisserie chicken, you could toss the ingredients together in a bowl.

A combination of toasted sesame oil, soy sauce, ginger, bell peppers and minced onion infused the sautéed chicken bits with a salty bite. Chili garlic sauce (just a dash) contributes the perfect amount of spicy heat to help your mouth appreciate the crisp, cool lettuce leaf.

The best lettuces to use for wraps are those with rounded leaves and without sturdy center ribs. Outer leaves of an iceberg head would be too big and floppy; romaine leaves are too stiff. Better choices are Bibb (also known as Boston or Butterhead lettuce) and other looseleaf or bunching varieties. For a more aggressively flavored wrap, consider purple-hued radicchio or pale green endive.

Lettuce is a member of the sunflower or aster family of plants and has been cultivated for centuries. Ancient Egyptians are believed to be the first to harvest lettuce, using the seeds to produce oil and eventually the leaves for food. The Roman name for lettuce (lactuca) contains the Latin word for milk, a reference to the milky substance the leaves exude when cut.

Because lettuce is prized for its tender leaves, growing conditions and timing are critical. Instead of allowing them to reach maturity and produce flowers (at which point their leaves have become bitter and inedible) the heads are harvested within a few months of planting. Their high water content (almost 95 percent) means lettuce must be eaten fresh; it can’t be frozen or canned.

Prior to the sophisticated transportation networks we have today, lettuce would only be available in local markets near the farms that produced it. Unfortunately, chilling and packaging techniques have been developed to allow lettuce distributors to reach supermarket shelves around the globe. For my table, the freshest, best-tasting lettuce comes from local growers, even if you can’t find it year-round.

In the recipes below, I’ve included several dishes that can be served in a lettuce cup or wrap. All of these are easily modified to feature your favorite foods and preferred seasonings. Almost any egg or chicken salad would look pretty and taste summery served in a lettuce wrap. Taco and quesadilla fillings could easily make the transition from tortilla to lettuce. In fact, you can substitute lettuce leaves for bread in most sandwiches to reduce calories and increase healthy fiber, although I probably wouldn’t try it with peanut butter and jelly.

Sesame Chicken Lettuce Cups

1 T toasted sesame oil
1 T soy sauce
1 T rice wine vinegar
1 t grated fresh ginger
1/4 t chili garlic sauce (or to taste)
2 sliced green onions
1/4 C chopped red bell pepper
1 C shredded cooked chicken*
4 lettuce leaves
1/2 t sesame seeds

In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, soy sauce, vinegar, ginger, garlic sauce. Add green onion and chicken, tossing to combine. Spoon 1/4 of the chicken mixture into each lettuce leaf and sprinkle with sesame seeds.
*Alternatively, cut thin slices of chicken cutlet into a dice and cook in a skillet with sauce ingredients.

BLT Lettuce Wraps

6 slices bacon
1 large tomato
1 1/2 T mayonnaise
ground pepper, to taste
5 lettuce leaves
snipped chives

Cook the bacon until crisp. Drain and crumble; set aside. Dice the tomato into a small bowl. Add the mayonnaise, pepper and bacon; stir to combine and set aside. Arrange 4 of the lettuce leaves on a serving plate. Cut the remaining leaf into a fine shred. Divide the shredded lettuce among the 4 leaves and top with chopped tomato-bacon mixture. Garnish with snipped chives and roll to enclose filling.

Black Bean Lettuce Wrap

15 oz can black beans
1 T olive oil
1 T red wine vinegar
1/2 t chili powder
1/4 C sliced green onions
1 C cooked rice
8-10 Bibb lettuce leaves
1/2 C salsa
1/2 C shredded cheddar cheese

Drain and rinse the beans; set aside. Whisk together the olive oil, vinegar and chili powder in a small bowl. Stir in the green onion and rice; set aside. Spoon beans into the lettuce leaves and top with rice mixture. Add a dollop of salsa and sprinkle with cheddar cheese. Roll to enclose filling.

Tuna Salad Lettuce Cups

2 5-oz cans solid white tuna
1 t lemon juice
3 T diced celery
6 T mayonnaise
2 t Dijon mustard
1/4 t finely chopped dill
1 minced shallot
1 T minced parsley
Salt & pepper, to taste
4-6 lettuce leaves
1 diced tomato

Drain the tuna; flake tuna into a medium bowl and toss with lemon juice. Add remaining ingredients and stir to combine. Distribute the tuna mixture onto the lettuce leaves and top with tomato pieces. Roll lettuce to enclose filling or use cup-shaped leaves and serve open.

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