Chicken lettuce wraps are loaded with flavor

February 15, 2019

Earlier this month, one of my columns sparked a fascinating email conversation with reader Connie Groll. She reacted to how many dairy ingredients were featured in the recipes that week and asked if I would consider writing about the kinds of dishes that would be appealing to people with lactose intolerance.

First, a definition. Lactose intolerance occurs when you have a deficiency in the enzyme lactase, which is necessary for digestion of lactose, the sugar found in milk. If you look across the broad array of dairy foods, you can surmise which ones are problematic for those with lactose intolerance: milk, yogurt, cream, butter, ice cream, sour cream and cheese.

What may be surprising are all the other foods that include milk and milk-based ingredients in their manufacture: baked goods, pancake mixes, breakfast cereals, soups, candy, salad dressings, deli meats, drink mixes, antacids and margarine. Don’t be fooled by “non-dairy” on the label, as many of these products can contain lactose derivatives.

If you need to avoid lactose, you should become a skillful label-reader to determine whether or not a particular food is safe. You’ll have to look for things that don’t exactly sound like milk: whey, casein, hydrolysates, lactalbumin, artificial butter flavor. Some reputable food processors have begun noting “contains wheat, soy, milk” on their product labels.

How do you replace these dairy-based foods in your diet? It’s actually not that difficult, so long as you remain vigilant. Good Earth makes non-dairy sour cream, cream cheese and butter replacements. Smart Balance has new formulations of butter in stick and tub options that are lactose free. You can also find yogurt varieties made with soy, almonds or pea protein to eliminate lactose.

As you have probably noticed, replacing cow’s milk is an easy switch. You can find plant-based “milks” made from soy, rice, almond, oat, potato and hemp. Connie shared her recipe for making an almond-oat milk blend that will add just the right “milky” notes to your morning cup of coffee or bowl of oatmeal.

I also learned something I’d never before considered – almonds are not nuts. Although we treat them as nuts from a culinary standpoint, botanically they’re known as drupes. These are a type of fruit with a fleshy outer layer surrounding a pit with a seed inside. Almonds are actually related to peaches, but instead of eating the flesh, we eat the seed.

One of the biggest challenges with lactose intolerance is making sure restaurant menu items are made without dairy. For example, mayonnaise (made from oil and egg yolk) has no dairy ingredients. Most cole slaw dressings, chicken and egg salads are made with mayonnaise and spices. However, it’s not uncommon for chefs to whisk in cream cheese for a richer texture - you need to ask to be sure.

The variety of lactose-free and dairy-free foods is vast, giving you an almost endless ingredient list, once you learn what to avoid and which substitutes are safe. I’ve included three recipes shared by Connie Groll: “milk” and two dips that can be served with vegetables or as a tasty spread on crackers. I’ve also included how to make the chicken lettuce wraps in the photo, loaded with Asian flavors and not a drop of dairy. Thank you, Connie!

Connie’s Non-Dairy Milk

6 1/2 C water
1/3 C sliced almonds*
1/3 C rolled oatmeal
1 T honey (optional)
1/8 t vanilla
pinch salt

Combine water, almonds and oats in the bowl of a blender; process for 10-12 minutes. Pour mixture through a strainer, collecting liquid in a bowl; discard solids and return liquid to the blender. Add honey (if using), vanilla and salt; process until thoroughly combined. Store in sealed glass jars in the refrigerator for up to 3-4 days. *Note: substitute blanched almonds or whole almonds that have been soaked in water to soften.

Connie’s Almond Spread

1 C blanched almonds
1/2 C water
1 T lemon juice
1/2 t onion powder
1/2 t salt

Combine ingredients in a blender or small food processor. Pulse until smooth. Serve with celery or carrot sticks or with crackers.

Connie’s Pumpkin Seed Spread

3 cloves garlic
1 3/4 C raw pumpkin seeds
Juice of 4 limes
1/2 t cayenne pepper
1 t cumin powder
Dash salt
2 1/2 t nutritional yeast

Combine ingredients in a blender or small food processor. Pulse until smooth. Serve with bell pepper strips or corn chips.

Chicken Lettuce Wraps

1 T grated ginger
1 pressed garlic clove
1 T toasted sesame oil
1 T soy sauce
1 T seasoned rice vinegar
pinch sugar (optional)
1/4 t pepper
1 C cooked chicken, shredded
4 lettuce leaves
1/2 C carrot matchsticks
1/2 C red bell pepper matchsticks
1 sliced green onion
1 T sesame seeds

In a small bowl, whisk together ginger, garlic, sesame oil, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar and pepper. Add shredded chicken and allow to stand for 5 minutes. To serve, spoon the chicken mixture on the lettuce leaves; garnish with carrot, red pepper, green onion and sesame seeds. Yield: 4 servings.