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Pork in lettuce wraps gets a Texas twist |

Pork in lettuce wraps gets a Texas twist

Throughout the year, I cook off-the-cuff versions of favorite dishes, such as chili, pizza, beef stew, roast chicken and vegetable soup. I employ subtle variations, inspired by dining out or ingredients and condiments on hand. Never the same dish twice.

Same goes for a dish I first made more than three dozen years ago as a young test cook for Cuisine magazine: Minced quail in lettuce leaves. The recipe was part of a feature on the cuisine of Hong Kong.

In those pre-Instagram days, the late food writer Roy Andries de Groot captured his eating/research trip to Hong Kong with copious photographs and notes. My co-workers and I were charged with transforming those notes into magazine-friendly recipes that matched the photos. We tested all manner of dim sum, soups, fish, fried rice and even beggar’s chicken wrapped in lotus leaves and clay.

I still cook many of those dishes, but the one I return to time and time again is that quail dish. It’s a simple stir-fry of minced meat flavored with soy sauce and sesame oil. The golden stir-fry gets wrapped in crisp, chilled lettuce leaves, which cut the richness and add a fresh crunch.

Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, in her “Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking,” tells us that wrapping foods in lettuce leaves originated in China’s Guangdong province. Lettuce, a symbol of new life and growth, even hangs over the doorways in Guangdong during the Lunar New Year, which begins this year Feb. 16.

The method of wrapping foods in lettuce, Yin-Fei Lo says, has spread far beyond one Chinese province. Indeed. We now see dozens of variations of that dish in Asian restaurants all over this country. The internet has hundreds more — from authentic versions to diet-friendly blandness. The fillings morph from minced quail or squab, to chicken, shrimp, squid, vegetables and assorted mushrooms.

A recent brunch at Dai Due Butcher Shop Supper Club in Austin, Texas, featured yet another version: wild boar with winter vegetables, crunchy radishes, lime and chipotle. Exciting — especially with the drizzle of a chipotle sambal and a tangy wild game syrup. Everything gets rolled up in Boston lettuce.

Thus inspired, I knew my home version would morph again. This time with coarse ground pork and oven-roasted vegetables.

The ingredients are not expensive, the cooking is easy and several steps can be done in advance, so this lettuce-wrapped pork proves a perfect dish for a crowd. For a smaller group, you can cut the recipe in half, but just know that leftovers are delicious and versatile. I reheat them in deep bowls in the microwave and then serve the bowls topped with a fried egg and a generous squeeze of hot sauce.

There’s quite a bit of chopping to do, so this recipe is a good excuse to practice your knife skills. The chopping does not need to be exacting, since everything gets mixed together in the end. Use a large cutting board, stabilized with a piece of wet paper towel underneath. Run your knife over the sharpening steel a few times to keep the knife sharp — a dull knife can dangerously bounce off the vegetables and nick a finger.

Like most stir-fries, the higher the heat the better the browning and flavor build. You can cook the pork in a well-seasoned wok, but work in three or four batches to get nice golden edges on the meat. Alternatively, I use a very large (14-inch), deep nonstick skillet and can cook all the pork at one time. Use two skillets if you only have small ones, so you promote browning.

I serve the warm stir-fry with Boston lettuce or small romaine leaves and pass a spicy-sweet dipping sauce. A scoop of coconut rice can be enjoyed alongside or tucked into the lettuce as well. Alternatively, for appetizers, set out a bowl of the warm pork filling (no rice) with spears of Belgian endive or pita crisps. The filling also tastes great tucked into a warmed pita pocket or lightly toasted flour tortilla with shredded lettuce.

Category: Skillets  Tags: ,  Comments off
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