Monday, June 15, 2015
When I was about 26 I began to teach myself how to cook. Out of both curiosity and necessity. As I have shared here before I was once very overweight, and learning to cook for myself was a huge step in the process of losing the extra pounds. I had dabbled a bit before in the kitchen and I could certainly make basics like pasta or marinated steak tips; but with the need for healthy food came a curiosity in cooking that had apparently laid dormant for years. One of the first “fancy” foods I experimented with were Asian Lettuce Wraps, just like these. I made them for a New Years Eve party with my roommates that was more “5 people getting drunk and having a violent dance party” than “actual party” but you know in those days, if the party was small you just committed yourself to drinking until it got weird or someone split their pants break dancing on the kitchen floor.
I feel very fortunate that much of my knowledge in the kitchen seems to be innate. And more fortunate still that I don’t just take an interest in preparing food, but a great joy in it. Because we all gotta eat, right? I learned both this approach and my basic skills from many women in my life, but one in particular: my mother. Even though frozen, convenience and microwave foods were totally en vogue in the 80s (actually so was En Vogue now that I mention it- ba dump bah!), my mom was making her own pizza dough and dinner rolls; experimenting with homemade “Chinese Food” (basically just add soy sauce and water chestnuts to anything) and showing up in the kitchen, night after night, making simple, satisfying homemade food for all of us with the kind of enthusiasm that cannot be taught, only inherited.
Now I find myself years later, once again with weight to lose (thanks pregnancy). So I’m stepping back on the scale and stepping into unfamiliar territory- this time new motherhood. I am again pleasantly surprised and infinitely grateful that at least a bit of this work feels innately known, second nature and yes, filled with joy. Becoming a mother makes me feel far more connected to all the women in my life- moms and grandmothers, aunts, cousins and friends. And feeling lucky that even though until very recently their particular skill set when it comes to childrearing did not necessarily pique my interest, that just by knowing them, I was learning whether I knew it or not. By proximity alone. So I guess I should say thanks to all the moms in my life that have done this first and of course, thank you, Pizzer. For showing me how to shush a fussy baby, sauté a mean stir fry and most of all to approach the part of my life that is decidedly domestic with not just energy but passion. Because the approach really makes all the difference.
ASIAN LETTUCE WRAPS
1 head Boston lettuce, leaves removed from stem and washed
2-3 tbsp. olive oil
¾ - 1 lb. ground pork
1 small onion, minced
1 red pepper, seeded and minced
8-10 white button mushrooms, cleaned and diced
3 scallions, chopped
2-3 tbsp. grated ginger
3 cloves garlic
4 tbsp. soy sauce
2-3 tsp. rice vinegar
Juice from ½ orange or tangerine; or from one whole Clementine (approx. 3-4 tbsp. orange juice)
A few dashes of Fish Sauce
Sriracha, to taste
1-2 tsp. honey
Toasted sesame oil (about 1 tsp.) (optional)
Toasted, chopped cashews or peanuts (about ½ - ¾ cup) (optional)
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium to medium-high heat. Add pork and sauté until no pink bits remain, push to one side and reduce heat to medium. Add onion, red pepper and mushrooms to the pan and sauté until fragrant and softened and mushrooms are a bit browned, about 5 minutes. Add an extra drizzle of oil if the pan seems dry, then add in garlic, scallions and ginger to the pan and sweat for a few minutes, stirring constantly. Fold pork in with the rest of the ingredients and stir together well. Drizzle in soy sauce, rice vinegar, orange juice, fish sauce, Sriracha and honey and stir together well. Let simmer for about 3-5 minutes, stirring often.
Taste and adjust seasonings as you wish. If you want a bit more salt: add another dash or two of soy; sweetness- drizzle in a touch more honey and juice; tang- vinegar; heat- Sriracha, you get the point. I usually add a bit more of everything, being most careful with the salt (because it’s hard to go back once you go overboard) and the honey (because you don’t want a sauce that’s going to stick to the pan). Finish with a drizzle of toasted sesame oil (about 1 tsp.) and crushed cashews or peanuts, if you like.
Serve hot or warm with cold lettuce leaves alongside. I like to make this into a full meal by making some white or brown rice to serve with. Even though you need to do a lot of chopping and prep- the dish itself comes together quite quickly and makes for a really impressive appetizer. If I am entertaining I like to make this ahead and then gently reheat it- it warms up very nicely. Make sure the lettuce leaves stay really cold in the fridge because the contrast of cold leaves and warm filling is what really makes this dish a stunner.