I’d like to dedicate this recipe to my youngest brother.
He’s on a mission to start cooking. I know so because he paused momentarily from inhaling his food at the Thai restaurant we were at the other day and told me. This may not sound earth-shattering, but then you haven’t met my youngest brother. He’s seriously talented, has a great career, and is really good at throwing amazing parties (side note: if you ever meet him, definitely finagle an to invite one of his parties), but he hasn’t spent much time in the kitchen.
But the lack of cooking skills, well, it’s not his fault. We cook a lot in my family, but he somehow missed that boat. Likely because when he was younger, I had my own budding cooking ambitions and was too busy using him as my human guinea pig — forcing him to taste my latest macaroni-and-cheese or cheesecake concoction — to teach him to cook. So, now, when he says he wants to cook, I listen. We’re starting out with this recipe because this is precisely what he was stuffing in his face back at that Thai restaurant.
Ok, that’s not the only reason we’re starting with this recipe. It’s because lettuce wraps are easy and healthy yet aren’t another bland, boring recipe found in most beginner cookbooks. My thinking is to teach him what he already likes eating, so he’s way likely to make it again (like, when I’m not over his shoulder coaching him through his kitchen conquests).
Another bonus? This recipe takes well under 20 minutes to make, so kitchen newbies won’t be overwhelmed. And, this recipe is in itself a lesson, showing important cooking stuffs like why you don’t want to overcrowd your food (hint: the meat will steam instead of saute and be anemic looking). Also, these lettuce wraps are pretty healthy. True, it quickly becomes unhealthy if you add too much fish sauce and sugar but those ingredients are easy to keep in check.
One last word about these wraps: these are not those glazed, sweet, goopy things you find at PF Changs — these are a simplified, not-that-authentic twist on larb, a sort of meat salad (though that description doesn’t do it justice) found throughout Thailand and Laos. The result is a dish with bright flavors, made with ingredients you can find pretty much anywhere. (The fish sauce may be a curve ball in some parts but it’s worth the hunt). Turn to this anytime you’re in need of something easy and quick but want more of a meal than a box of cereal.
A big bonus is that you can easily fancify it for summer entertaining. All you have to do is serve it in bite-sized portions, because, honestly, mini portions make anything fancier. I use itty bitty lettuce pieces, fill them with a tablespoon or so of the meat and serve it as an easy finger food — perfect for summer entertaining (like, say, at one my brother’s fast-approaching pool parties).
Thai-Style Lettuce Wraps Recipe
A few words about ingredients before you dive in: Fish sauce is pretty widely available in both standard grocery stores and ethnic markets. If you have a choice, go for extra virgin or first pressing because it will have better flavor. You could use a variety of oils here but I’m partial the slight tropical flavor that coconut oil lends. If you’ve never handled ginger before, check out this tip on how to peel it. Then, to make quick work of preparing it, just grate it (and your garlic) on a rasp grater. Finally, I like to up the chile flavor by using both ground chile powder and a fresh chile. If you don’t like heat, leave one or both out.
- Makes: 3 to 4 servings
- Total Time: 15 minutes
- Hands-On Time: 10 minutes
- 3 tablespoons fish sauce
- 2 to 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
- 1 tablespoon packed light brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon coconut, grapeseed, or peanut oil
- 4 shallots, halved and thinly sliced
- 6 green onions, trimmed and thinly sliced
- 2 inches ginger, peeled and grated
- 4 garlic cloves, grated
- 1 pound lean ground chicken or turkey
- 1 tablespoon pure chile powder
- 1 jalapeno or fresno chile, trimmed and finely chopped
- Kosher salt
- 1/3 cup thinly sliced fresh cilantro (or mint of Thai basil if you can find it) (about 1/2 ounce), plus more for garnish
- 1 head Romaine, Red Lettuce, or Boston lettuce, washed and separated
- Lime wedges, for serving (optional)
Combine the fish sauce, 2 tablespoons of the lime juice, and sugar in a small jar, close, and shake until the sugar is dissolved. (You could also whisk this — just make sure that sugar is well mixed in.) Taste the sauce and, if you want it fresher and brighter and less funky, add the remaining 1 tablespoon of lime juice.
Heat oil in a large nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat. When the oil shimmers, add shallots and the white parts of the green onions (save the green parts for later) and cook, stirring a few times, until golden brown, about 1 minute. Add ginger and garlic and cook a few seconds until fragrant.
Add chicken or turkey and, use a wooden spoon or spatula, to break the meat into bite-sized pieces. Season with chile powder, chile, and some kosher salt and cook, stirring rarely, until meat is cooked through and golden brown, about 5 minutes. Stir in the sauce ingredients and cook until there’s only enough left to coat the meat mixture, about 1 minute more.
Remove from heat, stir in remaining scallions and the herbs. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired. Serve hot or cold, filling each lettuce cups with a few spoonfuls of filling. Top with additional herbs and lime wedges, as desired.
Glorified: Make it more of a meal by adding some brown rice, toasted quinoa, or a cooked noodle to the meat mixture.
Modified: Make it vegetarian (for those who are okay eating fish sauce) and make this with firm tofu.
Simplified: Forget the stove and toss the sauce ingredients with leftover shredded cooked turkey or chicken.
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