I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: there is no point to iceberg lettuce. I came to this conclusion in my undergrad, when I subsisted on subs from my residence snack shop. Staff there liked to load up my sandwich with limp, day-old shredded lettuce as if it had any kind of value, nutritional or otherwise. To this day, I generally scoff at iceberg lettuce (or “just water and green,” as I call it). “Is there an exception?” you might ask. “Thanks for that question,” I would answer. “The exception is when you wrap it around meat.”
See, Chinese cooking likes to do this thing to vegetables where it makes them better by adding meat (sorry, vegetarians). Chinese lettuce wraps feature a savoury stir-fry of mushrooms, preserved vegetables and chicken. And they have the added bonus of transforming a normally useless leaf into a crunchy, refreshing meat delivery system. Topped with some crispy rice noodles and mouth-numbing Szechuan peppercorns, lettuce wraps are loaded with flavour and complex textures that will seriously impress at your next dinner party.
I specify dinner party because, while this dish is great as a special meal at home, it’s best shared among friends, served family or buffet style. Pass platters of lettuce and chicken separately and instruct guests to build their own, starting with a piece of lettuce and loading it up with chicken and toppings so they can wrap it and eat with their hands, like a taco. Note that the proportions here are for a potluck or dinner party appetizer. You can cut it in half to serve three to four people as a main dish.
If you’re still not convinced that this dish makes iceberg lettuce worth the space it takes up, then you can use some other leaf variety for the wrap. In this case, “water” and “green” are actually what you’re looking for — use something with some crunch and structure such as Boston or Webb lettuce, not a flimsy salad green. Here’s a tip for crispier lettuce: rinse and shake dry ahead of time, then wrap loosely in paper towel and throw in your crisper drawer for a few hours before serving. Because there’s nothing more pointless than a head of limp iceberg lettuce.
Chicken lettuce wraps
- 2 heads iceberg lettuce
- 900 g (2 lbs.) ground chicken
- 1 small can water chestnuts, minced
- 2 carrots, finely chopped
- 55 g (2 oz) Szechuan preserved
- 10 shiitake mushrooms, diced small
- Vegetable oil
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 bunch green onions, chopped, white and green parts separated
- 15 ml (1 tbsp) rice wine or sherry
- 15 ml (1 tbsp) Szechuan peppercorns*
- 115 g (4 oz) vermicelli rice noodles*
- Rinse and dry lettuce leaves; refrigerate.
- Mix chicken and marinade ingredients in a bowl.
- Stir in water chestnuts, carrots, preserved vegetables and mushrooms. Marinate at least 20 min.
- Combine all sauce ingredients in a small bowl.
- Heat about an inch of vegetable oil in a medium saucepan on medium-high. Drop noodles into oil in batches until they puff up (a few seconds), then remove and place on paper towel.
- Toast peppercorns in a small pan until fragrant. Remove, cool and crush.
- Heat 45 ml (3 tbsp) of vegetable oil in wok or large frying pan on medium-high until oil smokes. Add garlic and white parts of green onion; stir for 30 seconds.
- Add chicken, flipping and breaking up frequently until meat cooks through.
- Add rice wine and allow to sizzle. Add sauce and mix. Remove chicken to a serving dish and top with remaining green onion. Serve with lettuce, crispy noodles and peppercorns.
Sara Chan is a Toronto-based entertainment lawyer, food enthusiast and unprofessional home chef. Her favourite food group is pork.