I picked up a wavy green head of butter lettuce at the farmers market last weekend, fully intending to make salad. But as I washed its ruffly leaves, the neatly cupped shapes begged for something warm and savory to hold. I felt like the mouse in the kids’ book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie: If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to want a glass of milk to go with it. If you give a girl butter lettuce, she’s going to want a scoop of minced chicken, glazed with soy sauce, garlic and ginger, to go in it.
In these anti-grain times, lettuce is taking on new roles as surrogate hamburger buns or taco wrappers. But this Chinese dish, traditionally served in iceberg leaves, has in fact been around for ages. It’s not strictly paleo food, since soybeans (in hoisin sauce and soy sauce) don’t hold up in paleo court. But it is legit Chinese food without rice or noodles – doing that neat Asian trick of salty-sweet-tangy-spicy, all in a snappy lettuce leaf.
Minced chicken in lettuce cups didn’t originate at PF Chang’s, but the restaurant chain gets credit for bringing the Cantonese dish to mainstream America. I’m all for authenticity, but sometimes the old school needs a bridge to the present day. Check out this recipe from an traditional cookbook I have:
The only selling point to “fried minced squab” is that looks better than “chicken kidney fritters” on the opposite page. Good food is good food, but there’s something to be said for marketing and presentation – not to mention current-day ingredients.
My California take on this dish incorporates a pile of fresh vegetables, minced fine like the chicken, which add flavor, texture and lightness while still blending right in. Even my kids who won’t touch lettuce happily wolf down the minced chicken over rice, hardly noticing the vegetables camouflaged in.
The key is in the fine dice that brings uniformity to this dish. I’m a dud with knife skills, but you don’t need precision here. Just cut strips of chicken, and then cut finely across to mince it.
Add a little soy sauce, sherry and garlic to flavor the chicken.
I cut my vegetables the same way – sticks, then dice.
I like more veggies than chicken. This is a mix of onion, zucchini, celery and carrot, but you can use mushrooms, red peppers, or whatever you like. They key is just to cut small and uniform pieces so the vegetables all cook quickly together and blend in with the chicken.
Mix sauce, using a spoon to press out any lumps of cornstarch. To make life simpler, I threw the garlic and ginger into the sauce.
Stir fry vegetables for a few minutes, until they are beginning to soften but still bright. They’ll get cooked a bit more later, so a little underdone is good.
Stir fry chicken, using a spatula or wooden spoon to separate the pieces as they cook.
Add vegetables back to skillet.
Add sauce, and stir for another minute until sauce thickens and everything is well coated.
Good eats, right here. Light eating without sacrifice.
For garnish, I love the freshness of cilantro. But when I don’t have it, I also like the salty crunch of peanuts (chopped if you are less lazy than me).
Even without garnish, the lettuce cup alone provides all the crisp contrast you could want for the richly satisfying filling.
Chicken and Veggie Lettuce Cups
This dish dates back before PF Chang’s, but the modern-day version has evolved from the Cantonese original made with squab. I use more veggies than chicken, but it’s all chopped small and blends right in. Even my kids who won’t touch the lettuce wolf down the savory chicken/veggie mixture over rice. Loosely adapted from Leite’s Culinaria.
- 1.25 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast or thigh
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon dry sherry (or white wine, or sake, or skip it)
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 small onion, cut into 1/4″ dice (about 1/2 cup)
- 1 large or 2 small stalks celery, cut into 1/4″ dice (about 2/3 cup)
- 1 medium carrot, cut into 1/4″ dice (about 1/2 cup)
- 2 medium zucchini, cut into 1/4″ dice (about 2 cups)
- 3 tablespoons cooking oil
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 2 teaspoons ginger, minced
- 4 tablespoons hoisin sauce
- 4 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons white or rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
- Crushed red pepper or sriracha sauce, to taste
- Butter lettuce or iceberg leaves, rinsed and dried
- Chopped cilantro or peanuts, for garnish (optional)
- Mince chicken finely (slice into strips, then cut into fine dice). Add soy sauce, dry sherry and minced garlic and mix well. Set aside.
- Cut vegetables into small (1/4″) dice.
- Mix sauce ingredients until well combined, using a spoon to press out any lumps of cornstarch.
- Heat a skillet over medium-high heat and add 1 tablespoon cooking oil. Add vegetables and cook for a few minutes, until they are beginning to soften but still bright (they’ll get cooked a bit more later, so a little underdone is good). Remove to a bowl.
- Return the skillet to the stove over medium-high heat, heating 2 tablespoons oil. Add chicken and cook, using a spatula or wooden spoon to separate the pieces of chicken. When chicken is cooked through (no pink), add vegetables back to the skillet, along with the prepared sauce, and cook for a minute, stirring, until sauce thickens and everything is well coated. Remove from heat. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed.
- Spoon a dollop of filling in each lettuce leaf. Garnish with chopped cilantro or peanuts, if you like.
Serves 4 as a meal, or 8+ as an appetizer.
- Feel free to substitute other fresh vegetables, such as mushrooms or red peppers. In a pinch, you could also use canned vegetables such as water chestnuts or bamboo shoots.
- Koon Chun makes the best hoisin sauce – thick, with a deep salty-sweet flavor. It’s not typically found at a regular supermarket, but it’s widely available at Asian markets. If you can’t find it, Lee Kum Kee also gets good reviews.
Here’s the link to a printable version.