I don’t hate P.F. Chang’s. I think they have some lovely cocktails, and the food isn’t bad, but I’ve always found it ridiculous that people will wait up to 2 hours to eat there on a Saturday night for overpriced “fancy” Chinese food served by blond college kids. I like my Chinese restaurants old-school and cheap, like Hop Louie in Chinatown or Ming’s in Bellflower.
One dish of theirs that I am fond of is their Lettuce Wrap appetizer, and I was thinking that would make a great Friday night dinner at home–fun, fast, and not heating up the kitchen because it’s still 95° outside at 5 PM. It’s not an exact replica (a quick check on Google shows the recipe is definitely out there), and it really wasn’t my intention to copy the restaurant, but to make a spicy, full-of-vegetables filling that caters to our own personal tastes.
I just love these colors.
For the onion and bell pepper, I diced them small. It’s important for a stir fry to have the items that take longer to cook, such as onions, carrots, celery to be sliced thinly or diced small. Stir fries are done on high heat and should not take more than a few minutes to cook.
I’m a fan of recycling my plastic takeout cups like these, along with a bunch of random plastic tubs that fresh mozzarella or pizza sauce comes in. When I’m prepping a dish like this, where it’s best to have everything chopped and ready to go before the actual cooking, those little tubs come in handy.
This goes in with one of the first lessons of culinary school: mise en place (literally, putting in place), but we definite it as “everything in its place.” All the vegetables are chopped, the steaks are trimmed, pasta is par-boiled, the ovens preheated, utensils set in a bain marie next to the stove so they’re in easy reach–all done to make a chef’s job efficient while cooking on the line in a restaurant. It’s a concept that once a home cook masters it, the matter of throwing together a meal becomes easier.
See what I mean? Nice little pieces of chicken breast, happily caramelizing in oil, hot splatters hitting my arm…
The chicken gets cooked in 2 batches; chicken breast dries out quickly, and if I were to dump all of the chicken in at once, it would bring the pan temperature down, as well as all of that chicken giving off juices would mean there would be no quick browning and a longer cooking time–definitely not what we’d like to see here.
Once the chicken is cooked and set aside, the onion and bell pepper go in and cook until translucent and just starting to brown; the bok choy and bean sprouts get tossed in–these cook very quickly, a minute and a few stirs, and the chicken goes back in the pan.
Some chicken stock, some soy sauce, a little garlic, red pepper flakes, black pepper, and a tiny bit of Chinese Five Spice (go easy on that stuff, it can overpower a dish before you know it) whisked with cornstarch makes a fast sauce; if I had thought of it before, I probably would have put a little bit of rice vinegar for a little bit of acid to brighten up the sauce, then again–I didn’t miss it, either.
Once the sauce thickens, take the wok off the heat, stir in some cilantro, and you are ready to go.
WAIT. I FORGOT SOMETHING.
Call it Bibb, Boston, Butter, Butterhead or Limestone Lettuce; I’m calling it Perfect for using in Lettuce Wraps. Iceberg lettuce has its place (wedged, with blue cheese dressing), but the crisp texture causes it to break when you’re trying to, you know, wrap your filling. Bibb lettuce leaves are soft and flexible, and have a slight sweetness to them that works just right with the heat of the dish. This one was sold in one of those clear boxes with the roots still attached to the bottom–instant science lesson for Kiddo while we were in the market.
Take lettuce leaf. Fill with a generous spoonful of chicken. Eat. Be Happy. And when the chicken is all gone, do what Choo did and fill the serving bowl with rice, to sop up all the leftover sauce and bits.
Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps
2 generous main dish servings; 4 if serving with other dishes
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
appx. 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts (3 medium-sized, in my case), trimmed of fat, diced small
1 yellow or white onion, diced small
1 red bell pepper, diced small
1 head baby bok choy, sliced thinly
1 cup bean sprouts
1/2 cup cold chicken stock (if not homemade, use low-sodium broth)
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 Tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or more)
1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon Chinese Five Spice
1 Tablespoon + 1 teaspoon corn starch
Salt to taste (I still needed about a 1/2 teaspoon when I tasted it)
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped, plus extra for garnish, if desired
1 head of Bibb lettuce, washed, dried, and leaves separated
- On a high flame, heat wok or large skillet. Add vegetable and sesame oils.
- Add half of the chicken and fry, stirring often, until just cooked and turning brown, about 3 minutes. Remove chicken from pan, put into a bowl, and set aside. Repeat this with the second batch of chicken.
- Add onion and bell pepper and cook until glossy, translucent, and just starting to get a little brown, about 4-5 minutes.
- Add bok choy and bean sprouts, toss until incorporated and bok choy is wilted, about 1 minute.
- Return chicken to pan.
- In a bowl, whisk together chicken stock, garlic, soy sauce, red pepper flakes, black pepper, Chinese Five Spice, and cornstarch; pour into pan and stir until sauce has thickened and coated everything.
- Take off heat, salt to taste, and stir in cilantro.
- Pour into serving dish, and serve with lettuce leaves.
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