I’ll be honest, I have always been a little against iceberg lettuce. Yeah, I was a snob. It’s not offensive to my taste buds, I certainly ate it on many a Big Mac, but I never really bought it myself since I always considered it devoid of actual nutrients and thus… any real value.
Growing up in BC, I was spoiled in this respect as our climate is perfect for growing tasty leaves. Greens are plentiful, colourful and flavourful. Red leaf, green leaf, arugula, dandelion, chard, sorrel, radicchio, endive…
So, I became a greens snob.
Back in my days as a wandering hippie living out of a van, I would go through periods where I would start craving veggies in a big way. I ate pretty healthy during this period, especially considering I had no source of refrigeration and only one small camp stove, but every once in a while, beans or lentils on rice… just didn’t cut it anymore. Neither did the pawpaw (translation: papaya) I scrumped (translation: borrowed with no intention of returning?) from the tree growing near the end of the beach. Nor the yabbies (translation: freshwater prawns) I caught from the creek. Nope, I wanted VEGETABLES.
My mum would have been so proud.
Trouble is, food is expensive in Australia! Especially veggies. Especially greens.
I get it. I was in Broome, a spectacularly beautiful town at the north western edge of Australia. It was 36 degrees out on a good day and 33 on a bad one. The few small clouds which occasionally passed through the vibrantly blue sky only served to gussy up the already stunning sunsets every night, which I would watch from the front seat of my van, parked right on the beach, a warm beer in my hand. It was so beautiful I wasn’t even all that bothered that, due to my aforementioned lack of refrigeration, all my beer was perpetually lukewarm.
It was heaven but it was not, by any means, a lettuce growing climate.
I would stroll through the overly air conditioned Woolworths and gaze lovingly at the capsicums (translation: bell peppers) and cucumbers, both prohibitively expensive. The local pumpkin (translation: any kind of squash) was cheap, amazing and deeply flavourful but I needed greens, greeeeens… I was like a zombie going after brains made out of folic acid.
The one head of lettuce I tracked down was a tightly wound, anemic looking ball of iceberg lettuce. And it was $6.
Considering I was currently spending that on ‘rent’ each night at my campsite, it seems like a rather huge expense (and yes, I know I was also drinking warm beer which was undoubtedly more expensive but give me a break, I was also like 22 years old- priorities).
I still bought it.
I turned right back around and bought a second head. This was going to be an expensive night.
Have you ever noticed that when you spend money, it becomes infinitely easier to spend more money? It’s as if the seal has been broken- if you’re going to get wet you may as well go swimming.
This second head I would cherish. I would make a proper meal out of. I bought chicken (also a startlingly pricey endeavor), and some chili sauce. And more beer, because um, of course. (also, if I drank the first one right after shopping it was actually cold!)
It was stunning.
Between the sunset, the camels walking past (did I mention there were camels? Yeah, that’s a thing.), the ocean as warm as bathwater, my somewhat cool beer and my belly full of lettuce, it was a very, very good day for Nomad Hippie Finn.
It’s the small things, right?
A few short years later, I find myself not worrying so much about the price of lettuce. I spend my days wearing blazers and drinking coffee in an office with people I mostly enjoy, doing things I mostly enjoy. I don’t dip my feet in the sand as much, but my days at the office affords me other adventures, like growing my own lettuce in my very own garden. It’s a trade-off, but I think I’m okay with it.
I recently found myself out for some overpriced after-work cocktails with a couple colleagues and I saw on the menu they had sweet chili chicken lettuce wraps. The second I crunched into the first one, it brought me right back.
Determined to make them myself now, of course, I set out to perfect the recipe and top what I had done back on Cable Beach. I would rebuild it- better. And thus, I bring you my Szechuan Chicken Lettuce Wraps.
They are not authentic Szechuan, obviously, but with the garlicy, chili sauce, I mean… gimme a break, I gotta give them some kind of saucy name. And yes, I will insist on iceberg lettuce, and not just for my own nostalgic purposes. Iceberg lettuce is perfect for wraps like this because it keeps its shape and crunch- no soggy wraps here! The crunch and water content of the lettuce is a perfect textural and flavourful compliment to some sweet, spicy (and crunchy, but in an entirely different way) chicken. Third type of crunch: chow mein noodles. Fourth crunch: peanuts. A-ma-zing. I’m not kidding. Top it all off with some tangy, lightly spiced yogurt and you have got yourself the perfect mouthful.
I even baked the chicken this time instead of frying it because, well, I’m not as small and wiry as I was back in Broome. We all have to make compromises.
I still can’t bring myself to grow iceberg lettuce, though. Buttercrunch, arugula, curly endive, rainbow chard, Amish deer tongue.
|Szechuan Chicken Lettuce Wraps|| |
- 2 chicken breasts, cut into small strips
- 1 egg
- ⅛ cup water
- ½ cup panko crumbs
- ¼ cup flour
- 1 tsp baking soda
- ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ cup sweet chili sauce
- 1 Tbsp soy sauce
- 1 Tbsp rice wine vinegar
- ¼ tsp sesame oil
- 2 tsp sesame seeds, lightly toasted
- Yogurt sauce:
- 1 cup plain yogurt
- 1 tsp Chinese five spice
- 1 tsp Szechuan chili pepper oil
- 1 tsp lemon juice
- To serve:
- 1 head iceberg lettuce, cut in half through the stem
- 1 small bunch fresh cilantro
- ¼ cup peanuts, lightly toasted
- 1 cup Farkay chow mein noodles
- Fresh lime wedges
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In a medium bowl, mix together panko crumbs, flour, baking soda and black pepper. In a separate bowl, lightly whisk the egg and water together. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Toss sliced chicken flour mixture, followed by the egg mixture and then dredge each strip back in the flour mixture. Lay strips on the baking sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes, until lightly golden.
- In a small bowl, mix all yogurt sauce ingredients together. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, mix together the chili sauce, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar and sesame oil. Add the cooked chicken strips and toss to coat. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.
- Cut the head of iceberg lettuce in half laterally, through the stem. Rinse each half well and serve the wedge of lettuce alongside the chicken strips, fresh cilantro, chow mein noodles, lime wedges and peanuts. Use the leaves of lettuce to form little chicken wraps with the rest of the fixings as you eat.