We've gotten a lot of lettuce in our CSA box during this last month, and the produce is not only plentiful but large. One head barely fit into our crisper. Salad can get dull after a while if one does not mix things up, so the Butter Bitch and I were happy to get inspiration by happenstance. We caught the end of local chef Tom Douglas' win over Iron Chef Morimoto, due in no small part to his use of lettuce cups. Douglas runs several local restaurants that feature locally sourced foods. (Iron Chef America is a dim shadow of the original Japanese Iron Chef, but we take inspiration as it finds us.)
Lettuce cups. Such a simple idea. The chef gives the eater many options and a sturdy, crunchy, edible cup in which to mix them. Plus, it looks like the dish uses a lot of lettuce.
Douglas used his lettuce cups to wrap salmon, some type of dipping sauce, and some other things. We were too excited to pay attention to the details of what he did. Instead, we discussed what meats we would use, how we would spice them, and what local ingredients would work together. Our original idea was to use shredded beef and shredded chicken (seafood is a non-starter for the Butter Bitch), and we stuck with that plan, but the sauces and most of the add-ons changed after a visit to the farmers' market.
The first step was figuring out how to make shredded beef and shredded chicken. I quickly discovered that slow cookers work well for just such a task and dug our two cookers out of storage. The recipes I found were for barbecued shredded chicken, which was not what I wanted, and a straightforward beef. I wound up modifying both recipes heavily based on what we had at hand and my mood at the moment. Cooking took place on a Sunday afternoon while we worked in and around the house. The original recipes call for longer cooking times, but what with breakfast and going to the market I didn't get things started until noon. So I put both cookers on higher settings for 2 hours — basically, I cheated.
Slow cooker shredded beef
1 large onion, sliced
4 garlic cloves, halved
1.5 lbs of beef, cut into 8-10 chunks
1/2 bottle of red wine (I used Forbidden Red from Columbia Valley)
2 C vegetable broth
Coarse black pepper to taste
Kosher salt to taste
Place the onions and garlic on the bottom of a 4- or 6-quart slow cooker. Layer the beef on top of the onions. Pour the red wine and vegetable broth over of the beef and onions and add salt and pepper. Cook on high for 2 hours and then on low for 4 hours.
The beef ended up tasting rich with a bit of sweetness from the onion. The broth mellowed the tough cut a little, while the tannins in the red wine worked to break apart the muscle fibers.
Slow cooker shredded chicken
1 medium onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, sliced
2 chicken breasts, sliced into strips
2 T butter
1 C cider vinegar
1 C brown sugar
1/2 C water
Put the chicken, onion, butter and garlic in a 4-quart slow cooker. Mix the cider vinegar and brown sugar and pour over the chicken. Add the water. Set on medium for two hours and low for four hours.
The vinegar and sugar gave the chicken a bit of a sweet-and-sour flavor, while the butter added a little fat for savoriness. The onion and garlic added a little complexity to the flavor.
A pleasant side effect of slow cooking was that I had a lot of broth with onions, which I placed in the freezer for later use as French onion soup.
For the beef, I included a mixture of red currants and blackberries from our farmers' market, lemon cucumbers (also from the market) sliced and marinated in a pepper-vinegar mixture, a separate dipping sauce of pepper-vinegar, and chopped filberts. The tartness of the currants and tart-sweetness of the blackberries combined nicely with the rich beefy flavor and earthiness of the filberts. The pepper-vinegar added zing, and the cucumber slices added a little more crunch in the cups.
The chicken was accompanied by radish slivers, almond slivers, basil from the market, honey-mustard sauce (equal parts of honey and mustard — I used local wildflower honey and organic mustard), and honey-pepper sauce. The honey-pepper sauce was made with wildflower honey and red pepper flakes, and was very hot. We later used the honey-pepper sauce to marinate chicken breasts for grilling.
The radish slivers weren't as peppery as I expected, which was fine considering the heat from the honey-pepper sauce, but they added crunch.
Our friends J. and K. came over that evening to join us at dinner. We had invited the third of The Alphabet Soup Trio, L., but she stayed home due to a sore ankle (injured at a bachelorette party about which she steadfastly refuses to provide details). We were worried that four people would not be able to eat all of the food, but two cyclists, one runner and one power walker ate all of the food pictured and then had seconds. The lettuce cups were surprisingly light, even with shredded meat piled into them. Although I separated the condiments, people were told to mix and match as they felt appropriate and they did.
We used butter and romaine lettuce, since that is what we had. Iceberg lettuce has the best form and is crunchier than the lettuce we used, but it is flavorless at best and bitter at worst. Iceberg doesn't have any nutrients to speak of, either. If you use butter or romaine lettuce, just tell your guests to think of the lettuce like a soft taco and they should be fine. We somehow had meat left over, and used the meat to make soft tacos the next day.
A week later, the Butter Bitch brought home lettuce cups from a restaurant in Bellevue. The occasion was a farewell party for one of her co-workers. The cups were made with iceberg lettuce and the filling was a spicy Asian noodle mixture that was heavily salted, as are most restaurant dishes. I made the restaurant cups into a late evening snack, avoiding some of the textured vegetable protein (yuck — I mean, tofu is one thing, but TVP is gross). I'll stick to homemade lettuce cups until I find a place that makes better ones.