Wednesday, February 21, 2018

If you're invited to my house for dinner, here is what I am probably going to serve you (currently): pork and mushroom lettuce cups

I go through phases of what is my "go-to" meal to feed dinner guests. The criteria are I have to feel confident in my abilities to cook it and it must be generally acceptable to most people's tastes. I feel that I have overlooked some pretty obvious good blog content by not sharing my favorite dinner guest recipes here. Today is my first step in addressing this.

In my early years of learning to cook, I made for dinner guests a tomato based Penne Rosa pasta and sometimes added a splash of vodka to it. In the next phase the penne pasta stayed but I traded the creamy tomato sauce for peas and pancetta, a dish I still love. From there, I side-stepped pasta completely and went to "snacksgiving": a casual spread of veggies and dip, really good cheese, crackers, sliced pepperoni and salami, and assorted pickles and olives.

I have no real explanation for this latest evolution. Maybe it reflects my own increasing awareness of eating healthy and my guests more frequent needs to eat gluten and/or dairy free. If I were to have you over for dinner now it is likely I would serve you an asian flavor profile inspired lettuce cup, filled with ground pork and mushrooms. I love them and I love sharing them. The lettuce cup filling can be made in advance and all the veggies prepped too, which helps me avoid the panic of last minute kitchen chaos. It easily caters to guests dietary needs but without anyone feeling like they are missing out on anything. If my guests are light eaters, this is a lovely supper on it's own but if not, I can easily double the recipe, add on a a side of coconut rice and spicy roasted green beans and even teenagers can be filled up (I speak from experience here). I also like any meal that empowers guests to make their own choices: You don't like radishes? cilantro? peanuts? No problem- just don't add them.

This is a great weeknight meal but I would never actually cook it on a weeknight. I generally make a large batch of the filling on a Sunday evening and if, making just for my husband and I, it will feed the two of us for at least 4-5 lunches or dinners. All we have to do is reheat the pork and mushroom mixture and pull out the prepped veggies.

I have been making these lettuce cups on and off for about five years but in the last six months made a concerted effort to dial in the flavors. The dish starts with caramelized onions and then builds with garlic and ginger and adds a whopping 16 oz of mushrooms to serve like little flavor sponges to soak it all in. That veggie mixture is then set aside and the pork is browned and drained. The pork, onions, garlic and mushrooms are then stirred together and lacquered with hoisin and soy sauce. At the end, water chestnuts give a good crunch and lime juice, cilantro and mint provide an herbal zingy lift. If you happen to have some Thai basil, I would recommend adding it. If you have an aversion to cilantro, feel free to leave it out of the filling, but I would recommend making some available as a topping for guests. I dearly love it here and would hate for a fellow cilantro lover to miss out. This glossy goodness of filling is then dolloped into ruffle edged butter lettuce leaves and topped with chopped and diced veggies.

The topping options is where the asian theme becomes even less defined. You can be more or less fussy about these. A little frilly grated carrot adds crunch and while there is onion in the filling itself, I like the bite of fresh chopped scallions as a topping. Unless there is an allergy issue, I think the salted peanuts are a must. If I learned anything in 2017, it was that my meals are much better with a jar of quick pickles in the fridge. I love to have some of Smitten Kitchen's pickled sandwich slaw on hand, which we freely eat on nearly everything and provide a particularly good sharpness here.

pork and mushroom lettuce cups

2 large yellow onion, chopped
5 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
1 inch of fresh ginger, peeled then minced
16 oz mushrooms, chopped (a mixture of cremini and white button mushrooms is nice, but okay to use all one type, your preference)
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 pounds ground pork or chicken
5-9 tablespoons of hoisin sauce (about 3/4 of an 8.5 oz jar)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
8 oz can water chestnuts, sliced then chopped
1/2 lime
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1-2 tablespoons chopped mint

to assemble:
2 heads butter lettuce, leaves separated and washed
additional options:
grated carrot
chopped salted peanuts
sliced scallions
chopped cilantro
lime wedges
sambal oelek
pickled red onions and radishes

1) In a large skillet on medium heat, add 2 of the 3 tablespoons of the olive oil and saute chopped onion until translucent, then reduce heat to low to allow onions to caramelize, about 15-20 minutes. Stir occasionally. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for about 2-3 minutes, or until fragrant.

2) To the onion/garlic/ginger, add the chopped mushrooms and increase the heat back up to medium. The pan will initially be dry but once the mushrooms start cooking, they will release moisture. However, it looks like it is too dry, you can add a splash of water or chicken stock. Cook until mushrooms have cooked through, the moisture is mostly cooked out and the mushrooms are now starting to soak up the onion/garlic/ginger goodness.

3) At this point, remove the vegetables from the pan but do not wipe out the pan. Put it back on medium heat and add the last tablespoon of olive oil. Then add the ground pork or chicken and brown, breaking it up with a spatula. I like the meat pretty well broken down, so I do quite a bit of chopping with the edge of my spatula. Once the meat is completely cooked through and any moisture has been cooked off, you can drain it briefly on paper towels (if your preference is to remove some of the fat) or you can proceed. Personally, ground chicken is pretty low in fat and ground pork is too. Keeping the fat in adds a little more luxury to the final sauce but you certainly can drain it off.

4) To the ground meat, fold in the previously cooked onion/garlic/ginger/mushrooms and hoisin and soy sauce. Add 1/2 cup of water and reduce heat until it is a simmer. I will let it simmer like this for a good 20-30 minutes, adding more water as needed. As the moisture reduces out, the hoisin sauce sort of glazes everything. During this time I work on washing, chopping and slicing the accompaniments.

5) To finish, add the chopped water chestnuts, lime juice, cilantro and mint. Give a couple big stirs to incorporate. Serve with a pile of lettuce leaves and the veggies and condiments of your choice.