Many of us have a weakness for foods such as tacos. They offer an array of colorful ingredients that lend themselves to individual creations. It's also a good idea to let people choose ingredients such as hot peppers according to taste. Then you don't have to worry about someone at your table turning beet red and gasping for water while others sit chewing calmly and saying, "You call this hot?"
And this sort of food -- essentially street food, with its wrappers, main ingredients, garnishes and sauces -- can be presented beautifully.
Similar to the taco, and yet something different to present, is the easily prepared Thai-style lettuce package. Diners can make it as hot as they want by sprinkling on a savory garlic sauce or adding fresh chili pepper slices. They may also add basil or mint leaves, red onion, chopped fried peanuts or cool cucumber slices. The ground pork filling in the recipe that follows has a cup of hot chopped chili peppers to begin with, but this can be mitigated by using mild or even bell peppers. On the other hand, you can use jalapenos or worse, the thin little Thai variety now showing up at southeast Asian markets known as bird's eye peppers.
Unstead of tortillas, the wrappers are lettuce leaves. The best for this is iceberg, despite the fact that many in these days of serious salad-making would not want to be caught with it in their refrigerators. However, iceberg won't wilt with a warm filling as will more delicate lettuces. Romaine is okay, too.
The idea is to put a couple of spoonfuls of filling in a leaf, add garnishes to taste and a sprinkling of sauce, wrap it and eat it. The contrasts that epitomize Thai food -- here between the cool crisp lettuce, warm meat, refreshing herbs and fiery seasonings -- make this delicious.
Wrapping warm cooked food in lettuce leaves is common in Asian cooking. Small grilled meat or seafood patties are used in Vietnam as are their fried spring rolls known as Cha Gio. The Chinese wrap a minced squab and pork combination.
An advantage of these lettuce packages is that they can be prepared ahead. The garnishes can be cut and assembled, the sauce made, and the pork cooked to be reheated just before serving. THAI-STYLE LETTUCE PACKAGES (4 to 6 servings)
3 tablespoons peanut oil
1 pound ground pork
1 1/2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 cup chopped bamboo shoots
1 cup chopped fresh chili peppers (leave seeds for added hotness)
2 heads lettuce
FOR THE SAUCE:
1/4 cup minced garlic
1/2 cup fish sauce
1/3 cup fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon chili oil
FOR THE GARNISH:
1/2 cup raw peanuts, browned lightly in oil and chopped
2 cucumbers, peeled, seeded and sliced
1 cup combination shredded basil and mint leaves
Thinly sliced fresh chili peppers
1 red onion, thinly sliced
* Heat the oil in a skillet and add the ground pork. Cook, stirring until the meat has separated and changed color; don't brown. Add the soy sauce and cook 2 minutes. Add the salt and sugar and cook for another 30 seconds. Add the bamboo shoots and chili peppers, and cook, stirring over medium heat 3 to 4 minutes. Turn off the heat and set aside. Carefully separate the leaves from the heads of lettuce. Put in plastic bags and store in the refrigerator until ready to use.
To make the sauce, mix the garlic, fish sauce, lime juice and sugar, and stir until the sugar dissolves. Stir in the chili oil.
Right before serving, arrange the garnishes on one or more small serving platters and set out on the table. Set out the sauce and the lettuce leaves. Reheat the pork until piping hot, transfer to a serving bowl and set out with the rest of the ingredients.