A friend of Jan’s, Heidi, gave us a jar of wild plum sauce and Jan asked me to think up a dinner to go with it. Jan does not particularly like duck, so the most obvious use—Peking Duck—was right out. As I was reading a Chinese menu, I saw “lettuce cups with plum sauce” and that gave me an idea for a California Fusion Asian pork “taco.”
One of my earlier recipes on this blog was Asian lettuce cups. I have learned a lot more about cooking, since I started this blog. I am constantly searching for new and different recipes and techniques to post about. This Sunday I thought I would revisit this recipe and use what I have learned.
In my original recipe, I browned the ground meat the way my mother taught me. Break the meat into little pieces and stir it around. If you cook the meat just until the pink is gone you end up with wane pork flavor. If you cook it until the Mallard reactions develops—to give the pork a strong flavor—you are left with hard little pebbles of meat.
An America’s Test Kitchen chef found the solution to the problem of tough meat vs well browned flavor—I can’t seem to find the reference, so it may have been a show that I watched on TV. She found, that if you break up the meat and brown it, you end up with lots of flavor but tough, chewy bits of meat. If you simmer the pork in the sauce you may have tender pork, but very little flavor. The solution is to fry big patties of meat. The outside gets the flavorful browning, but the inside meat stays tender. Breaking up the patties and returning the meat to the pot give you the best of both worlds.
For the original recipe I simply browned the pork straight from the package. I decided to boost the flavor by marinating the meat for a few hours. I also decided to add some baking soda—this changes the Ph of the meat and allows it to retain more moisture.
Jan is always trying to get me to add more vegetables and less meat in my dishes. In my original recipe the filling was largely meat and the lettuce cup was the only uncooked vegetable. I thought, “What if I made the lettuce cup like an Asian “taco”—meat and fresh, lightly pickled veggies wrapped in lettuce tortilla?” In addition to the meat and lettuce cups, I thought it would be nice to have a cool tart slaw to cut the heavy meaty flavor of the filling.
Note: I usually use Butter lettuce for this dish, because it makes a much better cup when you separate the leaves. However, you could also use green/red leaf lettuce, green or Napa cabbage, the upper thin portions of the leafs. Many restaurants use iceberg lettuce for this dish, but Jan will not let me even bring it into the house—something about all of the vitamins having been bred out of it.
After Dinner Note: Even though this dish is a meal in itself, I decided to make a scallop and mushroom dish to go with it. They both must have been very popular, because there were only scraps left in the bowls at the end of dinner.
Karl’s California Fusion Asian Pork “Tacos”
1 head Butter lettuce (or leaf of your choice)
1 lb. coarsely ground pork (you may use chicken)
1 Tbs. yellow onion, grated
1 Tbs. soy sauce
1 Tbs. dark soy sauce
1 Tbs. shaoxing rice wine
½ tsp black vinegar
½ tsp. dark sesame oil
½ tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. Kosher salt
2 Tbs. peanut oil, separate uses
1 cup yellow onion, diced finely
1 cup celery, diced finely
¼ tsp. Kosher salt
1 cup Napa cabbage (fluffy tops of the leaves), chopped finely
½ cup water chestnuts, chopped finely
8 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup red bell pepper, diced finely
⅓ cup wild plum sauce
2 Tbs. Thai sweet chili sauce
1 Tbs. fresh ginger, minced
Tip: Whenever you are doing a large complex dish it is a good idea to prep all of your ingredients before you start to cook. Chop your veggies and measure your sauces into a cup and set them aside. Once you start to cook there is no time to do any other prep.
Note: Give yourself at least two additional hours to marinate your meat and to lightly pickle the slaw.
1. Rinse the Butter lettuce and separate leaves.
Tip: Shake off as much water as you can and let the lettuce air dry as you prepare the rest of the dish.
Note: Cut the large outer leaves along the rib and leave the smaller leaves whole. To present them at the table I lay the large leaves around the edge of the plate and overlap the leaves into the center. I use the smallest leaves to make a “flower” in the center of the plate.
2. Put the minced pork (chicken) in a small bowl.
3. Add the grated onion, soy sauces, rice wine, vinegar, sesame oil, baking soda, and salt to the meat.
4. Mix well, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 1-2 hours.
5. Add one tablespoon of oil to a large sauté pan and heat it to shimmering over a medium high heat.
6. Form the meat into one large patty and brown it well on one side without disturbing it for 3-4 minutes.
7. Flip the patty and brown the other side well.
8. Transfer the meat to a plate to cool.
Tip: When the meat has cooled use two forks to break it up into small bite sized pieces.
Note: It is OK if the meat is not fully cooked at this point.
9. Add the rest of the oil to the pan and sauté the onions and celery with the salt for 5 minutes over medium high heat, until they are just starting to pick up some color.
Tip: Use the moisture released by the vegetables to deglaze the pan.
Note: Adding the salt at this point speeds up the release of the vegetables moisture.
10. Add the cabbage and water chestnuts to the pan and continue sautéing for 5 more minutes.
11. Pull the vegetables to the edges of the pan and add the garlic.
12. Sauté for one minute, until fragrant.
13. Return the meat to the pan, add the red peppers, plum sauce, sweet chili sauce, and the ginger, and toss to coat the meat and vegetables.
14. Simmer until the sauce thickens, about 1-2 minutes.
15. Remove the pan from heat and let the filling cool for five minutes.
Tip: Straight from the pan the hot filling would wilt the delicate lettuce cups and burn your diners hands.
16. Serve the slightly cooled filling in a in a bowl, with the lettuce cups, slaw, and extra plum sauce on the side.