Endive with cheese, pear and bacon for Winter Dream lettuce wraps. Don Denton photography

Recipes For Lettuce Wraps with Chef Heidi Fink

Lettuce cups are the perfect vehicle to carry fabulous flavours

  • Dec. 21, 2018 8:00 a.m.

– Story and recipes by Chef Heidi Fink

Story courtesy of Boulevard Magazine, a Black Press Media publication

It’s that time of year when the food and drink are flowing, and indulgences become everyday occurrences. I love this: the frequent holiday gatherings presenting opportunities to eat chocolate truffles and cheese-laden crostini. Far from trying to stay away from treats, my burning question is always: how can I taste more of these wonderful flavours without stuffing myself?

So many foods this time of year involve bread, toast, crackers or other carb-heavy vehicles for conveying delicious appetizers to your mouth. I love bread, but I am much more interested in eating the delicious toppings like cheese, caramelized vegetables or smoked fish.

Enter the lettuce cup: a perfect vehicle to carry fabulous flavours without filling us up too soon. Delicate, fresh, crisp, almost calorie-free, lettuce of various kinds can hold toppings with beauty and pizzazz. And switching to lettuce offers an unexpected bonus: it allows the flavours of the toppings to really shine. Bread and toast can be filling, and their blandness sometimes bogs down the topping flavours. With a delicate-tasting lettuce cup, the toppings dance like a party in your mouth.

This is not to knock bread or crackers as a vehicle for delicious appetizers — they are often perfect — just a note of encouragement to branch out into something fresh, crisp, crunchy and light.

With so many colours, flavours and textures to try, leaves are an appie platter winner. Chose from crisp, yellow-green romaine hearts, crunchy white endive, delicate butter lettuce and bitter burgundy radicchio, to name a few.

I’ve shared some of my favourite recipes here, but consider these a springboard for the imagination! Create a beautiful, fresh-looking appetizer platter with a handful of crisp leaves and whichever toppings you choose. Serve and enjoy tasting without feeling so full…and leave room for more chocolate truffles. Happy holidays!

Endive with cheese, pear and bacon for Winter Dream lettuce wraps Don Denton photography

WINTER DREAM

makes about 30 pieces

This dreamy combination of sweet Medjool dates, salty bacon, tart roasted pear, creamy blue cheese and crunchy bitter endive hits all the flavour and texture points for a delicious, cold-weather appetizer. If you really love blue cheese, you can serve these with your favourite blue cheese dressing.

¼ lb of your favourite bacon

6 to 8 Medjool dates

1 Tbsp maple syrup

1 whole pear, cored and chopped into small pieces

1 Tbsp bacon fat (leftover from cooking the bacon)

100 g creamy blue cheese (e.g. Cambozola)

3 heads of endive

All of the ingredients can be prepared in advance and reheated briefly before assembly. The bits don’t have to served warm, but they should not be cold.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Place strips of bacon on a parchment-lined baking sheet, making sure the pieces of bacon aren’t touching each other. Place in the oven and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, flipping the pieces halfway through cooking, until bacon is crisp but not over-crisp. You want nice pieces of bacon, not bacon crumbles.

Meanwhile, cut the dates in half lengthwise and remove the pits. Chop each half into 4 or 5 pieces. Place them in a parchment-lined pie pan and drizzle with maple syrup. Cut the pear into quarters and remove the cores. Cut pear quarters into small pieces (about the size of the date pieces).

When the bacon has finished cooking, place it on a paper-towel-lined plate. Carefully pour off the bacon fat into a small jar, leaving approximately one tablespoon of fat on the tray. Place the cut pear on this tray and stir the pieces around until they are coated with bacon fat. Spread pear pieces out into one layer. Return tray to oven and roast for 6 to 8 minutes, until pears are softened slightly.

As soon as the bacon is cool enough to touch, move to a cutting board and cut into 1-centimetre pieces. Place the dates in the oven for a few minutes to soften and absorb some maple flavour.

On a clean cutting board, cut the cheese into pieces about the size of large peas — it’s difficult to do this with a soft cheese, so don’t worry if the pieces are misshapen or vary in size.

Prepare the endive leaves last, because they go brown after sitting out for awhile. Cut the root end off of each head and separate the leaves. You may have to cut the root end again as you get closer to the centre. Use the small centre leaves whole, and the bigger outer leaves cut in half (lengthwise is better for presentation, but crosswise might be easier for assembly).

In each leaf of endive, place a piece of bacon, a piece of maple-glazed date, a piece of roasted pear and a piece of creamy blue cheese. Arrange on a platter and serve.

Romaine with avocado and tomato for Veggie Fresh Bites lettuce wraps. Don Denton photography

VEGGIE FRESH BITES

makes about 30 pieces

The secret to this bright-tasting appetizer is in the delicious caper-lemon-Parmesan dressing — it’s a winner. Almost any colourful vegetable will work in the lettuce cup itself. This time, I chose cherry tomatoes, roasted sweet peppers, creamy avocado, and a generous amount of flat-leaf parsley. Try sweet corn, roasted green beans, roasted cauliflower, cubes of mild cheese, grilled zucchini — the options are limitless.

Dressing

1 bulb garlic

4 Tbsp lemon juice

zest of 1 lemon

1½ Tbsp capers

1 Tbsp caper juice

1½ Tbsp Dijon

2 Tbsp mayonnaise

1 clove raw garlic, peeled and chopped

½ tsp salt

½ tsp freshly ground black pepper

½ tsp sugar

⅔ cup grated Parmesan cheese

(grate your own)

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 350 F. Wrap the bulb of garlic in foil and place in the oven. Bake for about 40 minutes until soft. Remove from oven and let cool; cut the top off the head of garlic and squeeze the roasted garlic pulp into a blender.

Add the lemon juice, lemon zest, capers, caper juice, Dijon, mayonnaise, raw garlic, salt, pepper and sugar. Blend until puréed. Add the freshly grated Parmesan cheese and olive oil. Blend again until everything is creamy and well mixed.

Taste to see if more salt, sugar, lemon or caper juice is needed.

This dressing can be made up to 5 days in advance. Refrigerate in mason jar until time to use.

Bites

2 yellow peppers

1 avocado

1 box cherry tomatoes

½ bunch flat-leaf parsley

2 bags romaine hearts

Dressing (above)

Roast the peppers. There are two methods for doing this. If you have a gas stove, turn one of the elements on high. Place the whole peppers directly on the flame. Wearing oven mitts, use a pair of tongs to flip the peppers over when they have charred and blackened on one side. You will have to flip each pepper several times. When their skin has turned black, move the peppers to a pot, cover and let sit for 15 minutes. If you have an electric stove, halve and seed the peppers. Flatten, place skin side up on a cookie sheet and broil them until their skins turn black.

Once ready, put the peppers in a covered container and let sit for 15 minutes. Once the peppers have “rested,” peel off as much of their skin as possible without running them under water. Seed them if you have to, cut into small pieces and set aside.

Cut the cherry tomatoes in half or quarters, depending on size. Pit and peel the avocado before cutting into small slices. Roughly chop the flat-leaf parsley, making sure you leave the pieces big enough to see the beautiful parsley leaf shape.

Cut the root end off of each of the romaine hearts and separate the leaves. You may have to cut the root end again as you get closer to the centre. Use the small centre leaves whole, and cut down the bigger outer leaves a bit.

To assemble the bites, place a piece of roasted pepper, a piece of avocado and a piece of cherry tomato on each romaine leaf. Drizzle each generously with the lemon-garlic-caper dressing and garnish with a generous sprinkle of parsley. Arrange on a platter and serve.

Ingredients for filling and Flavour Explosion lettuce wraps. Don Denton photography

THAI FLAVOUR EXPLOSIONS

makes about 30 pieces

This quintessential Thai street vendor snack is a not-to-be-missed culinary experience. Each bite is an explosion of flavours and textures: spicy, nutty, juicy, limy, sweet and crunchy, to name a few. An amazingly fresh and flavourful appie to enjoy during this season over-rich foods.

Sauce

¼ cup minced fresh ginger

¼ cup minced fresh or frozen galangal (or use more ginger)

½ cup minced shallots

4 Tbsp fish sauce

¾ cup water

½ cup white or light brown sugar, or more, to taste

salt, to taste

Place the galangal, ginger, shallots, fish sauce and water in a blender. Purée as finely as possible. Transfer to a small saucepan and add the sugar. Bring the sauce to a boil, reduce heat and let simmer 15 to 20 minutes until it becomes a uniform texture and colour, and thickens to the texture of loose jam — thick, but still pourable. If you think it is getting too thick, reduce the heat, or add a bit more water to the pan. Taste to see if it needs more salt or sugar — the sauce should be quite sweet and salty. Transfer the sauce to a small bowl and set aside to cool.

This sauce can be made in advance and refrigerated for up to a week, or frozen for up to 2 months.

Flavour Explosions

2 heads of butter lettuce

½ cup unsalted roasted peanuts

Fresh ginger, peeled and cut into ¼-inch cubes

1 large shallot, peeled and cut into a small dice (about ¼-inch)

One whole lime, with the skin still on, cut into ¼-inch cubes

2 to 4 Thai bird chilies, sliced thin

1 cup fresh local hand-peeled shrimp, cooked

¼ cup toasted unsweetened coconut

Sauce (recipe above)

Separate the leaves of lettuce. Wash them in cool water and pat dry. Use the smallest leaves from the centre of the lettuce heads for the best presentation. Bigger leaves can be torn into pieces a bit smaller than the size of the palm of your hand. Place prepared lettuce on a plate (you should have about 30 pieces). Place the remaining ingredients in separate piles on a platter. Place the sauce in a small bowl in the centre of the platter.

I prefer to assemble these in advance, but you can let your guests make their own at the table. Either way, the method is the same. For each lettuce cup, place a piece of lettuce in the palm of your hand. Working your way around the platter, put one piece of each ingredient in the centre of your leaf: one peanut, one piece of ginger, one piece of shallot, one piece of lime (skin and all!), one piece of chili, one shrimp, a sprinkle of toasted coconut and about ¼ tsp of sauce.

If you make these in advance, place them carefully on a serving platter. Have each guest pick up a lettuce cup and fold up the corners of their lettuce leaf to make a small parcel. These should be small enough to put in the mouth in one bite.

For more recipes and upcoming classes from Chef Heidi Fink go here.

Lettuce for lettuce wraps. Don Denton photography

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