Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps

I’ve done it! After a full summer of fighting sore knees, asthmatic wheezing, and general laziness I can finally call myself a jogger. Not a runner, no – heavens no – but a jogger…yes! Of course, many of you are probably wondering why I would even bother at all and I admit I wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for two things. First, with my new grad student lifestyle (read: timetable and budget) I realized I would actually have to make an effort at being healthy; weekly climbing and kayaking trips were just not in the cards anymore. Second, my doctor had never shown as much shock as she did the day I admitted I couldn’t jog past 3 minutes out of doors. Five spirometer tests later (I had failed the first three and insisted on trying twice more – to no avail) and my lung capacity was determined to be significantly below average and back at the level I had been at as a chunky 12 year old. Embarrassing.

My initial attempts at running here in Halifax were just like all my previous ones back home: miserable. I couldn’t go for more than a few minutes at a time and felt like death every time I did so. I felt like such a fraud, trying to do something I have never been good at in the least. It also stung my pride that here I was, the same gal who could kayak all day and hold side-planks like a champ, gasping for breath when jogging a lowly 4 mph. Luckily for me and my lungs, my stubbornness is one of my strongest features and this time it really came in handy.

By our apartment there is a beautiful, large park right on the bay. All summer I’ve managed to get my butt out the door and into the park several times a week. I was still jogging painfully slow, but after the first six weeks or so it actually started feeling pretty good afterwards. The pattern would usually be a 5 minute warm-up walk followed by alternating 3 minutes jogging, 5 minutes walking, for one circumference of the park (~ 2.8 miles). The first few minutes of every jog continued to be torturous as my body fought me down to the very. last. synapse. …but if I were able to hold out my muscles would slooowly start to comply. By the end of July I seemed to have actually won my body over and the entire routine was comfortably challenging.

The real breakthrough came just a few weeks ago. I had been looking up running tips and learned that beginners should just focus on the goal of jogging for 15 minutes at any pace, before they worry about things like rate or distance. “Bummer,” I thought, “there’s no way that’s going to happen.” At this point, I had improved to 6 minutes of jogging, but that was the top of my game. However, I also read that one should warm up for at least 10 whole minutes – that’s quite long when you actually time it. So, the next day, I walked for 10 minutes before jogging and then told myself I wouldn’t stop jogging until my legs literally gave out on me. I would keep my slowest pace – pride be damned! – but I would just keep going. Perhaps not the healthiest experiment, haha, but I really wanted to push myself and see what I could do.

Well I didn’t make it the entire route, but I did make it 2/3 of the way – a whopping 11 minutes of straight (slow) jogging! Unbelievable. I had to take my puffer as a went and I certainly was a striking shade of pink walking home, haha, but I had nearly doubled my past time. It was challenging enough that I almost chickened out on trying it the next week. Since I hadn’t experienced any injury or actual pain from the first attempt, though, I told myself I had to do it again, that I could do it again. And I did. And I’ve kept doing it. The other shoe finally dropped just a few days ago when I went out and clocked a 10-minute-mile during that same route. Let me say that again: a TEN MINUTE MILE. Better get your mitts out, hell just froze over. And I am ecstatic. 😀

Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps (America’s Test Kitchen Light & Healthy 2010)

Ingredients:

1½   C   water

1   C   short-grain rice (such as sushi rice), rinsed

3   T   fish sauce

zest and juice of 1 lime (~ 3 T juice, 2 t zest)

1½   T   brown sugar

1   t   cornstarch

1   lb.  ground chicken

2   t   canola oil

1   Thai or jalapeño chili; stemmed, seeded, and minced*

¼   C   chopped fresh basil**

3   scallions, thinly sliced

12   Bibb or Boston lettuce leaves (~ 1 head)

* Note: For more heat, include some or all of the seeds

** Note: Since I needed to trim my mint plant anyway (my first potted herb since moving across the border! Excuse me while I do a little dance…), I used mint leaves and loved the flavor they added to the dish. If you want more authentic flavors, stick to basil, but I highly recommend you try a little mint at some point. You’ll be surprised.

Procedure:

1) Start the water and rice cooking in your rice cooker  – or bring both to boil in a medium saucepan over High heat before covering, reducing heat to Low, and cooking for 10 minutes. Remove the pot from heat and let rice sit, covered, for 15 minutes before fluffing with a fork.

2) As the rice cooks, whisk fish sauce, lime juice, brown sugar, and cornstarch together in a small bowl and set aside. In a medium bowl, mash the ground chicken with the back of a spoon or a potato masher until no stringy pieces remain.

3) Heat the oil in a 12″ non-stick skillet over Medium heat until shimmering. Add the chicken, chili, and lime zest and cook until meat is no longer pink – breaking up the meat constantly as it cooks – about 5 minutes. Whisk the fish sauce mixture briefly to recombine and add it to the skillet. Cook, stirring constantly, until the sauce thickens – about 45 seconds. Remove skillet from heat and stir in basil and scallions. Transfer chicken to a serving bowl and serve immediately with rice and lettuce leaves.

4) To assemble wraps: put a spoonful of rice into the center of each lettuce leaf and top with a spoonful a chicken. Fold the edges of the leaf up to form a taco-shape and eat with your hands. The trick is not to stuff them – easy does it!

Alternative serving suggestion of you really want to load up your wraps or are concerned with spills.

Beezer’s Notes:

I’m very happy I decided to try this easy and light recipe. I’m always a sucker for Asian dishes and this one gives you full-scale flavor without investing hardly any time or ingredients. I ended up making this twice in a single week – with NO leftovers surviving! A big thank you to Shane who supplied me with lovely home-grown veggies, including the scallions that I couldn’t find in either grocery store (Halifax grocers are just odd); the next handful are going on my potatoes haha. Quick note: although I think they’re just perfect, Brad thought the wraps were a little dry. You may want to keep a little soy sauce or other Asian-themed sauce handy to top these off, if you so desire.

Overall Enjoyment:   ♥   ♥   ♥   ♥   ♥

Shiitake & Tofu Laksa

Well it’s been a full week of classes now and things are still (*knock on wood*) going smoothly. I’m absolutely loving my lectures. Finally, after four years of Physics and five years in the “real world”, I am studying what I’ve been wanting to study all along: Astronomy. Now I’ll admit it’s a bit surreal jumping headlong into academia again (oh wait, I can only afford two bags of groceries at a time? …you want me to ssh into where??…yes I do in fact know what it’s like to work outside school), but after having my Astronomy studies previously limited to Science Daily, this is just so cool! 😀

One of my biggest challenges so far hasn’t been the work – although my math skills are still VERY rusty – it’s been finding the time to cook even the simplest meals. I need at least two dishes’ worth of leftovers to sustain me through the week and there have been some days when I’ve given in and bought my food, not ok when you’re on a strict budget

…that is why, people, I love this dish. And if you are a person pressed for time with a weakness for flavor I highly suggest you make this soon! Laksa, I’ve learned, is a traditional Malaysian noodle soup marked by its main ingredients of curry, coconut milk, and noodles. Are you familiar with laksas? Is such a dish primarily Malaysian and just borrowed in other cuisines, or do other cultures have their own personal varieties?

Shiitake & Tofu Laksa (very slightly adapted from The Big Book of Wok and Stir-fry)

Ingredients:

2 fresh red chiles, seeded and chopped

1½” (4 cm) piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

2  large garlic cloves, chopped

2 lemongrass stalks, tough outer layers discarded and inner stalks chopped*

small handful fresh cilantro, a few leaves saved for garnish

3   T   vegetable oil

3   C   vegetable stock

14  oz.  canned coconut milk

9  oz.  shiitake mushrooms, stalks removed and thinly sliced

1   C   firm tofu; drained, pressed, and cubed

2   T   tomato paste

2  packs instant ramen (without spice pouches)

2 – 3 scallions, sliced

salt and pepper to taste

*Note: I couldn’t find lemongrass at the time so I added scallions instead. Loved the scallions and bet the lemongrass would make the broth even more delicious so I’ve included both here. 

Procedure:

 1. Puree chiles, ginger, garlic, lemongrass, cilantro, and oil in a food processor until smooth. I deliberately left mine with small chunks in it because I wanted little bursts of flavor in the broth but I’m sure it’s just as delicious perfectly pureed.

2. Heat wok over Medium-high heat and add puree. Stir-fry puree for 30 seconds or until fragrant before pouring in veggie stock and coconut milk. Bring broth to boil. Fill a medium-sized saucepan with water and place on separate burner to boil.

3. When broth is boiling in the wok add mushrooms, tofu, and tomato paste and lower heat to gently simmer for 5 minutes. As broth is simmering, cook ramen in saucepan for just two minutes or so – until soft but not fully cooked (be careful here, it’s very easy to overcook instant ramen!). Drain noodles and set aside.

 4. Remove wok from heat. Taste-test your broth and add salt and pepper as desired. Using tongs or two forks, divide ramen into bowls (will serve 4 without leftovers) and ladle broth over the top. Garnish with sliced scallions and cilantro and serve immediately.

Beezer’s Notes:

I feel a tad guilty saying it, but I think this is the best Asian dish I have ever made. The guilt comes from the fact that this isn’t a Japanese dish, it’s not even an Asian dish I’ve eaten much of, yet I pulled it off better than any of my Japanese dishes attempted so far (speaking of which, I’ve been wanting to get back to those challenges for a while now but haven’t found the ingredients I need within biking distance – yet!). Even Brad, who’s a bit skeptical of international foods he hasn’t tried yet, told me it was really good. The best part? Easily-reheatable leftovers! Woohoo!

Overall Enjoyment:   ♥   ♥   ♥   ♥   ♥

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