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:   ♥   ♥   ♥   ♥   ♥

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お握り (Onigiri)

今晩は!おひさしぶりですね?Yay for another Japanese food post! I’ve actually made お握り(onigiri) or “rice balls” many times since my return home (read more about my time in Japan on my first Japanese food post: 南瓜とマヨネーズ or Kabocha to Mayonnaise. I ate them so often in Japan that I almost immediately missed them. They are so convenient, yummy, versatile, and cute! Now that I’m feeling the time crunch of being back in school, as well as having the same small budget to work around, these little snacks are great for food-on-the-go. You can fill them with anything you desire. Chicken salad, tuna salad, and umeboshi were the usual fillings I saw in 四国 (Shikoku). My Japanese friends often made theirs without fillings, but rather mixed black sesame seeds or edamame into the rice itself before forming it into the characteristic spade shape.

The traditional snack uses nori strips to help keep your hands clean (as well as adding a kick of flavor). Now, if the nori is left in contact with the rice, it absorbs the moisture and becomes soft and – eventually – soggy  …think a PB&J after being in a backpack all day. You should see the ingenious wrappers the Japanese came up with to keep the dry, paper-thin folds of nori separate from the sticky rice until the plastic is opened. You can’t tell from this photo, but consumers must open numbered corners in the correct order so that the plastic lining can be pulled out from in-between the rice and nori without ripping the latter. I totally failed the first time I encountered this snack, haha.

 

お握り (Onigiri)

Ingredients:

1   rounded Cup medium-grain white rice

1 – 1½   C   water,* plus extra for shaping

pinch of salt

1   C   filling of your choice (chicken salad, tuna salad, olives, umeboshi, mushrooms, salmon, etc.)

cling wrap

6   strips of nori, if using

* Note: I say 1 – because I think it depends on your rice. The standard measurement is 2 parts water to 1 part rice, but I find that this always results in soggy rice for me. After a few batches of a new rice brand I usually have the ratio down and it’s normally around 1.5 parts water to 1 part rice.

Procedure:

  1. Wash your rice. That’s right: give it a good scrubbing in cool, running water. You’re trying to scrub the glutenous layer away from the outside of the grains. It’s this glutenous layer that creates gooey, slimy rice so scrub, scrub, scrub! If you are from a traditional Japanese family (or out to impress) you will scrub until the water runs clear. If you aren’t feeding anyone but yourself, three good scrub/rinses will do. If you’re interested, you may want to check out the benefits of saving your rice water.
  2. Cook your scrubbed rice with water and salt in either a rice cooker (for those of you like me who canNOT keep from stirring any other way) or in a saucepan over medium heat. If using a saucepan, keep rice covered and do not stir – lifting the lid only once all the water has been absorbed and little holes or pockets have formed amongst the grains.
  3. Fluff the rice a bit, remove from heat, then allow to cool until it is cool enough to handle (about 15 minutes).
  4. Once your rice has cooled, set it in a bowl beside a cutting board (or another clean, dry surface) along with your filling, and a cup of extra water. Moisten your hands with the water and grab a small handful of rice (a bit smaller than a baseball) and shape it into a triangle shape on the cutting board. Don’t worry here about getting the shape perfect. I tend to roll the rice into a sphere first, then place it on the board, flatten it into a disk about 1″ thick, and point three sides.
  5. Using your thumb, make a shallow dent in the center of your triangle. Scoop a tablespoon or so of filling into the dent and cover with a small disc of rice. Again, don’t worry too much about shape here. Just gently press the rice disc cover over the filling as best you can to try to keep any filling from peeking through.
  6. Here’s the trick to shaping: grab about a 6″ square of cling wrap and gently cover your onigiri, then lift it from the cutting board. Wrap the plastic all the way around and use it to help shape your rice ball into the spade shape.
  7. From here you can either leave the cling wrap on the onigiri (if you’re planning to eat it later) or unwrap the rice ball and place a strip of nori under the bottom before eating.

Beezer’s Notes:

お握りis a lot of fun to make and is a great snack to make with kids. Check out these faces!

Please don’t feel obligated to stick to the traditional shape and methodology, either. The blog Just Bento has some great ideas and Makiko does a fantastic job explaining both the traditional onigiri snack and popular variations. I really enjoyed the sprinkled kind when I was in Japan, although I didn’t see it often. I would also definitely recommend her Number 7: Yaki Onigiri (grilled onigiri). As a spin off the traditionally cold rice ball, yaki onigiri are grilled and served warm; they are staples at many summer BBQs in Shikoku. Being an American, I’m wondering what a deep-fried rice ball would be like… 😉

Overall Enjoyment: ♥    ♥    ♥

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