I made these lettuce cups a few weeks back, and, lemmetellya — these bad boys are a keeper.
I’m not generally one to wrap things up in lettuce and call it a day (I’m sorry, but is there anything more depressing than watching someone attempt to wrap a juicy cheeseburger in a flimsy wisp of romaine lettuce and proclaim that they truly don’t even miss the bun?), but I will admit that sometimes when I crave something that normally requires some sort of vehicle to get it from Point A (the plate) to Point B (your mouth), I don’t actually feel like noshing on said (usually bready) vehicle.
Tortillas, wraps, pitas – I do love all of them, but after recalling pizza, fish tacos, and a pita-fueled mezze platter on my list of eats week-to-date, I was feeling a bit breaded out.
Enter these lettuce wraps – where the exclusion of any wrap-type thing adds to the intensity of the flavors and lets the ingredients shine. Here, sauteed ground pork is mixed up and folded together with crunchy bell peppers, spicy thai chili rounds, and a hefty dose of garlic and ginger, and the whole lot is bound together by a silky hit of coconut cream.
Though I could have just scooped this mixture directly into some lettuce cups and called it a day (and a delicious one at that), I folded in a couple of cups of quinoa to add bulk, heft, and an extra shot of non-meat derived protein. It was a total success.
Not only are these cups great for any gluten-free eaters you might have, they are hearty and filling while at the same time being much healthier than an all-meat version. The quinoa “stretches” the pork, if you will, extending the number of mouths it will feed while at the same time decreasing the amount of fat and calories in each serving. The nutty flavor and slight bit of the quinoa is also a welcome respite from a plain all-meat version – especially for someone like me, who likes meat, but is more than happy to cut back wherever they can.
These were so fantastic. They were super flavorful and fresh tasting, and made a perfect light supper when served alongside slices of fresh mango and a cool and crisp glass of Vinho Verde.
Pork & Quinoa Cups with Thai Chili, Bell Pepper, and Coconut Cream
Serves 4, heartily
Coconut cream is different than coconut milk in that it is thicker, richer, and creamier – exactly as it sounds. A little goes a long way in creating a silky base for sauces and sautes, and in this recipe I use half of a 14oz can – the perfect amount to add a saucy edge without feeling overwhelmingly creamy or coconut-ty. You can find coconut cream in cans at Trader Joe’s, at Whole Foods (look for it in 7oz boxes), and in well-stocked Asian aisles at many other grocery stores. If you can’t find it in a store, trusty old Amazon also has a bunch of options.
This is a super simple recipe that is easy to double or triple for groups; if you have small kids eating, I would recommend forgoing the thai chilis in the recipe, and passing extra sriracha or sweet chili sauce on the side. The actual flavors of the dish are very kid friendly, and depending on how spice tolerant they are, you can adjust chili levels from there.
This dish is also great to make ahead of time – it reheats really well, and the leftovers get even more flavorful after a night spent in the fridge.
1lb lean ground pork
2 Thai chilis,* sliced into rounds
2 bell peppers, diced
3 cloves of fresh garlic, minced or grated
2″ piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
7oz coconut cream
3 green onions/scallions, chopped
*you can de-seed the chilis if you prefer less heat, but I left them in and found the gentle spice to be perfect.
2 limes, cut into wedges
fresh butter lettuce leaves (romaine will work in a pinch)
fresh cilantro leaves
1 cup quinoa, well rinsed
1 1/4 cups water
pinch of salt
First, make the quinoa. Bring your water and pinch of salt to a boil. When the water is boiling, add the quinoa. Stir well to combine, and bring back to a boil. Cover the pot, turn the heat down to a simmer (low/medium), and cook the quinoa till it is just tender and you can see the opaque white little curlicue clearly in each seed (this takes about 10-15 minutes). Fluff your quinoa gently with a fork and set it to the side.
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat just a touch of olive oil till it shimmers. Add the ground pork and a hefty two-fingered pinch of kosher salt, and saute, stirring occasionally to break up the meat, till the pork is cooked through and is caramelized and browned in spots. Transfer the cooked & browned pork to a bowl using a slotted spoon, and hold it to the side; if there is an excessive amount of fat left in the pan, pour some of it out, but leave just enough to use to saute the vegetables without them being dry or sticking to the pan.
With the pan back over medium heat, add the diced bell peppers and the thai chilis. Saute the peppers for 3-4 minutes, till they start to soften and wilt slightly at the edges. Add the garlic and ginger, and saute, stirring frequently, till the garlic is fragrant and toasty, another 1-2 minutes. Stir the cooked ground pork back into the pan along with the cooked & fluffed quinoa and the coconut cream, and stir well to combine all of the flavors. Cook the mixture for another 2 minutes, until it is completely warmed through and the coconut milk has absorbed into the quinoa and pork. Stir in the chopped green onion, and take the mixture off of the heat. Taste, and adjust salt levels if necessary.
Scoop the pork mixture into the butter lettuce cups, and serve with lots of fresh lime on the side. Top with fresh cilantro, and drizzle sriracha sauce over the top if you like a bit of extra spice.