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Lettuce wrap recipes: 4 ways to replace buns with summery greens

Lettuce wraps are the cool, contemporary (and low-carb)

Lettuce wraps are the cool, contemporary (and low-carb) take on summer dining. On Monday, July 10, 2017, Newsday food reporter Pervaiz Shallwani showed off some of his favorite wrap recipes, making them in his backyard with ingredients including barbecued shrimp, kielbasa and skirt steak. Credit: Daniel Brennan

The workhorse lettuce leaf has benefited from the bunless movement, a growing fan base that wants its sandwich, but not the bread.

It’s makes me cringe when I spot this option on a restaurant menu, not because meat needs carbs, but, more often than not, because it needs a better leaf.

Beyond the no-carb benefits, a good leafy green offers a crunchy contrast and a mouthwatering brightness that actually makes you want to keep eating.

All you need to do is look to east Asian cultures. In Laos and northern Thailand, larb, a chili-and-vinegar-laced ground-meat dish, comes with a side of lettuce cups and garnishes, including fresh mint or Thai basil. In Vietnam, green leaves help to cut through the oiliness of crispy spring rolls.

My first recollection of using a leaf as a wrap was shortly after I moved to New York, more than a decade ago. As a dinner party progressed into the night, spoonfuls of leftover risotto from the pan found their way into extra basil leaves that were sitting on the counter, resulting in a pleasing concentration of flavors that I use to this day.

Since, it’s been a culinary quest, especially in the summer. Pieces of andouille and kielbasa sausages have been paired with slaw and whole-grain mustard on bok choy leaves. Chicken and egg salads have been cupped inside freshly cut chard. In a pinch, lettuce turns into a quick meal heaped with leftover rice and fresh avocado, while last night’s steak gets second life when combined in similar fashion. More recently, creamy smoked bluefish pate was smeared across a peppery leaf of radicchio di Treviso.

Not all leaves work with this kind of treatment. The lettuce wrap is better suited to roughage that is delicate enough to bite through but sturdy enough to hold a pile of fillings and sauces. Spinach, for example, is often too delicate, and many baby leaf lettuces too small. On the other end of the spectrum, for a really hearty leaf to work — kale, mustard greens, savoy cabbage — it needs some contact with heat or, at the very least, a salt massage, to make it suitably tender.

When shopping, look to everyday lettuces such as romaine, red leaf or Boston varieties such as Bibb and butter. Don’t overlook more heavy-duty radicchio (both regular and Treviso) and Asian greens such as tatsoi and napa cabbage. Yes, iceberg works, but with so many flavorful and more nutritious greens why settle?

A few tips I have picked up along the way: Cut long leaves into pieces. Hoagies these are not. For stiff leaves, lightly salt with a pinch of kosher salt, let rest for about five minutes or until they have softened and then wipe with a paper towel. This breaks down membranes that are otherwise tough to chew.

Limp leaves? Give them a gentle ice water bath by filling a large bowl with water, adding ice and dredging the leaves for about 5 to 7 minutes. The frigidity will shock them back to that perkiness they had at harvest.

Here are four recipes to get you started but, really, the only limits on what you can do with wraps are your imagination and the contents of your pantry.


4 cups shredded purple cabbage

1 tablespoon salt

2 large carrots, shredded

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 teaspoon rice vinegar

1 pinch of black pepper

1 tablespoon black sesame seeds

1 pound of kielbasa sausage

About a dozen large bok choy leaves, ribs partially removed (also works with other lettuce leaves)

Whole grain mustard for serving


1. Place cabbage in a colander and toss with salt. Let sit for about 15 to 30 minutes to wilt, and then use your hands to squeeze out most of the water. Place in a bowl, add carrots, sesame oil, rice vinegar and black pepper and toss to combine. Sprinkle with black sesame seeds. Set aside until ready to use.

2. When ready to eat, prepare a grill for direct heat. Place kielbasa on grill and heat through, turning often to keep from burning, but making sure to get the skin crisp and well blistered, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board and let sausage rest for about 5 minutes. With a sharp knife, slice on a slight angle for prettier pieces.

3. Take a bok choy leaf, top with sausage, then slaw and finish with a small smear of mustard. Repeat with remaining bok choy. Makes 4 servings

Tip: Use a mandoline to shred the cabbage and carrots, for consistency. Slaw can be made a day in advance. It’s fine to mix and match different sausages, though I find smoked ones, such as kielbasa and andouille, work well.



1⁄4 cup olive oil

1⁄4 cup soy sauce

4 tablespoons Sriracha sauce

2 teaspoons salt, divided

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 pound skirt steak

3 cups cooked jasmine rice

6 tablespoons of rice vinegar, divided

2 tablespoons black sesame seeds

1 cup julienned carrots (cut into thin matchsticks)

1 cup julienned cucumbers (cut into thin matchsticks)

1 tablespoon sugar

About a dozen large baby bok choy leaves, ribs partially removed (also works with other lettuce leaves)

3 tablespoons roughly chopped cilantro


1. Mix oil, soy sauce, Sriracha, 1 teaspoon of salt and the pepper in a large resealable plastic bag. Add steak, coat well and marinate in refrigerator for at least 1 hour, or overnight for more flavor.

2. Toss cooked rice with 4 tablespoons rice vinegar and sesame seeds, and set aside.

3. Place carrots, cucumbers, remaining 1 teaspoon salt, sugar and remaining 2 tablespoons rice vinegar in a medium-sized bowl, toss to combine and let pickle for about 30 minutes to 1 hour in the refrigerator.

4. When ready to eat, remove steak from refrigerator and prepare a grill for direct heat. When grill is ready, season steak liberally with salt and pepper and cook for about 3 minutes on each side for medium-rare. Transfer to a cutting board and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes. With a sharp knife, slice against the grain into 1⁄4-inch pieces.

5. Take a baby bok choy leaf, top with rice, then steak and garnish with pickled cucumber- and-carrot mix, and cilantro. Repeat with remaining bok choy leaves. Makes 4 servings.



1 stick unsalted butter

4 tablespoons Sriracha sauce

Juice of 1 lemon

2 teaspoons salt, divided

1 pound medium-sized, shell-on shrimp, rinsed and dried

1 (8-ounce) package rice vermicelli noodles

1 cup julienned carrots (cut into thin matchsticks)

1 cup julienned cucumbers (cut into thin matchsticks)

1 tablespoon sugar

2 tablespoons vinegar

About 12 leaves of radicchio di Treviso (or other large, sturdy leaves)


1. Melt the butter in a medium microwave-safe bowl. Stir in Sriracha sauce, lemon juice and 1 teaspoon salt. Transfer half the marinade to another bowl large enough to accomodate the shrimp. Toss in the shrimp and coat well. Using multiple skewers, spear all the shrimp and set aside in the fridge until ready to grill. The marinade will likely harden around the shrimp. This will serve as a natural baste when you grill them.

2. Place the noodles in a bowl and cover with boiling water for about 2 minutes or until they are al dente. Transfer to a colander and run under cold water for about 30 seconds or until the noodles are cool. Set aside.

3. Place carrots, cucumbers, remaining 1 teaspoon salt, sugar and vinegar in a medium-size bowl, toss to combine and let pickle for about 30 minutes to 1 hour.

4. When ready to eat, prepare a grill for direct heat. Cook skewered shrimp over direct heat just until they lose their translucency, 1 to 2 minutes on each side. Transfer to a cutting board. Reheat the reserved marinade in the microwave or by placing the bowl on a cooler part of the grill. While marinade melts, remove shells and cut shrimp into bite-sized pieces. Once marinade is warm, coat the shrimp in the sauce.

5. Taking a radicchio leaf, layer with noodles, spoon a little of shrimp and marinade on top and garnish with pickled carrot and cucumber. Repeat with remaining leaves. Makes 4 servings.



1 store-bought rotisserie chicken, refrigerated overnight

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon salt, plus extra for sprinkling on chicken skin

1⁄2 cup mayonnaise

Juice of 1 lemon

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1⁄4 cup of fresh herbs, preferably rosemary, parsley and chives

6 strawberries, sliced

1 head of red leaf lettuce, leaves removed from the core.


1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Using kitchen shears or a paring knife, carefully remove skin from chicken and place skin flat on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Brush the skin lightly with olive oil sprinkle with salt. Place the baking sheet in oven for 30 minutes to an hour, or until the skin turns crisp like potato chips. Let cool and break into large pieces.

2. While chicken skin is cooking, remove the meat from chicken, chop into bite-sized pieces and place in large bowl.

3. Add the mayonnaise to chopped chicken and stir to combine. Add lemon juice, salt, pepper and herbs and mix well. Taste and adjust ingredients as needed. Refrigerate until ready to use.

3. Place chicken, strawberries and chicken skins on a platter with lettuce leaves. Take a lettuce leaf, add a hearty helping of chicken, top with a few strawberries slices and garnish with chicken-skin chip. Repeat with remaining leaves. Makes 6 servings.

Tip: Other seasonal fruits, including grapes, peaches, plums, nectarines or avocados, can be substituted for the strawberries.

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