Why Cowboys Love Beefy Asian Lettuce Wraps

What do you serve the Washington State Beef Commission's Board of Directors when they stop by Allrecipes' HQ? These cowboy hat-wearing ranchers recently paid a visit to our office to learn more about our ever-evolving mission to help home cooks put dinner on the table and expand culinary horizons. Naturally, there needed to be some kind of beefy dish served as a snack before our presentation, but what?

Asian lettuce wraps photo by Leslie Kelly
Photo by Leslie Kelly.

Party planning

When it comes to beef appetizers, meatballs are king — rightly so, and all hail the majesty of the meatball — but I wanted to make something lighter because the group was heading off to dinner after their meeting at AR. Beef and "light" don't often go together. When craving beef, it's all about burgers and steaks, meatloaf and roasts. Mmm, prime rib. But wait, back to the search for an appie that showed off beef in a bite or two. How about Asian Lettuce Wraps? This easy-to-make variation on the Thai salad known as larb gai has been made more than 2,000 times, and gets rave reviews from more than 1,400 users. It seemed like the perfect fit for something that shows off the satisfying power of beef while still being light, too.

The joy of discovery

After making a shopping list, I headed to Uwajimaya, Seattle's largest Asian supermarket, to round up the ingredients, which include water chestnuts. On a whim, while in the produce section, I asked a man who was restocking the veggies if they carried fresh water chestnuts, in addition to the usual canned. Why, yes, he said, showing me where they were and giving me a quick tutorial on how to clean them, cutting off the top and bottom and peeling the sides. When I returned to the office, I quizzed the food savvy people I work with, asking: Do you have a clue what these are? Nobody did.

water chestnuts unpeeled photo by Leslie Kelly
In their natural state, fresh water chestnuts are a real treat. Photo by Leslie Kelly.

Prepping and cooking

While it's fun to discover a new ingredient, the true measure of that new treasure comes when you pop it into your mouth. I've only ever eaten canned water chestnuts, which are bland, and sometimes taste tinny, but these freshies tasted incredible. Almost like a sweet, juicy coconut. To ensure they retained that quality, I added the chopped water chestnuts at the end of the cooking process. This dish was prepped and ready in 30 minutes, plated just before the guests arrived. There's also the option to serve the filling on the side and let guests pile it on the tender leaves of butter lettuce if you're serving the dish family-style at the dinner table.

Fun feedback

After welcoming our very special guests, most who raise cattle in Eastern Washington, I instructed them to grab a wrap and eat it like a taco. No utensils, no plates needed, just napkins. A couple of bites in, there were smiles and appreciative nods all around. A few folks asked for the recipe. Photos were snapped and shared on social media. My takeaway: Eat more fresh water chestnuts. That's the very best part of cooking, isn't it? Discovering something new, making something delicious and sharing it.

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