My parents often cooked when we were kids, and they sometimes made recipes that exposed us to different cuisines. Some we never cared to repeat and some became family favorites, with each sibling putting their own mark or twist on it. Dad’s fried wontons served with a garlicky, ginger soy dipping sauce were a favorite because they tasted like real grown up food, highlighting vibrant flavors and crunchy textures. He picked up the recipe while enrolled in culinary school in Texas and it was often a menu item for their backyard parties. Ground beef, carrots, raisins and onions make up the filling and with Dad’s version it gets rolled into an eggroll wrapper (we still called them a wonton) and fried to a crispy golden brown. With the soy dipping sauce drizzled on every bite, it was the ultimate savory and sweet combination. My deconstructed version has a crisp crunch from the butter lettuce, with all the flavor memories intact. Ground chicken or turkey can easily be substituted for the meat, just be sure to add extra seasoning.
A soy dipping sauce pulls all the flavors together and enhances the taste of this meal. The salty tang of soy sauce is combined with spicy ginger root, rich garlic, oniony scallions and bright cilantro for a superbly delicious sauce! A spoonful for every bite is certainly warranted.
Here’s where the crispy wonton part comes into play. Instead of frying the whole meal as an eggroll, I thinly cut a few wonton (or eggroll, whichever you can find) wrappers into thin strips and fried them up in a small amount of oil. They provide the perfect crunch on top and remind me of the wonton taste. For those of you who aren’t familiar with butter lettuce, also known as Bibb or Boston lettuce, it has a slightly sweet, buttery flavor with thick leaves – perfect for lettuce wraps. I like to buy mine live (living greens) with the root ball attached and packed in a large clam shell, pictured below. It lasts for 2 to 3 weeks in the refrigerator if the root ball is kept moist.
If you are yearning for something fried as I often do, here’s how to enjoy Dad’s original wontons: Simply heat your oil (about 2 ½ to 3 inches deep in a medium sauce pan with tall sides) to 350º and assemble the wontons: Add about 1/3 cup filling to the bottom half of an eggroll wrapper (a generous tablespoon for wonton wrapper), roll up like a burrito (for wonton: arrange wrapper with corner at top, place filling in the middle and fold in half) and seal the last edges well with a fingertip dipped in water, repeat process. Fry in small batches until golden brown, about 3 to 5 minutes. Let drain and cool slightly on a plate lined with paper towels. Serve hot with the soy dipping sauce.
Dad’s Wonton Lettuce Wraps (print recipe)
Recipe: Melissa Schenker/Foodie for Two
Serves two foodies, makes 5 to 6 wraps
Soy Dipping Sauce
½ cup soy sauce (low-sodium if available)
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated ginger, skin removed
1 tablespoon sliced scallions
1 clove garlic, mashed whole
1 tablespoon cilantro, finely chopped
1/8 teaspoon rice wine vinegar
Fried Wonton Strips
5 to 6 wonton wrappers or 2 to 3 eggrolls wrappers, sliced into thin strips
¼ medium yellow onion, diced (about ½ cup)
1 large carrot peeled and grated (about ¾ cup)
½ cup golden raisins
½ pound lean ground meat (or chicken, turkey)
2 to 3 tablespoons of dipping sauce
1 tablespoon cilantro, rough chopped
1 small clove garlic, finely minced/grated
¼ teaspoon freshly grated ginger
1/8 teaspoon lime zest
Olive oil or vegetable oil
Family Style Platter – Serve
4 to 5 whole leaves of butter lettuce
Wonton filling (keep hot until ready to serve)
Small bowl of Soy Dipping Sauce with spoon
Fresh cilantro leaves, from 4 to 5 sprigs of cilantro
Fried wonton strips
Soy Dipping Sauce: To a small bowl or glass measuring cup, add the soy sauce, ginger, scallions, garlic, cilantro and rice wine vinegar – mix well with a fork. Let the dipping sauce sit for at least an hour before serving to allow the flavors to develop. Can be made one day ahead, cover & refrigerate. (Sauce will keep in refrigerator for 3 or 4 days.)
Fry the wonton strips: Add oil to a small sauce pan with tall sides, enough so oil is about 1 inch deep and heat to 350º over medium-high heat (do not leave pan unattended). Cut the wontons into very thin strips and gently run your fingers through them to loosen. Fry in small batches until lightly golden brown, about 3 to 5 minutes. Let drain and cool on a plate lined with paper towels; season with salt and pepper while still hot.
Filling: In a medium skillet over medium heat, add 1 teaspoon oil and the onions. Sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the grated carrots along with a few drizzles of oil and continue sauteéing for another 3-4 minutes, until carrots are almost tender. Mix in raisins and transfer to a medium bowl.
In the same skillet over medium heat, add a few drizzles of oil and the ground meat, break up with the back of a spoon. Season with ¼ teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon fresh cracked pepper, mix together and continue to crumble meat as it cooks. When meat is done (no longer pink in the center), add the minced garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Add the grated ginger, cilantro and lime zest, stir well and mix in the onion carrot mixture, stir together until well combined and keep hot.
Family Style Platter – Assemble the Lettuce Wraps:
Using a large plate or medium platter, arrange the wonton lettuce wrap ingredients for serving. To assemble a lettuce wrap, add some filling to the middle of the lettuce leaf, drizzle some soy dipping sauce, add a few cilantro leaves and top with wonton strips. Finish with a bit more of the soy dipping sauce. Fold the lettuce leaves down and over each other, and eat with your hands.