Big Little Recipes

Riffable Lettuce Wraps That Lean on the Pantry

June 16, 2020

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else—flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst: We don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we’re making lettuce wraps with whatever’s around.

Search for “pantry pasta” on Google and you’ll get millions of results. One of which I developed a couple years back (1). My recipe, like the others, like you’d expect, relies on pantry staples (think: anchovies, olives, capers)—ingredients that can hang out next to pasta in a cupboard, kick back, roll with the shelter-in-place punches.

So it makes sense that something like "pantry lettuce wraps" is not as much of a thing. But hear me out: If you have a head in the crisper (2), pantry hotshots (yes, hotshots) will carry you the rest of the way. The bulk of this Big Little Recipe hinges on two dry goods:

Lentils. The little legume that could. Earthy brown lentils are ready to become one with fellow pantry superstar, nuts—though if you’re stocked up with a different variety, odds are it will work just fine. Just avoid red lentils, which break down too easily (perfect for dal, though!).

Photo by Amanda Widis

Nuts. I call for walnuts—they’re as at-home in a floofy meringue cake as a mustardy potato salad, and always in my kitchen (3). But what’s in yours? Pecans, cashews, almonds, any and all nut friends are welcome. I find walnuts to be especially fatty and filling—the ideal complement to watery lettuce.

Team up these two ingredients and you have a meaty filling that would put meat to shame. Such is why it’s a favored combo of Plant-Based Any Day columnist Gena Hamshaw. See: her lentil walnut loaf and lentil walnut tacos.

Like ground meat, though, fatty walnuts and hearty lentils need to be perked up with something acidic. Enter, our last ingredient:

Pickles. Pick a pickle, any pickle—say, kosher dill, or kimchi, or sauerkraut, or pepperoncini. Fine-dice and sprinkle as a crunchy topping. And don’t lose the brine: As soon as the lentils are done cooking, splashing on this lively liquid wakes them right up. A second (and third) splash on the lettuce wraps acts as a simple-as-heck vinaigrette.

So, at this point, I’ll hand it over to you. Which nuts? Which lentils? Which pickles? The whole point of pantry lettuce wraps is working with what you’ve got—let me know in the comments what detours you take along the way.

(1) Though not for this column. Once in a blue moon, I publish dishes with more than five ingredients—like this quiche, which, ahem, has over a dozen.

(2) Butter lettuce is my go-to for wraps. It’s, well, buttery—bendy and pliable, but still sturdy. Romaine can also work, or even steamed Savoy cabbage leaves.

(3) A lot of people keep nuts in the pantry, where they’ll do their best to stay good for a few months before going rancid. By moving this oil-rich ingredient a few feet over to the freezer, you can extend that shelf life up to a year.

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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.