Lettuce takes the empty calories out of your favorite wrap
Ari LeVaux, a syndicated weekly food columnist, says, “When I was a teenage prep cook, I created a dish that never made it onto the menu, even as a special, even though it was called the ‘Ari Special.’ It was a favorite among the staff, and everyone, from the absent manager to the Austrian baker, the waitress I was crushing on, to the waiter who was on cocaine, loved the Ari Special.
“It consisted of an 8-inch baguette end stuffed with chopped deli turkey, onions, tomatoes, parsley and mayo. The mix mingled with the spongy bready insides, while the browned exterior stayed dry. That was decades before this kind of dish would rocket to popularity under the name ‘wrap,’ the universal architecture of a which holds different ingredients together, so they can be chewed just so, like a sandwich, only tighter.
“Whether it’s a tortilla-clad burrito or a spring roll held together by chewy rice paper, everyone loves a wrap. A wrap’s character is mostly determined by its filling. At least it should be. The wrapper’s job is to contain the filling, and carby tortillas and rice paper make supple, forgiving, leak-proof shells.
“The Ari Special, with its no-leak, tapered end, was ahead of its time. In addition to its one job of holding the insides where they belong, a wrapper can also contribute to the culinary experience. A quality sourdough baguette or a warm corn tortilla can elevate a wrap, but many wrappers trade healthfulness for convenience or performance.
“Whole grain, multigrain, sprouted grain, spelt grain, grainy-grain and the likes don’t do it for me. They may pack fiber, protein and other nutrients, but they are boring to eat, especially when cold.
“When the wrapper is made out of lettuce, there are no empty calories. There is not a single diet on Earth, fad or classic, from the Mediterranean to South Beach, that would shun a lettuce wrap.
“My initiation into the small wrapper society came at Saigon Restaurant in Albuquerque. I thought I had just ordered a fried fish. It came with a pile of leaves and a salad bar’s worth of chopped veggies, herbs and sauces. The trick, we quickly realized, is to not overload the wrapper — a universal truth in the world of wraps.
“Loading lettuce leaves is an intuitive and fun way to eat. To help get you started, I’ll share a deconstructed version of the Ari Special, heavily influenced by the late NPR commenter and food writer Kim Williams. Her recipe for a corn-stuffed tomato was not only a contemporary of the Ari Special, but similar.
“Alas, a tomato isn’t much of a wrapper compared to a baguette end or tortilla, but Williams’ corn-basil-tomato filling is spot-on. Adding chopped deli turkey brings it closer to old-school Ari Special territory, but protein is optional.”
1 head’s worth of raw lettuce leaves, cleaned and organized on a platter or large plate
1 ear’s worth of raw corn kernels
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup chopped sweet onions
2 tablespoons mayo
1 bunch basil leaves
1 pound tomatoes, cut into ½-inch chunks
½ pound protein, chopped coarsely (deli meat like turkey, ham or fake — optional)
Mix the corn with the salt. Arrange the ingredients on a platter, in little piles or in little bowls, and serve.
To eat, load a leaf with a modest amount of filling. Aim for pieces of 1½ bites each. You don’t want the pressure of having to get the whole thing in your mouth. Just take a nice bite, and leave relatively few remains in your fingertips for a follow-up.
And that’s a wrap.