Preheat the oven to 400°F. Grease a standard 12-muffin pan or line with paper liners. I don't like to buy paper muffin liners, so I simply cut parchment paper into squares that fit my muffin tins...
As we may have mentioned before, we frequent the Asian supermarket in the city closest to us. We know the butcher well--he cuts beef bones into manageable pieces for us so we can make beef stock (a freezer staple in our kitchen). We adore their produce department for many reasons, but the more than reasonably priced leeks, shiitake mushrooms, cilantro (3 bunches for $1!), and scallions are not to be missed. Apart from that, the selection of fresh and dried noodles, dried seaweed, condiments, and teas is more than admirable.
As well-stocked as the place always is, you wouldn't think it could be more so, but about this time every year, they kick it into high gear for Chinese New Year celebrations.
I won't pretend to know very much about this holiday, and I have no practical experience with it, but the ideas behind it--warding off a hungry mythical beast, welcoming good luck and joy into the home, and making a fresh start--seem to me worth celebrating.
There are many hallmarks of Chinese New Year celebrations including the color red, cleaning the home to sweep away last year's bad luck, and eating "good luck" foods such as tangerines and dumplings. Of course, my description is an oversimplification of a complex holiday from a complex culture, but for our purposes here and now, good luck foods are just what we need to shake the February doldrums and embrace the optimism of the new year.
Lettuce wraps are one of these lucky foods. The word "lettuce" in Cantonese sounds very similar to the Cantonese word for "rising fortune." I imagine this tradition of eating leafy greens is akin to the southern American tradition of eating greens on New Year's day for good luck and monetary prosperity. In any case, the great thing about lettuce wraps (in addition to being really tasty) is that you can sneak even more good luck foods into the filling.
We went for a ground pork and mushroom filling with peanuts. I don't think I have to tell you that the contrast between the fresh and crisp butter lettuce wrapper and the savory pork filling is really wonderful, but I don't mind stating the obvious. These can be an appetizer for your New Year's celebration or they can serve as a main course, no dipping sauce required.
Heat in a large skillet over high heat:
1 tablespoon peanut oil
When the oil shimmers, add:
1 1/2 pounds ground pork
Brown the pork thoroughly and remove to a plate. Set aside.
Add to the hot skillet:
4 cloves garlic, minced
A 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 small onion, minced
4 ounces shiitake or oyster mushrooms, chopped
Sauté until the mushrooms have released their liquid, about 5 minutes, scraping any browned pork bits from the bottom as you go. Add:
1/2 cup Chinese rice wine, dry sherry, or port
Reduce until the liquid has almost evaporated. Add the pork back to the skillet, along with:
1/4 cup hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
Dash chili oil
Dash sesame oil
Stir to combine. Remove from the heat and stir in:
1/4 cup roasted peanuts, chopped
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
Let the mixture cool for a few minutes. Meanwhile, rinse and remove the lower part of the stems from:
24 leaves of romaine, iceberg, or butter lettuce
Shake the leaves dry and place about 2 tablespoons of the pork mixture in the center of each leaf. Serve with:
Sriracha or chile garlic paste