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8 & $20: Flavorful Thai Lettuce Wraps With a Crisp White

A dry Finger Lakes Riesling complements complex flavors of spice and umami
Photo by: Christine Dalton
A dry Riesling's aromatic profile plays nicely with intense flavors of soy and fish sauce.

Christine Dalton
Posted: June 14, 2016

Eight ingredients, plus pantry staples. That's all it takes to make an entire meal from scratch. Add in a good bottle of wine for less than $20, and you've got a feast for family or friends. That's the philosophy behind our "8 & $20" feature. We hope it adds pleasure to your table.

As much I enjoy experimenting with new recipes, there's always a place in my heart—or stomach, rather—for a trustworthy delivery meal. The combination of convenience and familiarity can be hard to beat after a grueling workday. And not surprisingly, my go-to takeout dishes tend to be cheesy, greasy and completely delicious guilty pleasures.

For my bank account's sake, I try not to get too comfortable with a pattern of ordering out. To satisfy these Styrofoam-packaged cravings, I occasionally attempt to recreate my favorite to-go dishes at home. This way, I still get to curl up with a steaming bowl of shrimp fried rice or a mushroom-laden slice of pizza at the end of the day without the hit to my credit card or any tinge of guilt for taking the easy route for dinner.

The latest takeout order I attempted to tackle was larb, a Thai mincemeat salad and my current delivery obsession. The authentic dish is intensely flavored and complex, bursting with bright lime juice, pungent fish sauce, fiery chiles and fresh herbs. For my at-home version, I wanted to simplify ingredients for weeknight cooking while maintaining those four key elements.

Larb can be made with a variety of proteins, including beef, pork and fish, but I chose to make mine with ground chicken. I swapped the traditional Thai chiles for red pepper flakes to tone down the spice and plucked some basil from my garden to represent the herbs. I kept the fresh lime juice, as well as the fish sauce, which I'd highly recommend adding to your pantry if you don't already use it. The umami-laden sauce, made from fermented anchovies, adds intense flavor and depth to Asian cooking. If you've ever tried to recreate a Chinese or Thai dish at home and felt like it was missing something, fish sauce is likely the culprit.

After a minimal amount of preparation, the dish comes together quickly. I simmered the ground chicken with fragrant garlic before adding fish sauce, soy sauce, lime and sugar. Once those flavors had intertwined, I tossed the fresh basil and some slivered red onions into the pan.

Instead of serving the dish in a plastic takeout container, I nestled the larb-inspired chicken in crisp lettuce cups and garnished with sprigs of fresh basil and a few more squeezes of lime. It would also be delicious served over rice or alongside a papaya salad.

Pairing the dish with wine proved a bit more difficult. The combination of intense flavor components—acid, umami, sweetness and spice—gave me a lot to think about when brainstorming contenders. I decided to try my luck with a Beaujolais, a Vouvray and a Riesling.

The takeout version of the dish is usually wildly spicy, so I first tried the off-dry Chenin Blanc from Vouvray in anticipation of a fire in my mouth. Off-dry wines are great for balancing out heat in a dish with a touch of palate-cleansing sweetness. But since I substituted the milder red pepper flakes for the fiery Thai chiles, the spice in my homemade larb was much more manageable. The rich Chenin Blanc overpowered the complex flavors and was too sweet for the moderately hot dish.

I next tried a Beaujolais; with its soft, juicy fruit, it can sometimes be a great red option for pairing with bold, ethnic cuisine. But I did not love how it interacted with the umami-laced soy and fish sauces.

I finally turned to my most trusted standby. Whenever I have a difficult pairing, Riesling usually fits the bill. The wine’s light body and low alcohol means it won't overwhelm most dishes, and the typical aromatic, citrusy profile matches with varied cuisines. The varietal, in this instance a dry version from New York's Finger Lakes, once again proved its versatility, as it complemented all the elements of the complex lettuce wraps.

Thai Chicken Lettuce Wraps


Pair with a crisp white such as Atwater Estate Riesling Finger Lakes East-West Block Dry 2014 (88 points, $16).


Total time: 15 minutes

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Approximate food costs: $14

  • 1 pound lean ground chicken
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon fish sauce
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 1/2 medium red onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 cup fresh basil leaves
  • Head of Boston lettuce

1. Add oil and garlic to a large frying pan and cook over medium-high heat until fragrant.

2. Add the ground chicken, salt, pepper, sugar, fish sauce, soy sauce, red pepper flakes and lime juice to the frying pan. Break up the chicken with a wooden spoon and combine ingredients. Simmer until chicken is cooked through, approximately 8 to 10 minutes.

3. Add red onions and basil and cook until softened. Add more salt and pepper to taste, as necessary.

4. Gently separate leaves from head of lettuce and fill with spoonfuls of ground chicken. Garnish with fresh basil. Serves 2.

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