Lettuce Cups Are Fresh, Bright-Tasting, and Easier Than You Think
Naturally gluten-free and low-carb, lettuce leaves make an ideal vehicle for all kinds of fillings. Get started with 20 easy recipes!
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BLTA Chicken Lettuce Wraps; photograph by Olga Ivanova
I don’t count carbs or do keto. I eat gluten every day. And bread is — no joke — one of my favorite foods. So why am I talking about lettuce cups? Simple: because sometimes I want a lighter meal, one substantial enough to banish hunger pangs for hours, but not so heavy that I need a nap.
A lettuce cup (aka lettuce wrap) is exactly what it sounds like. To make one, you load your choice of filling, anything from a Southwestern bean salad to a spicy stir-fry to slices of chicken shawarma, into a fresh lettuce leaf, top with some contrasting textures and flavors, and fold the greens over the filling. Lettuce varieties with large, soft leaves tend to work best. Think bibb, Boston, butter, and even crunchier ones like iceberg and romaine, but feel free to experiment. Another benefit of lettuce cups: They’re endlessly flexible.
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Plant-based lettuce wrap recipes
Whether you’re vegetarian or you’re just trying to get more veggies into your day, these recipes make an easy weeknight dinner.
To prepare these savory-sweet Asian lettuce wraps, you only have to cook one thing: roughly chopped tofu, which you’ll stir-fry in a large skillet until the edges get crispy, then add prepared hoisin sauce. That’s your filling, right there — spoon some into leaves of romaine lettuce and add sliced scallions, shredded carrot, and chopped peanuts.
These Southwestern vegan lettuce cups don’t call for any cooking at all — you’re just combining ingredients like black beans, chopped mango, roasted red bell peppers, jalapeño, and lime juice, then scooping the zingy salad into romaine lettuce leaves. The total time to make them is only 25 minutes.
It’s not exactly like eating five-alarm chicken wings, but this inventive appetizer packs a spicy punch. Cauliflower florets get a nice char on the grill before you toss them with prepared buffalo sauce. Wrap soft lettuce leaves — think butter lettuce, bibb, or Boston — around some of those florets, sprinkle on some blue cheese and diced red onion, and watch them disappear.
The flavors practically jump out at you from this yummy scoop. Plenty of fresh ginger and minced garlic start us off, after which crumbled tempeh goes in the pan. Follow that protein with soy sauce, honey, sesame oil, red pepper flakes, and crunchy peanuts. Once the filling is ready, you’ll top each lettuce cup with chopped green onions and julienned carrots.
Asian lettuce wraps
Long before they became popular as a way to eat fewer carbs, lettuce wraps were on the table in southeast Asian countries including China, Thailand, and Korea.
Salty, sour, spicy, and sweet: Thai recipes usually aim to hit all four notes, and this one does just that. Wrap one of these little patties, made from ground turkey mixed with fresh ginger, scallions, cilantro, fish sauce, and sriracha, in a large leaf of Boston or iceberg lettuce, drizzle on some peanut sauce, and shower with fresh herbs.
P.F. Chang's Lettuce Wraps often get the credit for kicking off the things-wrapped-in-lettuce craze. This copycat version shows you why. Ground chicken gets zhuzhed up in a wok (or skillet) over medium-high heat with hoisin sauce and soy sauce, rice vinegar, and sriracha. Before it goes into butter lettuce leaves, the chicken mixture gets a lovely crunch from chopped water chestnuts.
I’m a sucker for Korean-style beef dishes — the salty-sweet flavors sing to me. Here, you season ground beef with soy sauce, brown sugar, fresh ginger, garlic, and rice vinegar, and tuck it inside tender butter lettuce leaves, along with a bit of brown rice and some crunchy raw carrots and scallions.
If you’ve got some ground turkey on hand and a decently stocked Asian pantry, you’re in for a treat. The sauce ingredients here are nothing more than soy sauce, garlic chili sauce, and fish sauce plus a few cloves garlic and some fresh ginger, but the depth of flavor they create makes the lettuce cups memorable.
All-American lettuce cups
Yes, the United States is a melting pot with flavors drawn from all over, but some dishes are quintessentially American. They, too, can be wrapped in lettuce leaves.
Major satisfaction with minimal prep time: For this chicken lettuce wraps recipe, you start with leftover cooked chicken breasts, and the only cooking is to crisp up some bacon. Then you combine hummus and a bit of mayo in a small bowl — it becomes the “glue” that holds together the quick chicken-tomato-avocado salad. Top it off with crumbled bacon, and you’ve got the tastiest gluten-free BLT ever.
My husband is a South Jersey boy and Philadelphia was his stomping ground growing up, so he’s a bit of a stickler when it comes to cheesesteak. Honestly, I’m not sure he’d approve of one served in a lettuce leaf — but if you’re living low-carb, you shouldn’t have to miss out. Sauteed bell pepper and onion, thinly sliced skirt steak, and shredded provolone are all you need to recreate the Philly experience.
The homemade, creamy cocktail sauce makes the perfect complement to nuggets of sweet cooked shrimp, crunchy celery, and green onions. Wrapping the mixture in refreshing iceberg lettuce leaves makes this a fun appetizer or light dinner.
Is there a more all-American lunch than a tuna sandwich? If you’re watching your carbs, you may be missing out on a perfectly portable favorite. This recipe livens up the classic tuna-and-mayo combo with avocado, lime juice, dill pickle, red onion, and chopped cilantro, then swaps bread for large leaves of lettuce.
Lettuce cups with Latin flair
South-of-the-border flavors work beautifully with the bright crunch of lettuce leaves.
This recipe takes longer than most of the others here, because it starts by slow cooking a pork shoulder with plenty of spices, onion, garlic, jalapeño, and orange juice. Do that on a weekend, shred the meat, and stow it in the fridge. Weeknight dinners will only need a quick reheat before you scoop it into bibb lettuce leaves and add your favorite taco toppings.
Flank, skirt, or sirloin steak gets a quick marinade while you sauté sliced red onion and bell peppers in olive oil. When the veggies are softened, set them aside and sear the steak in the same pan, with a little extra marinade at the end to keep things juicy. Set out the meat, vegetables, lettuce leaves, avocado, and lime wedges in separate bowls, so everyone can assemble their own fajitas.
I love a versatile recipe, don’t you? This one lets you prepare the chicken filling in an Instant Pot, which will get it on the table in about half an hour, or the slow cooker, which you can set up hours before you plan to eat. Either way, chicken breasts absorb tons of flavor from prepared salsa, diced green chiles, hot sauce, and lime juice. Wrapped in lettuce leaves and topped with a quick avocado salsa, this is a taco I could eat every night.
If you’ve been wondering whether lettuce cups can be sophisticated enough for company, this recipe provides a definite yes. The salad of crisp jicama, juicy orange, mildly spicy poblano pepper, and red onion in a garlicky lime dressing is reason enough to try this recipe. When you factor in the Latin-spiced shrimp and gussied-up quinoa, you should expect no leftovers.
Mediterranean-inspired lettuce cups
The sunny Mediterranean region has always included tons of salads on the table. Wrapping classic flavors in lettuce leaves is an extension of that tradition.
When I have leftover chicken, I often think salad. But plain ol’ salad can be, ahem, less than exciting. On the other hand, these Italian-accented lettuce cups, filled with chicken, roasted pepper, capers, olives, and sun-dried tomatoes in a tangy red wine vinaigrette are gorgeous, delicious, and fun to eat.
If you’re watching your carbohydrates, here’s a fantastic substitute for a shawarma pita sandwich. And it takes almost no effort: You just sauté seasoned strips of chicken breast until golden, then tuck them inside hummus-smeared Boston lettuce leaves. Top with an Israeli chopped salad, and you’ve got an easy, low-carb main dish.
Canned tuna in olive oil is the star of the show here — rather than flake it, you leave the fish in substantial chunks and toss with tomatoes, olives, toasted almonds, cucumber, red onion, and capers. All it needs is a squeeze of lemon juice, and it’s ready to spoon into bibb lettuce leaves.
The combination of flavors and textures here is just … perfect. You’ve got rich salmon with its crispy crust, smooth avocado, sharp and crunchy radish slices, and perky green onions, wrapped up in soft butter lettuce leaves. But it’s the sauce you’ll be writing home about, tahini and garlic and cilantro and red wine vinegar and olive oil, all blended until it’s thick, creamy, and irresistible. Trust me: Make a double batch.
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