When I was a teenage prep cook, I made a special dish that never made it onto the menu, even as a special, even though it was called the Ari Special.
It was, however, a lunch break favorite among the staff. Everyone — from the absent manager to the Austrian baker, the waitress I was crushing on and the waiter who was on cocaine — loved the Ari Special. Even the cashier who hated me, and was consequently extra annoyed that I had the gall to call it the Ari Special, ordered the Ari Special more than anyone, being careful never to say its name.
This was decades before it would have another name: "wrap." And everyone, it turns out, loves a wrap.
Whether it's a tortilla-clad burrito or a spring roll held together by chewy rice paper, the universal architecture of a wrap holds different ingredients together, so they can be chewed together just so, like a sandwich, but tighter.
A wrap's character is mostly determined by the filling. Or at least, it should be. The wrapper's job is to contain the filling, and glutenous carb blankets like tortillas and rice paper make supple, forgiving and leak-proof wrappers.
The Ari Special, with its no-leak, tapered end, was ahead of its time. Filled with chopped deli turkey, onions, tomatoes and parsley, and tossed with mayo, the mix hydrated the bread clinging to the inside of the baguette crust, while the browned exterior stayed dry.
A piece of well-baked sourdough baguette is worth my belly space, as is a warm tortilla, or a properly hydrated rice wrap. But many wrappers trade healthiness or convenience for 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 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. The only problem is that lettuce wraps, technically speaking, don't exist. At least the durable, tubular variety. Do a recipe search for lettuce wraps, and you get an armada of open-faced boats, filled, inevitably, with awkwardly oversized amounts for a single leaf to daintily deliver, overloaded leaves getting soggier by the minute.
Under the right conditions, a lettuce wrap will persist briefly on a serving plate, like an unstable subatomic particle. But if you stare its way with even a hint of desire, the contents get restless, knowing their chance at freedom is nigh.
Other leaves, like chard, cabbage, grape leaf or collard greens, make superior wrappers to lettuce, but only if they are steamed, which increases their flexibility and prevents cracking. Plunge the leaves in an ice bath after no more than 30 seconds of steam. Remove the leaves and allow them to dry. These leaves have a durable elasticity that hold a lettuce wrap together in a firm grip, and can even be folded to prevent drip from the bottom end for a truly burrito-like performance.
But if possible, I prefer my leaves raw. And I've always been more of a taco guy, if not a corn chip guy. I prefer my food in smaller units, that is, because smaller units are easier to micromanage into perfect mouthfuls of just the right amount of each ingredient.
My initiation into the small wrap society came at Saigon Restaurant in Albuquerque, where 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. Since then, my wife has been wrapping pieces of feta in black kale, from time to time, and popping them in her mouth.
Loading lettuce leaves is an intuitive way to eat. To help orient the aspiring leaf loader, I'll share a deconstructed version of the Ari Special, heavily influenced by the late NPR commentator and food writer Kim Williams, whose corn-stuffed tomato recipe was a contemporary to the Ari Special.
Alas, the 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 or ham or fake deli meat brings it closer to old-school Ari Special territory, but protein is optional.
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The core of this dish is learning how to eat it. Leaf loading is a new world, with its own language and customs. May this recipe be your doorway.
1 head's worth of raw lettuce leaves, cleaned and organized on a platter or large plate
½ cup chopped sweet onions
1 ear's worth of raw corn kernels
2 tablespoons mayo
1 bunch of basil leaves
1 pound of tomatoes, cut into ½-inch chunks
½ pound protein
1 teaspoon salt
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 (small) amount of inner ingredients. Each leaf will have different structure and flexibility — let this architecture guide how you load and fold. Aim for pieces of a bite and a half, so you don't strain to get the whole thing in your mouth, but leave relatively small remains, waiting, supported in your fingertips, for a follow-up bite. And that's a wrap.