Dinner Tonight: Vietnamese-Style Lettuce Rolls

It was an A/C -swimming pool kind of weekend, with temperatures in the 90s. I found myself looking for weather-inspired fare -- something light that would help take the edge off.

So I took a cue from the Vietnamese, who have mastered the art of delicious, fresh-tasting cooking that also cools the body under extreme weather conditions.

Vietnamese lettuce roll
A leaf of Bibb lettuce gets filled with lemongrassed ground turkey, rice vinegar-soaked veggies and a kicky dressing. (Kim O'Donnel)

I have long wanted to make goi cuon, the classic summer rolls of softened rice paper (featured in the blog soon, I promise!), but with a beautiful head of bibb lettuce begging to be used, I decided to make lettuce roll-ups instead.

For the filling, I used ground turkey (instead of the traditional yet heavier beef or pork), seasoned with lemongrass and the salty pungency of Vietnamese fish sauce.

Thinly sliced onions and carrots got a mini-bath in rice vinegar and sugar for a sweet and sour effect, and I whipped up a quickie dressing spiked with chiles, garlic and herbs.

One may argue that Vietnamese cuisine requires several ingredients, and I agree. The simplicity comes with the preparation. Filling gets a simple browning in the pan. Dressing is a simple stir of ingredients. Vinegar-soaked veggies get drained and vinegar gets added to the dressing. Combine everything on a platter and stir. Fill lettuce leaves with the goodies, and you've got an air-conditioned meal that is popping with flavor.

Roll-ups are fun eating for kids, who can get involved in meal-time assembly, and for those of you who enjoy using your hands as a utensil. Enjoy!

Vietnamese Fresh Mint Salad

From "Asian Wraps" by Nina Simonds

1 cup Japanese rice vinegar
¼ cup sugar
1 ½ medium-size red onions, cut into small dice
3 medium carrots, grated or shredded
1 ¼ pounds ground turkey
1 stalk lemongrass, ends trimmed, tough outer leaves removed, cut into two-inch lengths and minced
1 ½ tablespoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons vegetable oil

1 head Bibb or leafy lettuce, leaves separated, pressed to flatten, rinsed, drained

For dressing:
2 small chili peppers, seeded and diced
3 tablespoons minced garlic
½ cup fish sauce
3 tablespoons sugar (or to taste)
Small handful fresh mint leaves and basil leaves, picked from stem and roughly torn
Additional option: small handful cilantro leaves, chopped fine

Pour rice vinegar and sugar in a bowl and stir to dissolve the sugar. Place onions and carrots in the bowl and allow to sit for 20 minutes.

Combine all ingredients for dressing in a mixing bowl and stir well to combine. Set aside.

Mix together ground turkey, lemongrass and fish sauce in a mixing bowl.

Heat a large heavy skillet over high heat until very hot. Add oil and heat until hot. Add turkey mixture until meat changes color and separates. Drain in a colander.

Using a slotted spoon, remove carrots and onions from the vinegar, draining well, and arrange them on a serving platter, leaving a slight well for the cooked turkey. Add vinegar (from carrots and onions) to the dressing. Spoon cooked meat into the center of the platter. Before serving, pour dressing over salad and toss to combine.

To serve, spoon some of the salad onto a lettuce leaf, roll it up, tucking in the sides and eat with your hands.

Makes about four servings.

By Kim ODonnel |  June 19, 2006; 10:47 AM ET Dinner Tonight
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I love LOVE summer rolls and it is one of favorite things to make - usually chicken or tofu cooked with garlic and ginger rolled up with noodles, lettuce and herbs and served with homemade peanut sauce. I have a hard time rolling them up, though - they are never very "tight" - I don't know if I'm trying to put in too much filling or what, so I'll be interested to read about your experience.

Posted by: Elizabeth | June 19, 2006 12:40 PM

Wow, these look yummy, but I'm veggie.... Do you think I could substitute tofu for the turkey?

Posted by: Rachel | June 20, 2006 2:47 PM

Rachel why don't you use TVP?

Posted by: Matt | June 23, 2006 11:48 AM

Matt, good idea. I just bought TVP for the first time so it's not something that popped into my head. Let me know if you try it this way! Are you veggie?

Posted by: Rachel | June 24, 2006 5:24 PM

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