- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Weeks after the early days of January, when dieting was on everyone’s mind, many of my friends and family are still talking about losing weight.

My daughter-in-law is adhering to a low-carbohydrate regime. One of my assistants has been on the South Beach diet for weeks. And my husband, hoping to shed unwanted weight picked up this winter, has been talking about eating more carefully, a big step for him. Our guests have begun hinting that they are monitoring menus.

We recently invited a couple over for last-minute drinks and appetizers on a Sunday night. The husband, an epicurean baby boomer, is borderline diabetic and mentioned that he needed to drop a few pounds. What, I wondered, could I serve that would tempt his palate yet not send up a red flag? Then I remembered a delicious starter I had tasted while on a brief visit to London during the New Year holidays.

At Hakkasan, a new restaurant specializing in Asian-fusion cooking, I ordered stir-fried wild mushroom lettuce wraps. A platter arrived at our table with a bowl mounded with a warm sauteed mushroom mixture in the center. Arranged around the bowl were small, crisp romaine leaves.

The waiters quickly explained that we were to mound the mushrooms on the lettuce. One bite, and I was smitten. The soft texture of the spicy fungi was balanced perfectly by the crunchy bite of the greens. I asked for the recipe and was given a list of ingredients: shiitakes, shallots, scallions, water chestnuts, pine nuts, cilantro and a little oil for sauteing the mixture.

After several tries, my version resembled the one from London. Soy sauce, rice wine, garlic and hot red pepper flakes were my own additions. I served this starter to our friends on a cold winter night, thinking that we would linger over these nibbles for half an hour or more. Wrong. In less than 10 minutes, four of us demolished the platter, and no one felt guilty.

Stir-fried wild mushroom lettuce wraps

12 to 14 ounces shiitake mushrooms

5 scallions

4-1/2; tablespoons canola or vegetable oil

3 tablespoons chopped shallots

6 tablespoons chopped water chestnuts

3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

1/4; teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

1-1/2; teaspoons soy sauce

1-1/2; teaspoons rice wine

1/2; teaspoon Kosher salt

3 tablespoons chopped cilantro

12 to 16 small romaine lettuce leaves (see note)

Twist off and discard stems from mushrooms. Gently wipe caps clean with a dampened paper towel or cloth. Pat dry and chop. Cut off and discard root ends and all but two inches of green stems of scallion. Chop the scallion.

Heat oil in a heavy, medium skillet over medium-high heat, and add mushrooms and shallots. Stir constantly for 4 to 5 minutes until softened. Then add scallion, water chestnuts, pine nuts, garlic and hot red pepper flakes, and saute, stirring, 2 more minutes. Remove from heat, and stir in soy sauce and rice wine.

Season with ½ teaspoon salt, then taste and add more salt, if needed. (Stir-fry mixture can be cooked 4 hours ahead. Leave at cool room temperature. Reheat, stirring constantly, over medium heat.)

To serve, stir cilantro into warm mushrooms and mound mixture into a small serving bowl. Place in the center of a platter. Arrange lettuce leaves around bowl. To eat, hold a lettuce leaf in one hand and place several spoonfuls of the mushroom mixture onto the leaf. Serve with paper napkins.

Depending on the size of the leaves, you will get 12 to 16 servings.

Note: Small inner leaves, about 5 to 6 inches long, from a head of romaine work best in this recipe. Some groceries sell packaged hearts of Romaine. When using these, trim bases from the leaves to make them shorter, if necessary.


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