Celebrating Chinese New Year, which begins on January 23rd, is a great excuse for expanding your family's dinnertime repertoire. Lettuce wraps have become more popular year-round at Chinese and Asian fusion restaurants recently, but they're actually a traditional food for Chinese New Year and contain several "lucky" ingredients: the Cantonese word for lettuce apparently sounds similar to "rising fortune," sesame seeds are known to bring luck in fertility, and the word for oranges is similar to the word for "wealth." Read on for a healthy, tasty recipe that offers a crunchy, lucky start to the New Year.
Yummy, Asian-spiced tofu cubes form the base these lettuce wraps. A recipe follows for a homemade version (which can be made a a day ahead and refirgerated), but in a pinch, store-bought Asian-style baked tofu cut into cubes can be substituted. Wrap 1 pound of extra firm tofu in a clean, dry kitchen towel and let the excess liquid drain out for about 5 minutes. Cut tofu into small cubes. A good way to do this is by laying the tofu on its side and making 8 or 9 vertical slices, then cutting each of the slices into smaller rows and then cubes.
In a large (9″ by 12″) glass pan, mix together 3 Tbsp shoyu (or tamari or soy sauce), 2 Tbsp mirin, 1 scant Tbsp minced ginger, 2 minced garlic cloves and 1/4 water. Place tofu in pan and let marinate for at least an hour, gently stirring after about 30 minutes to ensure that the pieces are coated.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Before putting the pan into the oven, drizzle 1 Tbsp of sesame oil and 1 Tbsp of sesame seeds over the tofu, again gently mixing. Bake tofu for 50 minutes, adding another 1 Tbsp of sesame oil and 1 Tbsp of sesame seeds after 25 minutes and mixing again.
Make the drizzling sauce. In a small bowl, mix together 2 Tbsp sugar with 1/4 cup water, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Add 2 Tbsp soy sauce, 1 Tbsp rice vinegar, 1 tsp sesame oil, 1 1/2 Tbsp ketchup, 1 garlic clove that has been zested with a microplane zester (or minced as small as possible), and 1 tsp of orange juice. Mix well and set aside.
Heat 1 Tbsp sesame or vegetable oil over medium high heat. Add the water chestnuts and celery and 2 tsp shoyu (or tamari or soy sauce). Cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring once or twice. Add tofu and 2 thinly sliced scallions (green parts only) and cook for another 2-3 minutes, until all of the ingredients are heated through.
Peel the leaves off of a head of lettuce and stack on a platter. Use the freshest lettuce you can find so that the leaves are not smushed and sticking together. Transfer tofu mixture to the platter with the sauce and lettuce. Spoon desired amount of tofu and veggie mixture onto lettuce leaf, drizzle with sauce and eat like a taco.