Wrapper's delight

Ari LeVaux - 09/21/2017
Wrapper's delight

Wraps can be found, in one incarnation or another, anywhere in the world that people eat.

They include Mexican wraps held together by tortillas; Asian rolls, contained by rice paper or egg noodles; Middle Eastern pitas filled with gyro meat and falafel; Italian cannoli pastry filled with sweetened ricotta cheese and pasta stuffed with savory cheese and ragu.

Part of the reason for the ubiquity is that wraps can be made with an endless variety of perfectly optimized bites. Consider the fish taco, in which the corn tortilla packages a symphony of flavors: creamy sauce, crunchy cabbage, fruity salsa. All of the basic flavors: sweet, salty, sour, and the dark and mysterious newcomer, umami. And fat, of course, the uncrowned king of flavors. And spicy, which is not as much a flavor as the fulfillment of some deep bodily craving. Bitterness, otherwise lacking, is handled by a glass of cold cerveza, speaking of bodily cravings.

The basic flavors can be repeated in different ways. The sour acid of the salsa in the fish taco, for example, is accentuated by lime juice and hammered home by onion, creating layers of acidity. In the construction of layered mouthfuls, such redundancy can be a beautiful thing. It adds nuance, complexity and explosive flavor.

Wraps allow you to set up one winning combination after another. And the wrappers themselves are usually made of supple, yummy processed carbohydrates. But there are many kinds of plant leaf out there that are bendy and tasty enough to use as well. The shining example would be the nori seaweed that binds sushi together. Technically, seaweed is an algae and not a plant, but that’s close enough for me. In any case, seaweed is most definitely not a processed carbohydrate.

An exceptional leaf wrap combines textures and flavors for a balanced, exciting yet manageable bite. There are also questions of sauce, the great fudge factor. A sauce can be salty, sweet, sour, bitter, umami-ish or creamy, whatever completes the flavor. The sauce can be rolled in, dipped into, or both.

The salad bites I’ve been rocking lately have been built upon the sturdy stems of Italian radicchio.

A member of the chicory family, radicchio and its cousins, like escarole and endive, make excellent wraps. But radicchio is special in that it grows in tight heads of elegant, cup-shaped leaves, every one begging, open handedly, to be stuffed.

One thing about radicchio, or any chicory, is that you have to be OK with bitter. And you should be. It is good in more ways than just beer, coffee and chocolate. Cultivating an appreciation for bitter is like exercising a muscle. It makes you healthier.

When it’s time for wrapping, the one I reach for most is Rossa di Treviso, an elongated chicory with lanky, fleshy leaves that stay crisp. I fill them with tomato, onion, cheese and perhaps a chunk of salmon.

Some notes on bitter leaf wraps: As with many fresh-leaf wraps, they are best done one at a time, just when you are ready to eat. They don’t always hold together well.

The cheese should be dense and bold, like feta or provolone, or perhaps Romano or Grana Padano. Whenever buying Italian cheeses, look for the DOP designation, which is Italian for “the shit.”

If I’m wrapping fish, I use mayo instead of cheese (grape seed oil Vegenaise). If I don’t have salmon, pickled herring works well, as do anchovies or anchovy paste. If I do have salmon, I bake it slowly with a sweet rub to balance the bitter of the radicchio.

Mix two parts brown sugar and one part salt with a splash of maple syrup if you’ve got it, and then bake at 215 for

about a half hour, until some milky juice starts weeping from the glazed orange flesh. Allow to cool and break into chunks.

Don’t forget sliced onion. Capers don’t hurt either. Tomatoes should be cut so they give up their juices. Without a cut surface, they won’t absorb the vinaigrette.

Speaking of which, I use my wife’s dressing: 1⁄2 cup

XVOO, 1⁄4 cup soy sauce, 1/3 cup vinegar (half white balsamic, half balsamic). You can also marinate the onions and tomatoes in the dressing beforehand or skip altogether.

Put the wrap in your mouth and chew. Rinse with water or wine, and repeat. And that, for lack of a better ending, is a wrap. 

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