With food, as with fashion, some things are timeless...and some are fads that instantly evoke the era that spawned them. Like, while steak frites is the culinary equivalent of a little black dress and pearls, pesto with sun-dried tomatoes is the equivalent of a pink Izod shirt with a turned-up collar.
Recently, I found myself with a strange nostalgic compulsion to make a circa-late-1970s dish that could be considered the equivalent of a Mrs. Roper print muumuu. And let me tell you, gentle reader, it was damn good.
My aunt—ironically, I'm her namesake—was not much of a cook. She was one of those people that had one “company-friendly” recipe down pat and would make it at every occasion she hosted through the years. In this case, her signature dish was Lettuce Chicken, composed of sautéed chicken, bacon, and—how weird is this?!—iceberg lettuce, with some lemon juice bringing it all together. And it was actually AWESOME—a perfect balance of rich and clean/tart flavors. For some reason, a craving for this popped into my head recently…but when I googled “lettuce chicken” I got a bunch of crap about “wraps” and “cups” calling for lettuce leaves in lieu of the tortillas God intended.
So I texted my mom to ask if she recalled the gist of the original recipe for Lettuce Chicken, and, happily, she did. (Apparently it originated in Gourmet back in the day. If anyone can track down this O.G. recipe I’d be most grateful, and would sleep better at night linking to it as the source of this post. I did do due Google diligence in an effort to cite my source properly…but it’s not my fault that ’Merickan women are obese but aspire not to be, and hence searching for lettuce chicken yields 87 pages of variations on the same freaking “wraps” and “cups”!)
Anyhoo. I originally thought of substituting escarole for the iceberg lettuce as a modern update of the dish, since I just didn’t trust my memory that iceberg could go in a cooked dish. But the Met Foods, much to my lack of shock, did not have escarole in stock, and when I texted my mom to confirm that it was indeed iceberg in the original recipe, she responded, “Yep. That’s all we had back then. AND WE LIKED IT!” Clearly, I had to keep it real and go with the iceberg. (I mean, I didn’t have an option. You caught the part about how the market had no escarole, right?) So, to make a long story short (too late), here’s how I made the awesome lost-in-history dish that is Lettuce Chicken.
I started with something like 1 1/2 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken breast, which I cut into medallion-ish pieces and dredged in flour mixed with healthy pinches of kosher salt and garlic powder (either a Ziploc or a shallow baking dish works well for this; make sure the chicken is fully coated on all sides). I put the chicken in the fridge to let the flour set for a bit while I fried 6 slices of bacon, cut into 1-inch-ish strips, in a large shallow frying pan. I kept the heat on medium because you don’t want the bacon to get too browned/crispy.
I set the cooked bacon on paper towels and drained most—but, crucially, not quite all!—of the grease from the pan, then added a nice hunk of butter (maybe 2T) to the pan and turned the heat to medium-high. I fried the chicken in the pan until golden brown on both sides, then removed it and wiped down the pan with a paper towel to get rid of the residual flour schmutz (you don’t have to be too obsessive).
Then I added the chicken and bacon back to the pan, along with iceberg lettuce, not quite shredded but cut into strips (I would say a little over half of a medium-size head…it’s not really an exact science, so don’t stress too much) and the juice of 1/2 lemon. I tossed it all together, turned off the heat and let the pan sit on the burner for a minute—you just want the lettuce to wilt a bit and blend with the other flavors, but if you cook it too long it would get gross and mushy.
As is my wont, this dish was prepared for two people—but could easily have fed four. In keeping with the childhood nostalgia thing, I served it with Near East brand rice pilaf, which was a staple in my mom’s cupboard when I was a kid. It’s kind of like the Rice-a-Roni of Middle Eastern people. Whatever the magical contents of that Spice Sack (*cough*probablyMSG*cough*), the rice was a perfect complement to the dish. Which itself is a mixture of unexpectedly awesomely complementary flavors and textures—the salty bacon, the refreshing iceberg, the bright lemon, and the buttery chicken all play off one another in such a way that, well, you just want to keep shoveling it into your mouth. Lettuce Chicken may be a kitschy retro dish, but like brightly patterned ’70s muumuus, it warrants a comeback.