empire brewery’s indonesian lettuce wraps

I’m back from a birthday visit to Winnipeg and feeling a little more reflective than usual. My great northern hometown, stretched out over the empty prairie, seems more distant as visits become less frequent. It’s not that it has become foreign, just a little less familiar.

Two hours in the air, two waiting to cross the border, and three more on the road delivered me back to Syracuse. It feels more like home than I remember. As I gear up to move to DC on Saturday, however, there’s a limbo quality to life. I feel like I’m floating, watching my life shift and change beneath me.


My great-grandfather’s spiced beef recipe.

This past week has reminded me of the grounding power of family and friends, even when they’re far away. And that thought brings me, of course, to food. Almost exactly a year ago, my aunt Evelyn sent me a pretty special little recipe. I filed it away for a future post, and came back to it today. It’s my great great grandfather, William Oscroft Ward’s recipe for spiced beef, republished last year in this culinary history newsletter by a cousin of my grandpa’s (Doug Ward senior, of radio journalism fame).


In case you’re wondering how I succeeded with floating a potato in a saltwater brine, the answer is no, I haven’t tested the recipe. I don’t eat a lot of beef, and while this preparation looks fascinating, I just haven’t gotten around to trying it out. The recipe I’d like to share today offers a more modern take on spiced meat.


This one came to me not along family lines, but local ones. At a harvest potluck put on by the Central New York Slow Food Chapter a few weeks ago, there, at the end of a long table boasting velvet beets, roasted fennel, and pumpkin bread, there was a rustic pot full of one of my least favorite ingredients: ground meat. Next to it there was a basket of soft Bibb lettuce leaves and a small, hand-lettered label announcing how to proceed. I took a small heap of the rice and beef mixture and a leaf or two of lettuce.

One bite and I realized I’d been too hard on ground meat. Spiced with the subtle fragrance of cardamom and cinnamon, and with velvety coconut milk holding it all together in creamy harmony, the whole thing was then encased in delicate green.


As I pondered the spicy sensations, I discovered that I was sitting beside their creators: David and Karen Katleski, owners of the Empire Brewing Co. in downtown Syracuse. I learned that the dish was a cherished family recipe, but after a second helping and more doting, tentatively asked if they’d be willing to share. The Katleski’s were gracious, and we exchanged email addresses. A few days later the recipe arrived, in all its restaurant proportion glory (calling for 5lbs of ground beef!)


The Katleski’s know good food as well as they know slow food. That afternoon they were awarded the Slow Food Snail of Approval award, honoring their commitment to local farmers and food communities.

I performed some math on the recipe and using our favorite free-range bison meat, finally cooked up a batch for a crew of friends. One guest constructed a Moroccan veggie tagine right before our eyes, and another brought a decadent pear tart. The wine flowed, and so did the conversation.

This dish comes together quickly and simmers for about an hour. It can be made a day in advance, and  is a wonderful addition to any winter potluck.

Indonesian Beef Wraps

makes 8 generous servings


2 T olive, coconut or peanut oil
2 T garlic, minced (about 3 large cloves)
1 cup diced yellow onions
½ T fresh ginger, grated


2½ lbs organic ground beef (I used grass-fed bison)
1 cup low-sodium beef stock
1 cup water
¼ cup soy sauce
⅓ cup Indonesian Sweet Soy Sauce
2 T rice wine vinegar
¼ cup brown sugar
½ tsp fresh ground black pepper


1 cup coconut milk
1 tsp cinnamon, ground
1 tsp nutmeg, ground
1 tsp coriander, ground
¾ tsp cardamom (fresh ground from seed)


¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
½ a lemon’s worth fresh juice



  1. Heat the oil over medium in a large heavy pot. Cook onions and garlic and cook until translucent. Add the grated ginger and mix in.
  2. Add beef and incorporate. Cook until browned.
  3. Add next 7 ingredients (stock through pepper) and simmer over low heat for 40 minutes.
  4. Add all but the last two ingredients, stir, and continue simmering until the stew had come to a thick consistency.
  5. Remove from heat and mix in the cilantro and lemon juice.
  6. To serve, mix with 2 cups cooked jasmine or basmati rice, and serve with Bibb lettuce leaves.

courtesy of the Empire Brewing Company in Syracuse, N.Y.