When it is so hot and humid and sticky that you cannot bear to turn on the stove, and the thought of eating something warm makes you vaguely queasy, salads are the traditional cold food solution in the West.
But, you know, I really like one of the Eastern takes on the matter, because not only is it cooling, fresh, light and crisp like a salad, you also get the kid-like pleasure of eating with your fingers!
Salad rolls, also called garden rolls, summer rolls and uncooked spring rolls, originated in Vietnam, but their popularity has spread them to Thailand and beyond. The classic recipe is made with chilled boiled shrimp and cold roast pork, combined with bean sprouts, herbs (Thai basil is a classic), lettuce, and cooled, chilled thin rice noodles, all rolled up together in a rice paper wrapper and served ice cold with some kind of dipping sauce.
But that is the classic, and as excellent as it is, I have never tasted a recipe that I couldn’t adapt happily.
I’ve made vegan versions with avocado instead of the shrimp and pork, and those are awfully tasty. I’ve taken out the pork and used fresh mango slices instead, which tastes amazing with the crisp-tender sweet boiled shrimp and the bright flavors of the emerald green herbs. (The truth is, as much as I adore pork, and love Vietnamese style roast pork, in the summer, I prefer salad rolls without it, because it is heavier than I would like.)
The one necessary component to this recipe which cannot be substituted is the rice paper wrapper. These round, translucent, paper-thin creations are easily found in most Asian markets and even some supermarkets in the international food section. They are sold in clear plastic disc-shaped packets, and come about thirty to a package.
When you open the package, you will notice that these fragile little see-through circles made of rice flour and water, rolled thinly and set to dry in the sun on a basket (you can see the texture of the basket imprinted in them, which is pretty cool) are quite crisp. How in the world can you wrap anything in these, you might think to yourself.
Easily–the trick is to dip them into hot (not boiling, just hot like bathwater) water, and push them down so they sink and are completely covered. (You can gently massage the rice paper with your fingertips to get them to soften faster, but you don’t need to, at least not if your water is hot enough.) Leave the rice paper in the water, swishing it about perhaps, until it completely softens, and takes on the texture of wet silk habutai (The kind of light silk fabric commonly used in clothing in the US) and is completely pliable.
Then, you gently take the wrapper out, lay it on a work surface (I use a clean plastic cutting board) smooth it out, and place your filling in the lower third of the wrapper. Contain your fillings into a vaguely cylindrical shape, which is challenging with the bean sprouts, but endeavor to persevere, and they will eventually be tamed. Fold the lower bit of the wrapper up over the fillings, then fold in the two sides, tightly–but not so tightly that you tear the rice paper.
Then, roll up the salad roll, as tightly as you can, and place it on a plate, seam side down, and there you have it! The rolling tightly part takes some practice, but I promise you that after your fifth or seventh roll, your salad rolls will begin to look prettier and prettier. And even if they are not pretty, your first efforts will taste delightful.
These salad rolls are best made fresh, right before you eat them, but you can make them a few hours ahead of time if you put them into a pan that has been lined with damp paper towels, and then cover the rolls with more damp towels. If you stack them on top of each other, make sure that you place damp paper towels between the layers so that the rice paper wrappers don’t have a chance to stick together.
Then you need to make a dipping sauce.
My favorite is also the easiest to make–it consists of equal parts of natural peanut butter (the kind that is made only of peanuts and salt) and hoisin sauce, a sweet soybean paste-like sauce, with a little bit of rice vinegar or lime juice for tang and enough sriracha sauce to add a sparkle of chili heat. I make it in a food processor, and add enough water through the feed tube to make a moderately thick but still fluid sauce that will easily stick to the rolls without either being sticky on the tongue nor dripping off the rice wrapper and making a mess of your clothes.
That is all there is to these delectable little cold bites–they are a great summer appetizer, salad course or if it really is that hot and miserable outside, entree. I’ll give you a list of possible ingredients below, and some general instructions as well as a recipe for the sauce, but really, this is not a recipe you need to follow to the letter. Unlike some people, I don’t want you to copy my every culinary adventure perfectly–I want you to strike out on your own, using my recipes as a map to possibly unfamiliar territory, and make your own taste discoveries.
Thai-Vietnamese Salad Rolls
rice paper wrappers (these are not an option!)
shelled boiled shrimp, cut in half longways
spiced pressed tofu, cut into thin slices
finely shredded or chiffonade-cut leaf lettuce, butterhead or romaine
mizuna (a lightly spicy, herbal-scented leafy green from Japan) leaves
whole basil leaves, stems removed
whole mint leaves, stems removed
sprigs of cilantro
long chive leaves, cut to lengths about 2 1/2″ long
mung bean sprouts (traditional) or radish sprouts (not traditional, but very tasty)
thin shreds of carrot
thin slices of fresh avocado–lightly firm fruits are best
thin slices of lightly firm mango
thin slices of seeded cucumber
thin rice vermicelli boiled for five minutes, drained and rinsed in cold water, then chilled with ice
1 cup natural peanut butter
1 cup hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons lime juice or rice vinegar
sriracha or other Asian chili sauce to taste
lightly crushed roasted peanuts for garnish
Soak a rice paper wrapper in hot (nice hot bathwater temperature) water until it becomes fully pliable and has the texture of wet light fabric like silk or cotton. Remove from water and allow excess water to drip back into pan. Lay wrapper onto a work surface, and smooth out with fingers.
At this point, while you are filling and rolling the first wrapper, you can put a second wrapper into the water to soften while you are working.
Put your chosen fillings neatly in layers on the lower third of the wrapper, shaping them gently to a cylindrical mound. If you use shrimp, place two pieces, cut side up on the bottom of your pile of filling ingredients. (This allows the pretty side of the shrimp to show through the translucent wrapper–if you are using avocado or mango in place of the shrimp, use them now. If you are using tofu–put the herbs first, because they are prettier, then the tofu. If you are using mango or avocado with shrimp, place them on top of the shrimp.) Place your basil leaves or other herbs on top of the shrimp so a dark green color shows through the wrapper underneath the pink of the shrimp, then add lettuce if you use it, and bean sprouts, then noodles, last. (Just grab a few noodles in your fingertips and pull them out from the mass, and kind of wind them up into a little wad. Use very few noodles–too many will give your roll a too chewy mouthfeel.)
Fold up the bottom third of the wrapper on top of the fillings, and then fold both sides in tightly. (But not so tightly that the bean sprouts poke through the fragile wrapper–this takes practice. Do not despair–you will get better at this, and even after hundreds of these rolls, I still lose a wrapper now and again to a vicious, wild bean sprout trying to make its escape.)
Roll up the fillings inside the wrapper, using your fingers to both roll and contain the fillings, keeping the wrapper as tight on the sides as possible. This is tricky, and you will feel like you could use about five extra fingers to accomplish this feat. Again, do not despair–you will get better at this.
When the roll is done, set it on a serving plate or, if you are making them ahead, in a pan lined with damp paper towels, as outlined above.
Repeat steps until you run out of wrappers, filling or both.
Make the sauce–put all sauce ingredients except peanuts in blender or food processor. Blend together, and then add just enough water while blender or processor is running to thin the sauce to a thick but not gloppy consistency–a little thicker than heavy cream is just right. (Make sure it coats the back of a spoon without running off quickly–it should drip, but slowly.)
The next step is the most important–eat and enjoy!
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