Roll your own
In summer, my thoughts turn to summer rolls, especially on hot sultry days.
Essentially unfried egg rolls, summer rolls are light and healthy. They are ideal for a participatory family meal or easy entertaining. In fact, making summer rolls is entertainment in itself. Made ahead and kept moist with a damp towel, they are also perfect picnic fare.
When I featured summer rolls in a Southeast Asian cooking class in 2002, not a single person had heard of them. These days they’re offered in many Asian restaurants including local ones. Unfortunately some – and not just locally – are more texture than taste, their flavor coming primarily from the dipping sauce.
But summer rolls need not be bland; they can be made with a variety of fillings. Possibilities include vegetables such as bean sprouts, cooked (shitake or oyster) or raw mushrooms, radish or daikon, baby lettuces, avocado and snow peas. Fruits such as mangoes, pineapple or papaya are fruit possibilities. Chopped peanuts or cashew are common.
Proteins can be vegetarian, such as grilled tofu that’s been marinated in a teriyaki or other Asian marinade; eggs, either hard-boiled or made into a soy sauce-seasoned omelet and sliced. Shrimp and crabmeat are traditional and often found in restaurant versions. But again, other possibilities abound. Because only a small amount is needed, it’s a great way to use leftover grilled chicken, steak, pork or bratwurst that wouldn’t otherwise be enough for a meal. Just be sure that everything – vegetables, fruits and proteins – is shredded or thinly sliced.
There’s no last minute cooking, in fact very little cooking at all: only in prepping some of the proteins or mushrooms ahead. Set bowls and platters on the table of as many ingredients as you want or have the time and crew (usually kids enjoy helping) to prepare. The fun begins when someone is designated to soften the rice paper wrappers in tepid water, then everybody combines ingredients to his or her own taste, and rolls their own. It’s not hard, but apart from experienced rollers, most people’s first attempts are sloppy. I’ve been making them for years, but only a few times each year; inevitably my first couple are less than perfect. The biggest problem is usually overfilling the wrappers. Don’t be discouraged: before long everyone gets the hang of it – and the messy ones still taste great!
Vietnamese sausage is a protein that’s traditional and not often found in restaurant summer rolls. Vietnamese cuisine has a wonderful panoply of charcuterie (sausages and cured meats), one of the few good things that resulted from French occupation. The Vietnamese adapted French charcuterie to their own tastes and ingredients. The sausage below is so delicious, it’s hard to not keep snitching bites after it’s cooked. For me, including it in summer rolls really “kicks them out of the park.”
The dipping sauce below is traditional, but sweet-and-sour or other Asian sauces also work; good bottled ones are available.
Summer rolls with shrimp and Vietnamese sausage
For the sausage:
- 3/4 lb. ground pork
- 1 T. minced garlic
- 3 T. minced shallot or red onion
- 3 T. minced lemongrass
- 1 T. light brown sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 T. Southeast Asian fish sauce
- 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 c. fine fresh breadcrumbs
- 1 T. light brown sugar
- 1 T. Southeast Asian fish sauce
- 12 medium shrimp, cooked and cut in half lengthwise
- 6 oz. rice vermicelli, boiled for 5 minutes and drained
- 2 c. shredded lettuce
- 1 c. bean sprouts
- 1 large carrot, coarsely grated
- 2 T. chopped dry-roasted unsalted peanuts
- Fresh cilantro
- Fresh mint
- Chinese (garlic) chives or regular chives, optional
- 12 rice paper wrappers (Bánh Tráng) plus additional in case some break (approximately 9 inch in diameter)
For the rolls: Combine the fish sauce and sugar in a medium bowl and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Just before beginning to make the summer rolls, add the shrimp to the bowl and toss to coat. If using other ingredients, toss one of the appropriate proteins with the mixture.
Assemble the remaining ingredients and set aside, covered and refrigerated if made more than a half hour ahead of time.
Fill a large shallow bowl with tepid water. Place a folded lint free towel next to the bowl. The surface of the towel should be larger than the rice paper wrapper. Place a single wrapper in the water. Let stand just until soft and pliable. The time will vary depending on the brand of wrapper and the temperature of the water, but check after 10-15 seconds. Place the wrapper on the towel and let drain for a few seconds.
Put the wrapper on a flat surface. Place a couple tablespoons of the rice vermicelli in a strip on the upper third of the wrapper. Leave an inch border. Add about the same amount of shredded lettuce. Top with a few bean sprouts, carrot shreds, a sprinkle of peanuts and a few torn leaves of the mint and cilantro. Don’t fill the rolls too full or it will not fold properly. Sprinkle with additional fish sauce if desired.
Fold down the top of the wrapper over the filling and fold in the sides. Roll the wrapper over one turn to completely enclose the filling. Place two of the shrimp halves and a couple leaves of cilantro on the wrapper.
If using the chives, place a single chive lengthwise so the pointed end protrudes out one side of the wrapper, then finish rolling.
These may be made ahead and covered with a damp towel until served. Or assemble the ingredients at the table and let each diner make their own. Serve with Vietnamese dipping sauce and/or other Asian dipping sauce. Makes 12 rolls.
Vietnamese dipping sauce
- Three Thai bird chilies or 1 jalapeo or serrano
- 1 tsp. minced garlic
- 3 T. light brown sugar
- 2 T. lime juice
- 4 T. fish sauce
- 1/2 c. warm water
- 1 T. grated carrot
In a food processor, process the chilies, garlic, sugar and lime juice into a paste. This can also be done with a mortar and pestle or by finely chopping the garlic and chilies, then mashing them with the flat side of a large knife, and mixing the resultant paste with the brown sugar and lime juice in a small bowl, using the back of a spoon. Add the remaining ingredients (including the reserved chilies) and check the seasoning. You may want to add an additional tablespoon or so of fish sauce or reduce the strength of the sauce with 1 or 2 additional tablespoons of water.
Variation (to make ginger dipping sauce): Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of minced fresh ginger to the processor or mortar with the chilies, garlic, sugar and lime juice.
Contact Julianne Glatz at email@example.com.