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Wednesday, July 26, 2006 12:59 am

Summer Rolls on

The results are personal, politically correct and scrumptious

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Have you tried to host a dinner party lately? Long gone is the no-nonsense process of entertaining, when the only thing that mattered was a wholesome square meal consisting of a meat, a starch, and a vegetable. These days, forget about planning a menu without consulting your guests. The world of the privileged has become a who’s-who of food allergies, obsessions, abstentions, and political campaigns. A menu assumed to be acceptable fare for all is a serious faux pas.

We are no longer fun-loving eaters grateful for a free meal; we are vegetarians, vegans, lactose-intolerant, gluten-free, and raw-foodists. We have issues, and we have made going to someone’s house for dinner a real pain in the ass.

Recent kitchen experiments brought about an interesting revelation: the Vietnamese summer roll (a.k.a. goi cuon) may be the last remaining dish on Earth that can feed all of God’s children. It’s hard to find someone who will refuse a summer roll, soft as pillows on the outside, crunchy and veggielicious on the inside. Top it off with a zesty peanut sauce (barring a peanut allergy), and you’ve got democracy on a plate. With a slew of filling possibilities, the summer roll invites everyone to participate, and the results are personal, politically correct and scrumptious.

Democracy-for-All Summer Rolls

Ingredients for 12 rolls (enough for 6 people):
12 rice-paper wrappers (with extra, in case they tear)
4 ounces rice vermicelli noodles
Any four of the following items for filling:
12 medium or large shrimp, peeled and deveined
A mixture of mint leaves, basil and cilantro, about 2 1/2 cups
Half a red bell pepper, julienned
Three medium carrots, shaved with a vegetable peeler
One cucumber, peeled, seeded, and julienned
One mango, diced
1/2 head Boston or Bibb lettuce, torn into 2-inch pieces
Six scallions, diced

Instructions
Cook the rice vermicelli: Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add the noodles and cook for about two minutes. Drain in colander and rinse with cold water until noodles are thoroughly cooled. Cut with scissors into 2-inch lengths; set aside.

Cook shrimp: Bring a pot of water to a boil, then add 1/2 teaspoon salt. Add the shrimp and boil for about 90 seconds, until they turn translucent. Remove from heat and drain; rinse under cold water until cool. Slice in half, lengthwise.

Prepare rest of items for filling and place them in small bowls for roll assembly.

Soften rice-paper wrappers: Dip a wrapper into a pot of warm (not hot) water, using tongs. Allow wrapper to soften, about 25 seconds. Remove from water and place on damp paper towel or dishtowel. Repeat, layering wrappers between towels.

Assemble rolls: Remove wrappers one at a time, leaving the rest under the towel layers until ready to use. Place wrapper on a damp towel as a work surface. Using a pastry brush, apply water to moisten.

Add a small amount of noodle at the bottom edge of the wrapper (the side closest to you). Roll to the midpoint, tucking in corners. Add shrimp, if you’re using them, and roll another quarter-turn. Add herbs and any other filling items. Roll tightly and seal end with your fingertip. Wrap with damp towel until ready to serve.

Slice rolls in half and serve with a dipping sauce, such as this one: Mix together 2 tablespoons creamy unsweetened peanut butter, 1 tablespoon sesame oil, 2 teaspoons chile paste with garlic, and 1 teaspoon sugar. Gradually add water (up to 1/2 cup) until sauce is cake-batter consistency.

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