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Wednesday, May 21, 2008 07:28 am

Summer rolls

From Southeast Asia comes the perfect food for hot summer days

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Spring’s been cool so far, but we know they’re on their way: hot days, sultry days, days when the combination of heat and humidity makes it impossible to stay completely dry unless the air conditioning is dialed down to environmentally incorrect levels. When I’m not interested in eating anything hot, much less standing over the stove, I frequently turn to summer rolls, a specialty of Southeast Asia, where it’s steamy and hot much of the year. Essentially unfried egg rolls, summer rolls are light, healthy, and good for entertaining or a participatory family meal with older children and adolescents in which everybody combines ingredients to his or her own taste. When I featured summer rolls in a Southeast Asian cooking class years ago, no one had ever heard of them. These days they’re offered in many local Asian restaurants. Unfortunately some — and not just locally — are more texture than taste, the flavor coming primarily from the dipping sauce. Summer rolls need not be bland; they can be made with a variety of fillings. Vegetables such as bean sprouts, cooked or raw mushrooms, radish or daikon, baby lettuces, avocado, slivered snow peas, and chopped peanuts can be added or substituted. Proteins can be vegetarian, such as teriyaki-marinated and grilled tofu, or eggs hard-boiled or made into a soy sauce-seasoned omelet and sliced. Shrimp are traditional and so is garlicky Vietnamese sausage (a good substitute is grilled garlic bratwurst), but, again, other possibilities abound. Because only a small amount is needed, it’s a great way to use leftover grilled chicken, steak, or pork that wouldn’t otherwise be enough for a meal. Just be sure that everything is shredded or thinly sliced. The dipping sauce that accompanies this week’s recipe is traditional, but sweet-and-sour or another Asian sauce also works; good bottled ones are available.
Don’t be discouraged if your first attempts are less than perfect. It takes some practice and experimentation to produce a tidy summer roll. I’ve been making them for years but only a few times each year, and inevitably my first tries look pretty sloppy. By the third roll, though, I’ve usually gotten the hang of it again — and the messy ones still taste great!

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1/2 pound crabmeat 6 ounces rice vermicelli 1/4 cup seasoned rice-wine vinegar 3 tablespoons light-brown sugar Four or five scallions, cut in half lengthwise, then slivered One or two mangoes, very thinly sliced One seedless cucumber, unpeeled, very thinly sliced Mint leaves Cilantro leaves 12 rice-paper wrappers (bánh tráng), plus more in case of breakage, approximately 9 inches in diameter Long garlic or regular chives for garnish (optional)
In a large bowl, stir the vinegar and sugar together until the sugar has dissolved. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add the noodles, and boil them for five minutes. The noodles will be softer than they would normally be cooked — this allows them to stick together in the rolls. Toss the noodles with the sugar/vinegar mixture and set them aside.
Have all the ingredients cut up and ready when you begin to assemble the rolls. 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 and let stand it just until it’s soft and pliable. The time will vary, depending on the brand of wrapper and the temperature of the water, but start checking after 10 to 15 seconds. Place the wrapper on the towel and let it drain for a few seconds. Put the wrapper on a flat surface. Place about 1/4 cup of the noodles on the upper third of the wrapper. Leave an inch border. Add about 2 tablespoons of the crabmeat in a strip at the base of the noodles, then add a couple of slices each of the cucumber and mango, a few shreds of scallions or chives, and a few mint and cilantro leaves. Don’t fill the rolls too full, or they won’t fold properly. As an optional garnish, place a couple more cilantro or mint leaves on the wrapper. Fold the top of the wrapper down over the filling and fold in the sides. Roll the wrapper tightly over one turn to completely enclose the filling. Place a single chive lengthwise so the pointed end protrudes from one side of the wrapper. Finish rolling. These may be made ahead, covered with a damp towel and refrigerated until serving, or you may choose to assemble the ingredients at the table and let each diner make his or her own. Yields 12 rolls.
Three Thai bird chiles or one jalapeño
1 teaspoon minced garlic 3 tablespoons light-brown sugar 2 tablespoons lime juice 4 tablespoons fish sauce 1/2 cup warm water 1 tablespoon grated carrot
Thinly slice the chiles. Reserve about a third for garnish. In a food processor, process the chilies, garlic, sugar, and lime juice into a paste. This can also be done with the use of a mortar and pestle or by finely chopping the garlic and chiles, then mashing them with the flat side of a large knife, and then mashing 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 chiles) 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 chiles, garlic, sugar, and lime juice.
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