Keep cool with noodles and summer rolls
What do you think it’s going to be like tonight? It’s going to be hot and wet. That’s nice if you’re with a lady, but it ain’t no good if you’re in the jungle!” - from the movie, Good Morning Vietnam
Day after day the temperature keeps climbing into the mid-90s, and the forecast isn’t changing anytime soon. In this kind of weather, my interest in standing over a hot stove or grill cools down in direct proportion to the heat index’s rise. I want to make things that are as easy, light, and cool to prepare as they are to eat.
Southeast Asian cooks are expert at developing recipes that cope with their intensely hot and humid weather. Here are two favorites.
Summer rolls are commonplace in American Thai and Vietnamese restaurants; unfortunately most are sadly bland, relying on their dipping sauce for taste. There are myriad versions and combinations that burst with flavor; this is just one.
Don’t be afraid to “roll your own.” Probably your first tries won’t be perfect (mine never are), but you’ll soon get the hang of it – and those mangled attempts taste just as good. Children are usually entranced by the process, and love to participate (see above about less-than-perfect rolls).
I’ve made lots, but my husband, Peter, is the real expert: he estimates he’s made hundreds – or even thousands – while camping at music festivals. It’s been a great way to feed friends he’s traveling with, and friends he meets. His two main tips are to not overfill them (they’ll never make a neat cylinder), and that it’s OK to take the wrapper out of the water while it’s still a little stiff – it’ll soften up as it sits.
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Crab and mango summer rolls
- 1/2 lb. crabmeat
- 6 oz. thin rice noodles a.k.a. vermicelli
- 1/4 c. seasoned (sushi) rice wine vinegar
- 3 T. light brown sugar
- 4-5 scallions, cut lengthwise into 2-inch slivers, OR garlic or regular chives OR chives cut into 2-inch lengths
- 1-2 ripe mangoes, preferably Adolphos, cut into very thin slices
- 1 seedless cucumber, unpeeled, cut into 2-3-inch lengths and then into very thin slices
- Mint, cilantro and (preferably Asian) basil leaves
- 12 rice paper wrappers, approximately 9 inches in diameter, (Bánh Tráng), plus additional in case of breakage
In a large bowl, stir the vinegar and sugar together until the sugar has dissolved. Bring a pot of water to a boil, add the noodles and boil for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand for 10 minutes. They’ll be softer than normal. Drain, then toss with the sugar/vinegar mixture and set aside to cool.
Have the filling ingredients cut and ready at hand before assembling the rolls.
Fill a large shallow bowl with tepid water. Place a lint-free towel next to the bowl. The towel’s surface should be larger than the rice wrapper. Place a single wrapper in the water. Let stand just until almost soft and pliable. The time will vary depending on the wrapper brand and water temperature, but start checking after 10-15 seconds. Place on the towel and let drain for a few seconds. Put on a flat surface. Place about 1/4 c. noodles in a horizontal layer on the upper third of the wrapper, leaving an inch border. Add about 2 T. of the crabmeat in a strip at the base of the noodles, then add a couple slices each of the cucumber and mango, a few scallions slices or chives and herb leaves. Don’t overfill! Fold the wrapper top over the filling and fold in the sides. Roll the wrapper tightly over one turn to completely enclose the filling. Place a couple herb leaves on the wrapper, then finish rolling into a cylinder. These may be made ahead, covered with a damp towel and refrigerated until serving. Or serve the ingredients in separate bowls and let each diner roll their own. Makes 12 rolls.
Serve with Vietnamese Dipping Sauce.
Cool Vietnamese rice noodle bowls
- Five garlic cloves, minced
- 1 heaping teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder (see note below)
- 2 T. peanut or other vegetable oil
- 1 1/2 T. fish sauce (see note below)
- 1 T. light brown sugar
- 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- 1 lb. thin-cut meat – a beef skirt or flank steak, pork steaks or thin-cut pork chops, or boneless skinless chicken – OR substitute for all or part of the meat one block firm tofu, halved horizontally, or 8-12 oz. portabello mushrooms
- 3/4 lb. dried small round rice noodles (vermicelli)
- 2 - 3 c. red or green leaf lettuce or romaine, sliced crosswise into -inch ribbons
- 1 thin regular or 1/2 English (a.k.a burpless or hothouse) cucumber, unpeeled, seeds scraped out with a spoon, and cut into thin matchsticks
- 2 c. bean sprouts, or substitute radish or other sprouts
- At least two or more of the following fresh herb leaves: mint, cilantro, dill, basil (preferably Thai/Asian), or lemon balm.
- Roasted, unsalted peanuts
- Thinly sliced scallions
- Siracha hot sauce
- Vietnamese dipping sauce (see below)
Combine the marinade ingredients in a large, resealable plastic bag. Seal and squish the contents until they are thoroughly mixed and the sugar dissolves. Remove 2 T. of the marinade and set aside. Add the meat or tofu or mushrooms to the bag, and press to remove as much air as possible. Gently toss the bag until everything is coated with the marinade (it’s especially important to be gentle with tofu), and marinate for at least one hour, and up to two hours, turning occasionally. Refrigerate if marinating over an hour.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, and add the noodles. Boil for three minutes, then drain and immediately flush with cold tap water. Drain again, then toss with the reserved marinade and divide between 4 large shallow bowls.
Preheat the grill. Grill the meat, tofu, or mushrooms to the desired degree of doneness. Cut into bite-sized pieces or strips (flank and skirt steak should be cut across the grain).
Top the noodle bowls with the lettuce. At this point, you can either add the meat/tofu/mushrooms to the bowls or serve with the garnishes.
Place the garnishes in separate bowls or arrange them – except for the peanuts and Siracha, which should be kept separate – on a large platter. Diners can add the type and amount of garnishes and mix in as much dipping sauce/dressing as they’d like.
Serves 4 as a one-dish meal.
Vietnamese dipping sauce
- 3 Thai bird chiles OR one Serrano or Jalapeño chile, or more or less to taste
- 1 tsp. minced garlic
- 3 T. light brown sugar
- 2 T. lime juice
- 4 T. fish sauce (see note below)
- 1/2 c. lukewarm water
- 1 T. grated carrot, optional
Using rubber or latex gloves, thinly slice the chiles. Put the chiles in a jar or bowl with the remaining ingredients and stir or shake until the sugar is dissolved. Taste the sauce. You may want to add more fish sauce, lime juice, or sugar or reduce the strength of the sauce with a little additional water.
Notes: Chinese five-spice powder is a mixture of ground star anise, cloves, Szechwan peppercorns, fennel seeds and cassia or cinnamon. The proportions vary greatly from cook to cook, and purveyor to purveyor throughout Asia; as the use of five-spice powder extended beyond Chinese borders. It’s available locally at Food Fantasies, Little World Market and in the Asian sections of some grocery stores. There are many recipes online for making your own.
Fish sauce is a salty condiment/ingredient used throughout Southeast Asia in much the same way as soy sauce is in countries such as China, Japan and Korea. These days it’s usually available in the Asian sections of grocery stores; however the best ones are usually found in Asian markets. I prefer Three Crabs brand (easily identified by the three crabs on the label), available locally at Little World Market.