Summer is a lot of things, but fun for the cook ain’t necessarily one of them.
It can get pretty muggy standing outside in front of a grill come July, and if you’re old-school like me, you could be stuck cooking in a 100-year-old house with an un-air-conditioned kitchen.
One way to get around hot-weather cooking is to prepare meals that require minimal fussing. I am talking about simply chopping, mixing and assembling some tasty ingredients, which in summer is the wide variety of vegetables. To wit, may I introduce you to the wonders of the summer roll?
Also known as fresh spring rolls, summer rolls are a signature dish of Vietnam. Unlike their fried first cousins, which arrive at the table crispy brown, summer rolls are almost transparent, offering diners a tantalizing glimpse of a culinary feast to come. They can be stuffed with all manner of fresh herbs, julienned vegetables, cooked rice vermicelli and virtually any protein. Adding to their appeal is the fact they take minutes to prepare, and can be served either cool or at room temperature.
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No doubt you’ve seen banh trang wrappers with their distinctive crisscross pattern, created when the cooked rice sheets are dried on bamboo racks, on store shelves. Unlike wonton wrappers, which are made with flour and egg and come out of the package ready to rock and roll, rice papers take some work – you have to soak the delicate papers in water just so before you can use them.
Along with various fresh rolls, Vietnamese cooks use rice papers in stir fries, soups, baked dishes and a wildly popular street food known as banh trang tron, or rice paper salad.
The wrappers can be daunting to first-time users, but with practice you should be able to get the rolling process down. The trick is to soften the wrappers in warm water just until they’re pliable and tacky, but not so wet that the edges start to stick together and you end up with a lump of goo – it should be slightly firm and not fully folding on itself.
It also helps to rotate the sheets as you moisten them, and to shake off the excess water before you lay the rounds on a hard surface to fill and roll.
Some suggest rolling the sheets on a clean dish towel to keep them from sticking, but I found a ceramic plate worked fine. Be careful not to overstuff the rolls with ingredients or the wrappers could burst. Plus, they won’t look as pretty.
In deciding what to put inside the rolls strive for balance, in texture and flavor. If you add a crunchy or chewy component, make sure there also is a tender item to play against it; same with sweet, spicy, salty and tangy flavors. If you pile on the lettuce and cucumber, for instance, add some tofu or poached shrimp, along with green onion, cilantro and chili.
Some cooks do two layers of fillings, folding the translucent wrappers over one batch of ingredients before adding the next. But it’s probably easier for beginners to go with the “envelope” method of adding everything at the same time. Start at the top third of the paper closest to you, and add less filling on the wrappers than you think you need. Gently pull away the edge of the wrapper from the work surface and roll over the filling while using your fingers to gather and tuck the ingredients under the wrapper. The tighter the roll, the neater the final product.
You can leave the rolls open-ended to display the goodness inside, or fold in the sides while rolling to keep things neat. Once rolled, you can cut them in half or into mini bites.
Make the rolls ahead of time (keep in the refrigerator for up to two hours, covered with a damp towel) or simply set out the ingredients and let guests make their own rolls. No one likes a double-dipper, so be sure to set out small individual bowls of sauce for dunking.
When preparing the fillings, keep in mind that the ingredients must be very thinly sliced or julienned so that they’re flexible enough to be rolled. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different vegetables and herbs, and you can be equally creative with the proteins – leftover grilled meats, savory ground meats, seafood, tofu and bacon are among the endless choices.
Go for an array of dipping sauces, too. The classic is nuoc cham, a spicy mix of fish sauce (a concentrated and pungent liquid extracted from anchovies fermented in brine), vinegar, lime juice, sugar, chili and garlic. But you’ll also want to try your hand at peanut and chili-lime sauces.
Summer rolls are meant to taste light. So reach for soft butter lettuces rather than iceberg or romaine and seek out the freshest herbs. Asian groceries are a great place to look for authentic ingredients, but you should also be able to find the wrappers in most of the larger grocery stores.
When choosing rice paper wrappers, look for ones made with a combination of rice and tapioca starch, as they’re a bit sturdier. I opted for the larger wraps so that I’d have more success at rolling. Even if they aren’t perfect, they’ll be delicious.
It’s summer and the livin’ is easy; dinner should be, too.
Shrimp summer rolls with garlic, lime and chili dipping sauce
Makes 10 rolls
Shrimp simmered in coconut milk is the protein in this light and summery roll.
1/2 cup coconut milk
1 lemongrass stalk
10 cleaned and peeled large shrimp
2 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons warm water
4 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons crushed garlic
4 tablespoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon finely chopped Thai chili
Freshly ground black pepper
10 sheets rice paper
3 1/2 ounces rice vermicelli noodles, cooked according to packet instructions
1 head butter lettuce
1 large carrot, peeled and shredded
1 cucumber, cut into matchsticks
1/2 pineapple, peeled, cored and cut into matchsticks
1 bunch cilantro
In large saucepan over medium-high heat, heat coconut milk and bring to simmer. Add lemongrass stalk (if using) and shrimp, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until shrimp is pink and cooked through. Discard lemongrass, drain shrimp and set them aside to cool at room temperature.
Make sauce: In medium bowl, dissolve sugar in warm water. Then add lime juice and garlic; stir well. Gradually stir in fish sauce, adding just enough to suit your taste. Add chopped chili and then grind over some fresh pepper to taste.
Assemble rolls: Set out chopping board covered with a tea towel or muslin cloth. Fill a wide bowl with warm water. Submerge rice papers in water for a couple of seconds, then lift them out. Place rice papers on towel-lined board in single layer. Place a pinch of cooked noodles on center of one sheet. Add a lettuce leaf, then a pinch of shredded carrot and a stick each of cucumber and pineapple. Roll rice paper over once.
Cut shrimp in half lengthwise and place one half up the whole length of paper, and roll again. Repeat until you are out of papers and fillings.
Serve summer rolls with dipping sauce.
Rice paper banh mi with pork meatballs
Makes 10 rolls
These Vietnamese-style rice paper rolls look like fresh spring rolls on the outside, but have elements of the banh mi sandwich on the inside. Consider it killing two birds with one tasty stone. If you don’t have gluten-free bread on hand, substitute regular white bread.
For dipping sauce:
1/3 cup water
1 1/2 teaspoons rice vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce
Juice from 1/2 lime
1/2 fresh red chili, seeded and finely chopped
1 small garlic clove, finely chopped
1/2 carrot, peeled and cut into small, thin matchsticks
For pickled veggies:
1/3 cup distilled white vinegar
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
One 3-ounce carrot, peeled and cut into matchsticks
1 1/2 ounces daikon radish, peeled and cut into matchsticks
For pork meatballs:
1/4 cup gluten-free breadcrumbs
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon each finely chopped fresh basil, mint, cilantro
1 pound pork
10 rice papers
3 to 4 cucumbers, julienned
Sliced jalapeños, optional
Handful mixed herbs
Make dipping sauce: In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine water, rice vinegar and sugar. Bring to a boil, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool slightly, then stir in fish sauce, lime juice, chili, garlic and carrots. Refrigerate until ready to use, at least 30 minutes, and up to 3 days.
Make pickled veggies: In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring vinegar, sugar and salt to a boil, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Stir in carrot and daikon and let cook for 1 minute, then remove from heat. Set aside to cool, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes. Place in an airtight container and store in the refrigerator until ready to serve. The pickled vegetables will keep for up to 3 days.
Make pork meatballs: In a bowl, stir together all the measured ingredients except pork. Add pork, and stir to combine. Make small meatballs (1 heaping teaspoon each). Bake meatballs in preheated 425-degree oven on rimmed baking sheet coated with canola oil until cooked through and brown, about 10 minutes. Or, pan-fry meatballs, until cooked through and brown, in 1/4-inch canola oil in large frying pan over medium-high heat.
Assemble rolls: Fill a round cake pan with warm water. Place 1 rice paper round into the water, turning it gently with your fingertips until softened. Carefully remove the sheet from the water and lay it flat on a plate. Arrange a few of the meatballs in a horizontal line on the wrapper, positioning them about 1 inch or so from the edge nearest you and about 1/2 inch from each side.
Top with some of the drained pickled veggies, cucumber and jalapeño slices (if using), and a sprinkle of herb leaves. Lift the edge of the rice paper nearest you and place it over the filling, then roll once to form a tight cylinder. Fold in the sides of the rice paper and continue to roll into a tight cylinder (be careful not to rip the rice paper). Repeat with the remaining rice paper and filling. Cut each roll in half crosswise at a diagonal and serve with dipping sauce, if you like. To store, wrap each roll in plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 2 days.
Fresh vegetable rolls with tofu and peanut sauce
Make 10 rolls
This vegetarian roll skews toward the spicy, but not so much that Grandma won’t dig it. Choose extra-firm tofu so it doesn’t fall apart when you cook it. I used tiny pickling cukes instead of seedless English cucumbers because they were just the right size for slicing. Sesame seeds give a nice crunch.
1 block extra-firm tofu
1/2 teaspoon olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons Sriracha sauce
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1/2 red pepper, julienned
1 large carrot, julienned
1/2 long English cucumber, julienned
Small handful of baby spinach, gently bunched up and sliced thinly
3 green onions, thinly sliced on a diagonal
For peanut sauce:
2 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons peanut butter
1 tablespoon Sriracha sauce
1 tablespoon chili-garlic sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon brown sugar (or maple syrup)
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
2 to 3 tablespoons water, to thin
10 rice papers
Prepare tofu: Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Slice tofu into squares no thicker than 1/2-inch thick. Place tofu in mixing bowl and add olive oil, Sriracha and soy sauces. Gently mix to combine. Spread evenly on a cookie sheet and bake for 10 minutes. Remove baking sheet from the oven and flip each piece of tofu. Drizzle remaining marinade over tofu and bake for 10 to 12 minutes. Once it’s crispy on the outside, remove from oven and place in refrigerator to chill.
While tofu is baking, finely julienne red pepper, carrot and cucumber. Thinly slice spinach and green onion.
Prepare peanut sauce: Combine soy sauce, peanut butter, Sriracha sauce, chili-garlic sauce, sesame oil and brown sugar in a bowl, and whisk vigorously. Add water as needed. Set aside.
Assemble rolls: Cut your chilled tofu into thin strips. Soak a single rice paper in hot water until it’s completely soft and flexible. (This could take anywhere from a few seconds to more than 30 seconds depending on the brand/type of rice paper.) Gently shake the excess water from the rice paper, lay it straight out onto your work space. Let it sit for about 30 seconds to absorb any excess water.
Sprinkle some sesame seeds in the center of the wrap, then lay some of each of the julienned vegetables down in the middle of the wrap. Try to keep the fillings laid neatly, making sure to leave ample room on each side to easily fold the wrap.
Lift the side of the rice paper that’s closest to you, gently pull it forward (away from you) over the fillings. Hold the wrap firmly while you fold in each end of the wrap. Continue rolling to seal the seam. Repeat with remaining rice papers and vegetables.
Serve rolls with peanut sauce.