In the hot, humid weather of Southeast Asia (and, from what I hear, in many places back home right now), a cool, crisp Vietnamese summer roll is the perfect way to make a refreshing snack without having to turn on the oven.
I learned how to make summer rolls last year, in a class taught by a teeny tiny Vietnamese lady who also taught us to make pho, that classic Vietnamese beef noodle soup. She does it by simmering bones all night to make a flavorful stock, and I watched her scrub and break down a combination of leg, knuckle and ox-tails for the soup. After placing the bones in a pot to cook with some water, she threw in a variety of spices that she called "basic pho spices." It was at this point that I thought to myself, "I will never, ever be able to make this dish by myself."
From top to bottom, left to right: 1) Put the rice paper wrapper on a plate and using a wet hand to moisten it rather than dip it in a shallow bowl of water and having it fall apart on you; 2) place the vegetable filling on the side of the wrapper closest to you; 3) fold inwards from the sides, then roll upwards towards the top of the plate; 4) the finished product should display your most colorful vegetables, which you placed on the wrapper first
Well, I'm still working on my fear of cooking pho (as my teacher went on to demonstrate, the whole process can take up to 2 days), but I've made Vietnamese summer rolls several times since then. The technique is surprisingly easy to master, and depending on the fresh ingredients you have on hand (I love to use shrimp, avocado and mango together), you can make a variety of tasty combinations.
The key to making a good Vietnamese summer roll relies on two ingredients that you have to purchase correctly. The first is the summer roll wrapper, or banh trang. It's a circle of dried rice paper that's usually sold in packs of around 50. Always buy a Vietnamese brand, which are available at Asian specialty stores (and once I saw them at Cost Plus World Market, inexplicably). There are other types out there -- Chinese and Japanese, mainly -- but for whatever reason, in my experience, they're either brittle and fall apart the second water touches them (which is required to make the wrappers pliable) or they are too thick and have a slightly gummy taste that ruins the crispiness of the roll.
The second important ingredient is the rice vermicelli (thin rice noodles). When purchasing rice vermicelli, look for two things: 1) make sure the predominant ingredient is rice, not mung bean (a type of small green bean commonly used in Asian cooking), which produces dried noodles that look deceptively like rice vermicelli. Also, the thickness of the rice vermicelli should be approximately the same as dried spaghetti. I've found that in this department, it matters less that the vermicelli is actually Vietnamese and more that it's the right thickness. Any thinner (there are some noodles out there that are thinner than angel hair pasta) and the heft that the vermicelli are supposed to provide isn't there.
Lastly, most recipes I've found tell you to prepare a bowl or dish of water and soak the rice paper wrappers to soften them. This is a total fallacy, and you'll end up with a mess of wet, soggy wrappers (or, if you're like me, covered in bits of rice paper from head to toe; last time, I found rice paper in my hair). The best way to wet the wrappers is to put a dry wrapper on a plate and dip your hand into a small bowl of water, then moisten the wrapper lightly using your hand. This way, the wrapper doesn't disintegrate but still becomes pliable enough to roll.
It's easy to spend an afternoon making a pile of these for a party -- once you get your ingredients set up, I like to sit at my dining room table watching a bad romantic comedy CNN. I get my daily dose of happy tears world news, and our dinner guests get a nice, refreshing way to start our meal.
Vietnamese Summer Rolls (Goi Cuon)
Makes 18-20 rolls
1 package of rice paper (banh trang)
1 pound of cooked pork belly or boneless chicken breast, sliced thin (both can be steamed and cooled before slicing)
1 pound of cooked shrimp (peeled, deveined and halved lengthwise) (if steaming, steam in shells and then peel/devein)
1/2 package (approximately 8 ounces) of rice vermicelli noodles, cooked according the instructions on the package, rinsed and cooled
Bunched of washed mint leaves (and left to dry on paper towels)
Bunch of washed Thai basil (left to dry on paper towels)
Head of lettuce, washed and shredded
2 cups of bean sprouts, washed
Dipping sauce (instructions below)
Optional: sliced avocado, mango, or bell peppers
Wash and thoroughly dry all vegetables and set out in separate bowls on a large work surface. Make sure meats and rice noodles are prepared and at room temperature. Fill a small bowl with room temperature water. With a large, clean dinner plate, place a sheet of rice paper on the plate and dip your hand into the bowl of water. Wet the rice paper lightly until just pliable. Place 3-4 pieces shrimp, pink cooked side down, in a row about one inch up from the bottom of the wrapper (the bottom being the side that's closest to you). Add avocado, mango, or bell peppers, if using, followed by the chicken/pork, lettuce, bean sprouts, vermicelli. Top with a few leaves of mint and basil. Fold the bottom of the wrapper up towards the filling, then gently fold in the sides and roll the wrapper upwards towards the top of the plate, forming a roll. Repeat until all of the ingredients are used. Place rolls on a plate, making sure to keep them slightly separated. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until serving, which should be the same day. (Keeping the rolls for any longer than 1 day means the vermicelli will start to harden.)
Makes about 1 cup
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 fresh bird's eye chili, minced
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1/2 cup boiled water
Juice from 1 lime
In a small bowl, mix garlic, chili, sugar and lime juice. Add water and stir until most of the sugar is dissolved. Add fish sauce and stir.