Winter is yielding. The sarcasm of icy winds fades. And new sprouts shoot towards the warming sun. It is time to celebrate. Today we present a favorite that shares the essence of the season: spring rolls.
The world over interprets spring rolls differently. Some are soft and others kissed by hot oil. Many have wrappers made with wheat flour. Others with with rice flour. Filled with ground pork and cabbage. Or maybe seafood and herbs. The sauce might be salty and sour. It might be sweet and sour.
The diversity is as vast as an Italian shoe store.
One thing appears to be true. This finger food has it’s roots in Asia. It is immigrants that have brought this delicacy to South America, to North America, and to Europe.
Rice paper adds a special charm to the spring roll. The paper becomes translucent when moistened so it reveals the jewels underneath. As if wax paper covered a Matisse collage.
Many Vietnamese restaurants offer spring rolls fresh or fried. When served fresh, peanut sauce, a sticky mahogany wonder of the East, accompanies them. It’s two main ingredients are hoisin and peanut butter. A dab of sriracha and into the pie hole. Boiled shrimp, roast pork loin, bean sprouts, rice sticks, mint leaves & cilantro tumble in the mouth revealing their own identity and merging into the greater harmony. Heaven.
Alternatively, when fried, the spring rolls are filled with ground pork. They are much smaller than their fresh counterpart. The dish is served with fresh lettuce leaves, bean sprouts and herbs like basil and mint. The final assembly happens table side.
It is a soft taco of your own making: lettuce, then herbs and sprouts. Then the crispy lozenge. A dunk into fish sauce where carrots and scallions swim on top.
Asian fusion chefs enjoy playing with recipe. It might the substitution of one ingredient. Supersizing it if you will. From dried roast pork to Serrano ham.
All of which is quite feasible at home. Let’s walk through an example which never fails to solicit compliments.
First advice: assemble all of the ingredients up front. When it’s time to roll, it’s time to roll. Time matters during this phase so there cannot be any distractions. Pour an extra large glass of Pinot Gris. When you are in the mood, be in the mode.
First up are the rice sticks. Basically vermicelli made from rice flour. Push a package of sticks into a bowl of cold water. Into the microwave for 3 minutes or so. This represents the absolutely easiest method. A pot of boiling water and egg timer are also possible. Microwave is faster and cleaner.
Three minutes may not be enough. Or it may be too much. Notice that we did not offer a total volume size. That’s because the final assembly will be based on how much of rice sticks will be desirable per roll. Leftovers just invite experimentation later in the week anyway.
Microwave until you have an al dente texture. Drain and set aside. To accelerate the draining, place noodles into a salad spinner. Yes, a salad spinner. Be sure to line the perimeter evenly otherwise it will be as clunky as sneakers in the clothes dryer.
When complete place on a layer of dry paper towel.
Pull a part the herbs. Cilantro leaves. Basil leaves. Mint leaves. Whatever sounds the most interesting. Again, this will be to taste, so no specific measure.
Pull apart the Serrano ham, the prosciutto, the speck or what ever ingredient that will add the dense rich meaty flavor.
Next is the seafood. Two ways to go. Raw or cooked. Certainly fresh spring rolls deserve cooked protein. Unless you are Sushi restaurant like Chinatown (see above).
Frying spring rolls with previously boiled shrimp inside is not too bad. The texture will be a bit more rubbery though.
Best bet, either way, is to split the 21-30 count shrimp in half so two crescent shapes remain. Now onto the assembly.
Wet 4 rice paper wrappers under a running faucet one at a time. The more you do it, the better you will be. Use two hands to slowly spin the flat disk while the water runs. Cold water please.
Lay the disk on a cutting board such that papers do not touch. This is a critical step. When dry, they come apart easily. When moistened, they stick together like velcro.
For mass production, we like to moisten 4-5 sheets at a time using two plastic cutting boards. One cutting board is used as a rolling station. The other as a waiting station. Draping the rice paper such that 20% of it overlaps the edge. This offers an easier way to lift the soften rice paper.
It takes only a minute or two of waiting before the paper is ready to roll.
Take one moistened paper and lay down three shrimp halves. Add a finger-full of rice sticks. This might look like a 1/4 cup. Add the herbs to taste. Then the ham.
Pick up the edge closest to you. Lift over the ingredients and pull gently back. The goal is to tightly pack the stuffing as you roll. Think rolling up a sleeping back on the last day of camping.
After one turn, fold the left and right sides over. Each should be about 20 percent of the diameter. Then continue to roll away from you. This should look exactly like making a burrito but with more delicate ingredients.
Continue until you have exhausted your patience or the ingredients.
As you place the finished rolls aside, be sure NOT to let them touch each other. Otherwise they will glue to each other like Siamese twins. Not pretty during the separation phase.
Use plastic wrap if you need to stack them. Especially important if you plan to assemble the spring rolls ahead of time and park them in the fridge.
Heat vegetable oil to 375 to 400 degrees. Best method is a high walled pan and a candy thermometer. Without the accurate gauge, you risk poaching in oil. And that means that your dish will be soggy and greasy.
Fry two or three at a time. Use metal tongs to spin such that all sides cook. You might find it enough to flip once. If these are thick, then four sides may need each a turn facing down.
The rolls are cooked when the texture is crispy on all sides and golden spots emerge.
Remove from the hot oil then drain them on a baking rack over paper towels. Don’t skip this step. If set to cool directly on the paper, the bottom will become soggy from escaping steam.
For large crowds slice spring rolls in halves or thirds.
Serve with a dipping sauce that is one part freshly-squeezed lime juice and one part fish sauce. Add some scallion slices for added flavor.
Favorite combinations of ingredients include:
- Shrimp with Serrano ham, cilantro and rice sticks
- Scallop with speck, mint and rice sticks
- Fresh shitake mushroom with orange bell pepper, lavender goat cheese and rice sticks
Feel free to experiment. It’s up to you how you roll with it.
<Click on the image to see how to roll a Vietnamese spring roll>