Vietnamese-Inspired Summer Rolls Cross Seasonal Boundaries
Although summer is only a dream in our winter weary hearts, Vietnamese summer rolls cross the seasonal boundaries confidently. Like any timeless culinary idea, Vietnamese rolls lend themselves to many incarnations. Once you master the art of wrapping and rolling, you can make them with the fillings seasonally available like wintery arugula, roasted pork, and grilled shitakes, or the spring combo of smoked whitefish, cooked morels, and steamed asparagus.
Deep-fried spring rolls (a.k.a. egg rolls), counterpart to Vietnam’s fresh summer rolls, date back to ancient China. China’s spring rolls are tender, unleavened wheat dough wrapped around various meat, seafood and cooked vegetable fillings and shallow or deep-fried. This Vietnamese version employs thin, brittle, dried wrappers made from ground, cooked rice or tapioca. A short soak in hot tap water renders the wrappers soft and edible. The tender wrapper forms a fresh, almost transparent blanket for the classic fillings of roasted pork and/or steamed shrimp, peanuts, soft mung noodles, and fresh, raw vegetables like cucumbers and shredded cabbage, lettuce and herbs like mint, basil, chives and cilantro.
Traditional summer rolls come with a peanut sauce or a fish sauce-lime juice-palm sugar-chili dipping sauce called nuoc cham. You can fashion non-traditional dipping sauces from your own repertoire like mustard vinaigrette or chipotle mayonnaise.
Rice or tapioca wrappers, available at most Asian supermarkets, are ideal for gluten- or grain-free diets, but read the label; some wrappers contain wheat starch. Look for packages without breakage and buy more than you need—these wrappers tend to crack with mishandling. Store rice wrappers in a cool, dry place in a sealed bag. Don’t expose them to damp air; they will curl and crack from the humidity. The papers come in many shapes: round, square and triangular. I prefer 8- to 12-inch rounds for my fresh summer rolls. Once made, I slice the rolls into halves, thirds or into 1-1/2 inch pieces depending on how I will to serve them. For finger food the smaller slices are better; longer cuts are festive for dinner parties.
Depending on their filling, summer rolls can appeal to anyone. Use them as an alternative to seaweed for sushi rolls. Layer cooked sushi rice onto the wrapper and top with sushi combos like crab, cucumber and avocado, and roll. Leave the rolls whole and tightly covered until serving; cut them in half or into 1-inch lengths and set onto a plate on a cut end.
It’s often easier to layer two soaked wrappers on top of each other. This builds extra strength and gives protection from tearing. With experience one wrapper might suffice. Think of summer rolls as a salad in hand or fill them with grilled and roasted leftovers. Don’t over fuss filling combos, though. Less is definitely more.
California Fresh Rice Paper Rolls
The shrimp, avocado and cucumber filling is a riff on the classic California sushi roll. If 16/20 shrimp are unavailable, substitute 21/25 and use 3 per roll. I like to fold one or both edges over before I fill and roll so some of the leafy greens hang out. Traditionally, though, both sides are folded over after filling, and rolled like an egg roll.
From Discovering Global Cuisines; Traditional Flavors and Techniques by Nancy Krcek Allen
4 large rolls, 4 servings
8 ounces 16/20 shrimp, 8, peeled, de-veined and steamed until opaque
8 ounces English cucumber, 1-1/4 cups lightly peeled, seeded, cut into long matchsticks
12 to 16 ounce head red leaf or Boston lettuce, whole leaves washed and dried
8 large cilantro sprigs, washed and dried
8 large mint sprigs, leaves removed and stems discarded, washed and dried
12 Thai or Italian basil leaves, stems discarded, washed and dried
8 to 10 ounce ripe Haas avocado, 1 large
1/3 cup coarsely chopped peanuts or 1/2 cup toasted pumpkin seeds or 1/3 cup toasted slivered almonds
8 to 10 eight-inch round rice or tapioca spring roll wrappers
- Set up steamer. Steam shrimp just until opaque, 1 to 2 minutes. Immediately remove from steamer and cool. Slice shrimp into mirror halves.
- Lightly peel cucumber. Seed cucumber and cut into 3- to 4-inch long matchsticks. Assemble and divide shrimp, cucumbers, lettuce and herbs into four piles on a parchment-covered sheet pan or clean tray. Just before assembling rolls cut each avocado half into 8 long, thin slices. Keep rice wrappers in packaging.
- Fill a large, deep pan or dish with very warm water on workspace. Set up filling ingredient tray nearby. Wet and wring out 2 smooth cotton towels, and lay one out near the pan and fillings.
- Dip 1 spring roll skin in water until pliable, 30 seconds to 1 minute. For more secure wrappers place two stacked on top of each other into water until soft and drain. The warmer the water the faster this will go. Water should not be so hot that it hurts fingers. Replenish water to keep warm.
- Place skin or stacked skins onto a damp cotton towel and blot off excess moisture with another damp towel. Too wet, the skins will be slippery, but once blotted the skin should be soft and tacky. Fold in about 1-inch of the wrapper on the right side.
- Imagine the rice paper divided into 3 sections horizontally:
- In the bottom third of the wrapper nearest the edge of the work surface: Lay a whole lettuce down as a base. Leafy tops should hang off the folded over right side and ends should be 1-1/2 inches from unfolded side. Lay cucumber, herbs, avocado and nuts on the lettuce.
- The shrimp line up in the middle third, cut side facing upward, so their ghostly pink side can be seen through the rice wrapper after wrapping.
- Bring the lower edge of the paper up and over the filling, fold left edge into the center over the filling. Finish rolling up roll tightly, like a jellyroll.
- The top third of the paper is the seal.
- Place roll seam side down onto a platter and finish constructing remaining rolls. Cover rolls tightly with damp cotton towel or plastic wrap. Keep in a cool spot, but not refrigerated, up to 2 hours. If rolls must keep longer, spray with warm water before wrapping in plastic wrap or cover with damp towel and plastic wrap. Refrigerate. The texture of the wrapper may be tougher. Remove rolls from refrigerator 30 minutes to 1 hour before serving.
- To Serve: Cut rolls into 2 to 4 sushi-size pieces, and arrange them decoratively on a plate like sushi, with dipping sauce or vinaigrette pooled around them.
City Kitchen American Salad Rolls
These are from my restaurant. These rolls are ideal traveling companions. Make them ahead but wrap them well with a damp cloth and plastic wrap. The rice wrappers can dry out and become tough, especially with a long stay in the refrigerator. Use a spray bottle filled with warm water to keep them moist.
8 rolls, 4 to 8 servings
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard,
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large head Bibb lettuce, leaves separated but left whole, washed and dried
1 cup assorted torn basil and Italian parsley leaves, washed and dried
2 pounds asparagus or green beans, trimmed and steamed until tender, about 5 minutes
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, grilled and sliced into thin strips
1 package 8-inch diameter dried rice paper wrappers
- Prepare vinaigrette: whisk mustard and vinegar together in a small bowl. Slowly drizzle in oil as you whisk. Season vinaigrette with salt and pepper. Set aside.
- Place a pan of very warm water on counter. Rinse and wring out two clean cotton towels. Place one on the counter. Arrange lettuce, herbs, asparagus, and chicken on a platter. Quickly immerse two rice paper wrappers (one on top of the other) in the water and let them sit until almost softened, 20 seconds to 1 minute. Keep the remaining wrappers covered in plastic or in their bag while you work.
- Pull stacked wrappers out of the water, drain, and set onto a damp towel; let them rest to absorb water for a few seconds. Cover with the second towel. Blot gently. If wrappers are round, fold over the left side about 1-inch.
- Press to break/soften the rib of a lettuce leaf and lay it on the bottom of the wrapper parallel to your counter edge with the top of the leaf overlapping the folded edge. The other end of the lettuce leaf should be at least 1-1/2 inches from the opposite unfolded edge. Layer an eighth of the parsley and basil, asparagus, and grilled chicken breast strips over the lettuce leaf.
- Fold up the bottom of the wrapper and tuck the unfolded left edge over. Continue to roll, as tightly as you can without tearing the wrappers. Lay the completed roll on its seam side into a pan and cover with plastic wrap. Finish seven remaining rolls. Cut rolls in thirds and serve them on a plate drizzled with some of the vinaigrette.
*Start with greens (fresh or cooked) and top with a choice of: cheese, toasted nuts, tomato, cucumber, avocado, bacon, baked tofu, smoked salmon, prosciutto or canned tuna. Use a favorite bottle dressing as dipping sauce.
*Layer slices of smoked turkey, smoked salmon, cheese, or prosciutto directly on top of the rice wrapper. Lay the lettuce, herbs and vegetables on top and roll.
In case you are interested, I discuss more about Vietnamese cuisine and techniques in my culinary textbook, Discovering Global Cuisines; Traditional Flavors and Techniques.
About the Author
Chef-educator Nancy Krcek Allen has traveled extensively, and has worked in kitchens and classrooms for more than 30 years. She graduated from California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. While living in New York City, Allen worked full-time teaching recreational and professional cooking for the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) and the Natural Gourmet Institute in Manhattan, and in Viareggio, Italy, for Toscana Saporita.
During her time at ICE and the Natural Gourmet, Allen wrote curriculum for the professional and recreational programs. While living in New York, Allen was a member of the New York Association of Culinary Teachers, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, and the International Association of Culinary Professionals, where she attained a Certified Culinary Professional rating.
International cuisines are Allen’s passion and she has traveled around the world to learn about food and cooking. Allen owned a restaurant and cooking school, catering business, and has worked as a freelance writer for various publications. In Michigan Allen has taught for a decade at Chateau Chantal Winery Cooking School on Old Mission Peninsula and Michigan and Northwestern Michigan College, both in Traverse City, Michigan. She is the author of the culinary textbook Discovering Global Cuisines: Traditional Flavors and Techniques.
Allen currently works as a cook at an organic farm, and as a cooking teacher and free-lance writer. She is working on a cookbook featuring seasonal farm food. Allen lives in Leelanau County in northern Michigan along the glacial moraines of Lake Michigan.