Ughhh… I am not recommending you go into making this for the first time late on a Wednesday night. Ughhh… Of all the finicky nonsense that plagues much of gourmet, frou-frou, highbrow cooking, why this common street food snack so ridiculously delicate a process? I’ll chalk it up to two major things: my inexperience with the ingredients — the rice (or “vermicelli”) noodles and the rice wrappers — and with how to handle them. How wet can the wrappers get before they just flop and tear when you attempt to roll them up? How dry can they really get before they stick together intolerably like a hot fruit roll-up? Ughhh… (!)
I did get vastly better at making these up by the last few rolls. By then, my frustrations were so sky-high that it’s a wonder I got to them in the first place. I must admit that I was taken to making summer rolls because I was going to a summery potluck with other food bloggers this Thursday. (The first day of summer is officially June 20, but if you want to get all technical about it, neither “summer” nor “spring” are direct translations of the Vietnamese word for this dish, gỏi cuốn, though both names are often used in English.) What a pretty and appropriate name for such a light, cool and refreshing appetizer, I thought.
I’ve never been to Vietnam, unfortunately, and haven’t tried this dish in its native land. But for those who, like me, have snacked on them at Vietnamese restaurants elsewhere, I’d have to say there’s little difference between the homemade version and those — once the agonizing rolling process is through. It’s basically salad in a roll; you can’t really mess up fresh herbs and vegetables with cold proteins and noodles. Such is the beauty of summery eats.
One of the most intriguing things about this dish for me is its transparency. Besides Jell-O salads of the fifties, I can’t think of too many other (or very good) foods that are meant to showcase its ingredients through an edible veil. And for good reason, too — you can just see how crisp and fresh-tasting those basil leaves or the fleshy poached shrimp are going to be from looking at the showy little bundles. This must be why people created this arduous use of such fine rice sheaths instead of just using it for tracing paper and stopping there.
Since I was taking this to a potluck, I went with two different versions: one made with poached, shelled and veined shrimp. If you don’t want to burden yourself with the extra task of all that fussing with the fresh shrimp, you might skip it and buy some pre-cooked shrimp instead — though freshness is key in this appetizer, so I’d be very wary about the quality of the kind you buy. For the vegetarian version, I chopped up a block of firm, fried tofu. This is a quick and simple substitute for meat, since you can purchase it ready to slice in a package. (I also substituted it for meat in my last Vietnamese-inspired party food adventure, the Bánh “Me” Sandwiches.)
So after doing this for the good part of my evening (not that this would be unusual for me and cooking), eschewing all book and blog work except for a few crappy photos, I went to bed with a renewed sense of respect for light, summer fare. Fresh? Of course. Simple? Oh, never count on that.
Vietnamese-Style Summer Rolls with Shrimp or Tofu
(makes 4 of each, 8 rolls total)
8 round Vietnamese rice wrappers (specifically for spring/summer rolls)
4 oz. thin Vietnamese rice noodles (“vermicelli” or “rice stick”)
about ¼ lb, or 12 total shrimp in their shells
about half a small block of fried tofu, cut to 12 quarter-inch thick squares
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
3 scallions, thinly julienned
1 bunch cilantro, long stems trimmed
16 basil or mint leaves
optional: 1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and julienned, or mung bean sprouts
simple Hoisin-lime dipping sauce:
1/4 cup Hoisin sauce
juice of 1 lime
1 tablespoon brown sugar
(blend all ingredients thoroughly until sugar is dissolved)
Heat a pan of water deep enough to submerge the shrimp and the rice noodles. Once it’s boiling, drop in the shrimp. Cook for about 1 minute (or 2-3 if they’re larger). Remove with a slotted spoon and place into ice water to stop the cooking. Peel and de-vein the shrimp (a tedious process, but it’s made easier if you dunk the shrimp under water after splitting the backs and removing the “vein” with the point of the same knife). Set shrimp aside and reserve boiling water.
Bring water to boil again, and turn off heat. Drop the rice noodles in and let sit 1 minute. Drain in a colander and rinse with cold water. Once noodles are relatively dry, turn into a large bowl and sprinkle with the rice vinegar. Fold with a spatula or tongs to distribute evenly.
Bring a pan of water wide enough to submerge the rice roll wrappers to boil. Dip each wrapper one at a time into the hot water for no more than ten seconds each (closer to five), removing them carefully with a slotted spoon and placing into a cold water bath immediately afterward.
Set all your ingredients around a large board or surface large enough to fit one round wrapper. Carefully remove a wrapper from the cold water with your hands. Gently shake off excess water and place flat on the board. Pat top dry with a paper towel. Space three shrimp or three tofu squares in a tight line about 1/3 from the edge of the circle. Top with a handful of the rice noodles and arrange it evenly on top of the shrimp/tofu. Arrange the julienned scallions, cilantro, optional cucumber or bean sprouts and basil or mint leaves neatly on top.
Fold the small edge of the rice wrapper over the pile of ingredients, horizontally. Take the two edges of the roll to the right and left of the pile of ingredients and wrap them over the edges. Carefully lift the roll with the ingredients inside it and flip it over. Continue to flip and roll until you reach the end of the wrapper. Slice roll in half, and serve with Hoisin-lime dipping sauce (recipe above), or another sauce of your choice.
(for 8 rolls, or 16 once cut in half)
8 rice wrappers (at $1.50/pkg of 50): $0.24
4 oz. thin rice noodles (at $1.39/10 oz. pkg): $0.55
1/4 lb shrimp in shells (at $4.99/lb): $1.25
12 squares of tofu (about 1/3 of a $2 block): $0.67
1 bunch cilantro: $1.00
3 scallions: $0.50
16 basil leaves (mostly from house plant): $0.25
2 tablespoons rice vinegar: $0.10
1/4 cup Hoisin sauce: $0.50
1 lime: $0.25
1 tablespoon brown sugar: $0.05
Two brownie points: As long as you go easy on the preservative-addled dipping sauce I mixed up for these (or try it with a different sauce altogether, that doesn’t use bottled Hoisin sauce), food doesn’t get much cleaner than this. There’s a lot of cholesterol in the shrimp, but as mentioned with other seafoods, the payoff is its valuable omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Plus, it’s not like you’re eating a whole roll of shrimp or oily fried tofu what with all the nutritious fresh veggies and filling rice carbs each bite of these comes along with. It’s like this with a lot of Vietnamese foods — more balanced, and generous on the vegetables than the traditional American diet.
Two maple leaves: Yeah, so we’re not in Vietnam. So… the imported dried rice foods that I bought in Chinatown were chugged across the sea. I imagine there probably are some outfits that manufacture these ingredients in the States, but I didn’t find them, and sure as heck don’t know how to make them. Then, because I was already in Chinatown, and to make my shopping more streamlined, I simply bought the rest of the ingredients there, instead of looking for the scallions and cilantro at the Greenmarket (the basil I already had), and succumbed to their cheap seafood as well. Seriously, $4.99/lb for fresh shrimp (albeit farmed in Thailand or China and shipped across the sea)? It’s a steal. And yet this dilemma is why I hardly ever make shrimp on this blog (or otherwise).