The most enjoyable aspects of Vietnamese summer rolls are their coolness, contrast of textures, and copious fresh herbs. This suits us most in mid-to-late summer, when herbs are taking over the garden, humidity reigns, and late-season rain and tropical storms can feel like a monsoon. So take it from the Vietnamese, and have something cold and refreshing to keep you awake.
Though they haven’t become as adored in America as banh mi, the crusty baguette of porky and pickled goodness, cold summer rolls (or gỏi cuốn) are a familiar snack from Vietnam. Stuffed with chilled shrimp, bean sprouts, basil and clear mung bean starch noodles, they make fine hors d’oeuvre to bring to a party or picnic, as I did this past Labor Day — or light meal just for yourself. I took liberty with this classic combination, however, skipping shrimp and just using what I had in the garden to roll up in the same vein.
Shrimp don’t grow too well in Brooklyn, and I didn’t have the chance to sprout more of those dry mung beans into crisp, watery shoots. Maybe next time. But the random assortment of vegetables and herbs that I did stuff these with made for a perfectly tasty variation, accented with a spicy homemade dipping sauce. These included sweet peppers, cucumbers, a few green beans, and Thai basil as well as shiso, a distinctive herb in the mint family, mostly used in Japanese cuisine.
In order to make summer rolls, though, you must have at least two essential ingredients: rice wrappers, and mung bean starch noodles. You can find the flat, whitish discs of rice at most Asian groceries, often in big and small sizes. I went with the smaller, roughly 5″ diameter size ones, for ease of rolling’s sake. I even found them at Whole Foods.
The clear noodles should be easy to track down, too. But don’t mistake mung bean noodles for rice noodles, or “rice stick” noodles, as they’re commonly called. I repeat: do not buy “rice stick” noodles for these! When you look at the ingredients on the package, it should list mung bean starch, and water. Not rice. (Or “stick.”) These noodles are often called “Bean Threads,” or “Cellophane” noodles and when cooked, have a glass-like clearness and a chewy, elastic texture. Rice noodles are opaque when cooked and more brittle, and won’t stick (ironically) as well to the wrapper when you try to roll them up.
The rice wrappers need no cooking but a thirty-second soak in lukewarm water before use. Then, it becomes a soft, slippery veil that you can pile your ingredients inside and roll up. It’s a little tricky not tearing the wrappers, but I’ve found if you drain them and let them dry a bit first they’re much stickier and won’t tear as much.
You basically make like a burrito. Be sure to place the herbs face-down first, so you can see how beautiful they look through the wrapper when it’s all rolled and done. Next, layer the veggies, and grab a clump of the cooked and drained (and chilled) mung bean noodles to stuff in an even layer. Fold in both ends and roll it up.
You’ll see a lot of different sauces to dip summer rolls in, at restaurants and in recipes. Sweet chili sauce and peanutty sauces are more Thai than Vietnamese. I started off with what might be a basic nuoc cham, with fish sauce, lime juice and sugar. Then added a big scoop of sambal oelek, a chili-garlic sauce. Hence, it was salty, sweet, spicy, sour and slightly stinky, from the fish. For anyone who might think that cold summer rolls are “boring,” your tastebuds will be well taken care of with a sauce like that.
Fresh Veggie Summer Rolls with Shiso and Thai Basil
(makes 6 small rolls)
6 Vietnamese rice starch wrappers (about 5″ in diameter)
2 bundles mung bean noodles (“bean threads” or “cellophane noodles”)
2 small sweet peppers, any variety, thinly sliced
1 cucumber, peeled and seeds removed, julienned
additional vegetables as desired: shredded carrots, green beans, julienned radishes, etc
9-12 Thai basil leaves
6-8 large shiso leaves
for the dipping sauce:
1-2 teaspoons sambal oelek (chili-garlic sauce with a green lid)
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon fish sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
Bring a small pot of water to boil and cook the noodles until clear, stirring occasionally, about 6-8 minutes. Drain and chill before use.
Soak the rice wrappers in lukewarm water for about thirty seconds, or just until the crimped pattern on them disappears. Drain and be ready to use them immediately.
Place one wrapper on a flat surface, like a cutting board. Line the Thai basil (and/or shiso, alternately) in a single line through the center of the wrapper. Line an assortment of the vegetables on top. Take a small fistful of the chilled, cooked noodles and mold them into an oblong shape with your hands. Place on top of the vegetables. Fold the sides of the rice wrapper over the mound of fillings, and fold the bottom edge of the wrapper over it. Roll up from the bottom to the top, until sealed. Repeat with the rest of the wrappers. Serve with the dipping sauce.
(for 6 small appetizers)
6 rice wrappers (at $2.99/package of 50): $0.36
2 bundles mung beans (at $2.49/package of 3): $1.66
2 sweet peppers (from home garden): $0.25
1 cucumber (from home garden): $0.15
handful green beans (from home garden): $0.10
handful shiso and Thai basil (from home garden): $0.10
2 tsp sambal oelek: $0.15
2 Tb fresh lime juice: $0.35
1 Tb fish sauce: $0.25
2 tsp sugar: $0.05
Three brownie points: What’s unhealthy about fresh vegetables and ungreased noodles? Well, you could go heavy on the dipping sauce and get more sugars and sodium than you might expect, but it’s still not that great of a threat. These rolls are sometimes called “salad rolls,” and you can pack as many salad ingredients in them as you wish. With a colorful combo like green beans, cucumber and red pepper, and fresh herbs instead of leafy greens, there’s plenty of vitamins to go around. Sadly, though they’re made from beans, the mung bean noodles are simply starch, rather than protein. The rice wrappers here only add a bit more of those starchy carbs to the dish as well.
Six maple leaves: It’s a collision of super-local, fresh ingredients and exotic imported ones. Pretty much everything in the sauce, lime included, and the noodles and wrappers came from afar, and I wouldn’t know where to start in making my own mung bean noodles. For the time being, I’ll stick with growing some herbs and vegetables, and finding more things to do with them.