Spring Rolls

Vietnamese Perilla (Tía Tô)

Spring rolls are a great tool for getting to know new herbs, especially those typically found in Asian cuisine. The spring roll is essentially a salad turned inside out with the salad enclosed in a starch wrapper which is then dipped in a dressing or condiment of some sort.

Another great thing about the spring roll is that it can be customized to suit just about any palate. The possible combinations of herbs, greens, vegetables, proteins, fruits, nuts and dressings are endless. The same goes for textures and cuisines.

For my spring rolls, I use a somewhat conventional Vietnamese-American approach consisting of lettuce, cucumber, carrots and cilantro but no rice vermicelli, which adds calories but no flavor. That is where the recipe shown below begins. It is intended to be a starting point and not a final take. The whole point here is to modify the recipe to suit your own palate, to figure out which ingredients work best. I’ve generally found the spring rolls at most Asian eateries to be fairly bland because the primary filler is vermicelli. These restaurant rolls don’t live up to their potential, a potential that this list of ingredients will hopefully help you discover.

One of the tricks to making great rolls is to use fresh herbs, preferably those grown in your own garden. Fresh herbs brighten the spring rolls and are worth the bother to find or grow. In my garden, I grow all kinds of herbs, including basils, Asian herbs, lemongrass and kaffir lime, which is a citrus tree that smells like lime perfume. The next best source for herbs is of course an Asian market. They aren’t yet commonplace in typical American supermarkets. (Don’t worry, I will be blogging about my misadventures in the garden later.)

BASE INGREDIENTS
Rice paper (bánh tráng)
Lettuce
Carrots: julienned or peeled
Cucumber: julienned
Cilantro (omit if you don’t like cilantro)
Peppermint (húng cay)
Thai basil (húng quế)

OTHER HERBS FOR EXPERIMENTATION
Vietnamese balm (kinh giới)
Vietnamese coriander (rau răm — do not use if you don’t like cilantro)
Vietnamese perilla (tiá tô)
Chinese chives (hẹ — can be relatively bitter)
Lemon basil
Lime basil (this stuff is great)
Sweet Italian basil

SOME IDEAS FOR FILLINGS
1) Avocado & Mango:
Avocado (sliced)
Mango (ripe and/or green — sliced into strips)

2) Chargrilled Cilantro & Mint Chutney Shrimp
Marinate shrimp in cliantro & mint chutney. (Is this a culinary sacrilege? I have no idea but it sure tastes great.) Grill over gas or charcoal.

SAUCES & GARNISHES
Ground roasted peanuts (salted or unsalted)
Fish sauce for spring rolls (nước mắm pha)
Mae Ploy Sweet Chili Sauce
Thai Kitchen Peanut Satay Sauce

DIRECTIONS
Prepare and assemble all of the greens and vegetables. I use a mandoline to julienne the carrots and cucumbers into short three-inch strips. You may want to refrigerate the herbs until you are ready to serve so that they won’t wilt. I usually put the cucumbers and carrots on one plate, the lettuce on another plate and the herbs on maybe two plates depending upon what I’m offering.

After the the greens and vegetables are ready, fill a shallow pan with warm water. Ideally, the pan should be wide enough to hold a sheet of rice paper but it is possible to make do with smaller containers. Then, dip a single rice paper into the water and let it soak for about five seconds or so. After that lay it flat on a clean plate and begin to place the ingredients in the center of the paper.

I usually start with lettuce (which I shred by hand on the spot), cucumber and carrots. Then I add some herbs and the stars of the show, the filler, such as avocado & mango or maybe shrimp. There is no right or wrong quantity. The best way to start is to use a little bit of everything and then adjust the proportions on the next roll. Think of it as a fun challenge involving flavors instead of say mathematics.

After everything is in place, it is time to roll. My method is to fold one side over the ingredients. Then I fold the ends to the middle and roll up the remaining paper.

Once the roll is ready, dip it in a dressing, sauce or condiment. Enjoy!

NOTES
1. Rice vermicelli is the typical filler in most spring rolls. Since it adds zero flavor, don’t bother with it unless you have a huge appetite.

2. I prefer buttercrunch lettuce and any variety that is not very bitter. If you are not sensitive to bitter flavors in greens, use any variety. My favorite is grown hydroponically although it is more expensive at the store. I prefer the soft texture of buttercrunch to the hard crunch of iceberg.

3. Some people may not like cucumber. However, cucumber is essential because it creates a fresh background for the herbs and other flavors to do their thing. The rolls don’t taste right without it, in my opinion.

4. The cilantro & mint chutney shrimp works great with herbs like peppermint, cilantro and thai basil. This is probably my favorite filling because the flavors are so intense and full. The best comparison is that of having an opera singer in your mouth. Dip these in the peanut satay sauce. Whoa!

5. Mae Ploy is a general purpose condiment. Use it in place of ranch dressing for dipping veggies like carrots and cucumbers. I think it’s much better than ranch. Mae Ploy is also really good with chicken tenders, fried spring rolls and fresh tortilla chips that you would get from a Tex-Mex restaurant.

6. Fish sauce for spring rolls can be purchased at an Asian market. It’s more subtle than Mae Ploy and not as sweet. It is fishy, though, but I like fishy.

7. I use salted ballpark peanuts. I shuck them and grind them in a mortar & pestle.

8. A favorite flavor combination that I have discovered since doing my own rolls is a Thai basil leaf dipped in Mae Ploy and then in ground peanuts. The Mae Ploy brings together the Thai basil and peanut flavors in a totally unexpected way. It’s a brilliant marriage of flavors and it is so easy to make!

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