Eat Your Salad with Your Hands!
At this point, no one will even notice. Or care.
A SALAD IN HAND IS WORTH TWO IN THE BOWL. I just made that catchy saying up, because my current favorite way to eat salad is straight out of my hands. Feel free to quote me!
I’m talking about summer rolls, of course, aka Vietnamese Gỏi cuốn, the one item I’ll order if it’s on any menu anywhere, every single time—and which are often called salad rolls by those of us who insist on bringing everything back to salad, aka the culinary Godhead.
I hadn’t made summer rolls in a long, long time. But I decided I needed to get away from Atlanta for the day—go have lunch somewhere not in my own kitchen. I ended up meeting my dear friend Wyler at The National, in Athens, for lunch—although not for summer rolls. I had a turmeric tonic (which I’m going to try to replicate for you here, soon), cucumber gazpacho, and the vegetable power lunch (a plate with little piles of roasted summer squash with salsa verde; beet salad; braised red cabbage; tomato and cucumber salad with feta and olives; and white bean hoppin’ John). Wyler had the impossible burger; we shared an order of tiny Portuguese custard tarts.
And then we went to R. Wood Studio, which is color-wheel nirvana for me, a place where the pottery makes me feel alive and seems to have been produced in Oz rather than back in black-and-white Kansas.
We made the summer rolls—which were another great display of bright colors—in Wyler’s kitchen. Being the salad opportunist that I am, I seized the chance to get a refresher course on making them from Wyler, who taught me to make them years ago. It had been a while since I’d even tried, mainly because they’re always so good in restaurants.
And they’re probably always good in restaurants because they are so easy to make. You can fill them with practically anything, and they’ll always be delicious as long as you have a terrific sauce to dip them in. (I have one for you, don’t worry.) They’re extremely hard to screw up, aside from mangling their beauty. Let’s just say I discovered it’s not exactly like riding a bike; you might have to practice the rolling of the roll once or twice before it’s a smooth ride.
I probably could have re-taught myself in my own kitchen in Atlanta simply by going on YouTube. (And if you’d like to do that for rolling lessons, I’ve included a video along with my recipe.) But this was so much more fun—I recommend making a party of it, and if you have kids around this is a great way to trick them into eating salad if they claim they don’t like salad. Actually, this would work on adults too.
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Wyler had not made them in some time either, so we were both a little rusty on the rolling technique. Plus, I was lazy and settled for buying the only wrappers the closest grocer had, which were a bit too small. “They’ll be appetizer size!” I said, merrily. And they were fine—we made them open-topped (with herbs poking out) rather than slicing them in half the way they do in restaurants, with the larger rolls. After a few tries, we had a small plate of pretty, brightly colored rolls perfect for a light summer supper.
We decided not to cook and slice shrimp, which is one tradition, and opted for store-bought baked tofu as our protein. We didn’t want to cook anything in this heat. And we agreed that more fresh herbs is better than less here.
*RECIPE: Technicolored Summer Rolls with Baked Tofu
Makes about a dozen small rolls or four to six large ones
Obviously, this is just a guide (except for the peanut sauce, for which you should adhere to the recipe). The order in which you layer the ingredients is not the least bit strict, but keep in mind that you want something colorful or pretty on the bottom and top layer before you roll, since it will be on display through the rice paper.
Please have your little bowls of fillings at the ready before you begin. Once you have the rice paper pliable from its dip in water, you may then easily and conveniently fill, roll up, and arrange each summer roll on a platter for serving. Wyler and I discovered that lining the platter with lettuce leaves is a great idea; it keeps them from sticking together (which you do not want) or to the platter. People can pick them up in their leaves to transfer to their own plates (and even eat the leaf along with the roll if they feel like it).
NOTE: You may have to practice a few times before you get the rolls as pretty as you’d like them. I’m still not there. Here is a good guide you might like to watch before starting, at least for the folding/rolling. Heating the water is not necessary and I don’t recommend it.
Rice paper wrappers (we used the small size; larger are much easier to work with)
1/4 of a 4-ounce package of rice vermicelli/bean-thread noodles, cooked according to package instructions (you can cook more but we had a lot leftover when we used half the package)
1 cup shelled edamame (you can buy these at most grocers now, fresh and frozen)
1 7-ounce package baked tofu (also available in most grocers; we used Trader Joe’s sriracha flavored, and it was banging), sliced
Several handfuls of torn soft lettuce leaves (since we were at Trader Joe’s, we use a bag of mixed baby greens, which I usually object to, but they were perfect here; color me a hypocrite)
1 or 2 carrots (enough to make about 1 cup), peeled then cut into long thin strips using a potato peeler (Wyler turned these into quick fridge pickles by pouring a mixture of 1 cup water and 1 cup rice vinegar mixed with a pinch of sugar over them and refrigerating until we started to build our rolls; you could also do this with the cucumber)
1 English cucumber, peeled then cut into long thin strips by using a potato peeler, until you hit the seeded core
1 cup grated raw beet (peel it first)
3 dozen mint leaves (or so; you want 2-3 leaves per roll)
2 dozen or so large basil leaves (or an equivalent)
Peanut Dipping Sauce, for serving (below)
For each roll, immerse a wrapper in a shallow dish of lukewarm water, moving it around until it becomes pliable and is neither crunchy nor virtually liquified (about 20 seconds). Remove it carefully to a workspace that you’ve sprinkled with a bit of water to prevent sticking.
Place some of the noodles in a horizontal pile along the lower third of the wrapper (leaving a bit of space on the left and right borders), then top with remaining ingredients in this (Wyler-recommended but flexible) order, paying attention to the possibility of overstuffing): rice vermicelli/bean-thread noodles, edamame, tofu, lettuce, carrot, cucumber, grated beet, herbs.
Gently lift the bottom of wrapper up and then fold it over filling. If you’re doing large wrappers, you should now fold the left and right sides around filling, then continue rolling the wrapper shut. It’s like rolling a burrito, but with a more fragile tortilla.
If you’re making the small rolls with open tops like Wyler and I did, here you should fold only the left flap over the roll before continuing to roll up completely. Place an extra herb leaf or two in the open end, so that it pokes out prettily.
Repeat until you have 6 large or 10 to 12 small summer rolls.
Serve with Peanut Dipping Sauce. These may be refrigerated for several hours before serving. And leftovers keep well overnight.
For the Peanut Dipping Sauce
1/2 cup natural peanut butter
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 teaspoons tamari (more to taste)
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons water
1 clove garlic, grated
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
2 teaspoons sugar
Healthy dash of cayenne
You don’t need to use a food processor if you grate the garlic and ginger. Start by placing the peanut butter in a medium bowl, then adding the lemon juice, tamari, sesame oil, and about half of the water. Using a wooden spoon, work the liquid ingredients into the peanut butter, slowly adding more water until it’s stirrable and smooth. Whisk in the garlic, ginger, sugar, and cayenne until well incorporated. Taste here for more tamari or cayenne, etc. You may refrigerate until ready to use or use immediately. After refrigerating, you may want to add a teaspoon or two of warm water to bring the sauce back to its original saucy consistency.
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