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A Roll For All Seasons, Wrapped In Rice Paper

Sep 26, 2012

It all started several months ago, when I was fishing around for something not-too-unhealthy for lunch. Spring was over — the once-tender lettuces now milky-hearted and stiff-leaved — and I was bored with salad. I love sandwiches, but every time I gorged on bread I stepped a little heavier onto the scale. "If you're going to eat constantly," I said to myself, knowing that I would, "you simply can't afford to pack on that many carbs at a time."

It was at that point that I discovered rice paper, in the noodle section of my Asian grocer. "Banh trang deo thuong hang," the package stated, unpronounceably. I looked at the picture (that's how I shop at the Asian grocery, by looking at the pictures) which showed a glassy rolled cylinder, its wrapper transparently veiling a trio of curly pink shrimp, along with some garlic chives and mint. This I vaguely recognized to be a Vietnamese summer roll. It looked cool, elegant, slender — exactly how I didn't feel.

Overriding a powerful urge to turn away and buy something I knew how to handle, like noodles or tofu, I grabbed the package and hustled off to the checkout. How hard could it be?

The answer: Not very. Especially when you compare it to the oily mayhem of deep-frying spring rolls, it's simple to make a summer roll. A rice paper wrapper doesn't look edible. It's as stiff and inflexible as the plastic clamshell of a takeout container. But a few seconds after you moisten it with water, you can bend it and flex it, and by a minute and a half, it's limp. In that malleable interval, you add your fillings, fold the sides in as if you were assembling a burrito, and roll it up. The wrapper, helpfully, sticks to itself, forming a neat, self-sealed package.

I liked the traditional roll, with its sweet, crisp shrimp, its bright, crunchy mix of greens and bean sprouts and sometimes peanuts, its lick of anise from the Thai basil. But the bean sprouts last about five minutes in the fridge, and you can't always get Thai basil. Maybe you don't feel like peeling and cooking shrimp.

I always have cold cuts around, though. So, I reasoned, throwing authenticity to the winds, why not subtract the bread from a sandwich and replace it with rice paper? Wasn't it possible that roast beef and alfalfa sprouts and cucumber would taste just fine in a summer roll? It was possible.

And if you could use roast beef, couldn't you really use any other kind of protein? You could. I tried pressed tofu. I tried turkey. I tried nuts and chicken salad. All were perfectly good, and after eating them I didn't feel like I had to close up shop and take a nap, the way one does after downing a cheesy panini.

Although the wrappers all look pretty much the same when dry — kind of like a giant Shrinky Dink, with a basket-weave pattern — I discovered that they behaved differently depending on what proportion of tapioca and rice flour they contain. If there's more rice flour, the wrappers hold more moisture and look more opaque. If there's more tapioca, they're stretchier, clearer, drier and more workable — at least for me. You can serve them with a sweet-tart dipping sauce, as is customary for the traditional summer roll, or a peanut sauce if you don't mind a little more effort; or you can skip it.

They'll hold for a few hours in the fridge or in a lunchbox. If they're very fresh, there's no need to wrap them individually in plastic, though they have a tendency to stick together slightly, and you'll need to pull them apart carefully. Don't be tempted to store them overnight, as the wrapper gradually loses its structural soundness and will surrender its contents in a messy cascade as you lift it toward your mouth. In any case, advance preparation doesn't make sense for a summer roll, as it can't take more than 30 seconds to put one together on the spot.

Why call it a summer roll? And for that matter, why are spring rolls, their deep-fried cousins, called spring rolls? Spring rolls take their name from the spring lunar celebrations when they're typically eaten, and the spring vegetables with which they're traditionally filled (in China especially, but also in other Asian countries such as Vietnam and Thailand). The term "summer roll" is most likely an invention of the West, maybe based on the whimsical idea that the fresh roll is more appropriate for summer than the fried one. Nobody really seems to know where the term came from, and Vietnamese don't use that term at all.

In Vietnam, the term is goi cuon, or salad roll, because what you put in a Vietnamese salad is what goes in the roll, according to a Vietnamese friend. In our house, it should probably be called the "whatever roll" or the "leftover roll" or the "anything roll."

Fall may have arrived, with its cool gusts and early sundowns. But the summer roll, salad roll or anything roll lingers in our household, a welcome presence at snack time or traveling in my children's packs. Whatever you call it and at any time of year, it's an acquaintance worth making before you leave the noodle aisle.

What Goes Into A Summer Roll

The recipes I offer really are just jumping-off points, since I don't believe there's any one right number, type or ethnic derivation for ingredients wrapped in rice paper. Likewise, the amount of any given ingredient is totally a matter of taste, though I've given some suggestions. The Classic Summer Roll recipe probably is the closest to a traditional summer roll formula, but our family has enjoyed all of the following.


Recipe: Classic Summer Rolls

The proprietress of my go-to Asian grocery store, whom I don't always understand but whose culinary knowledge I admire immensely, once gave me a cryptic tip about shrimp: "Make swim in vinegar; if you don't do, it won't play well the taste." Since then I have always used the following technique, which does wonders for even substandard shrimp, making them firmer and sweeter.

Makes 2 or 3 rolls

White vinegar for cooking the shrimp

6 to 8 medium to large raw shrimp, peeled and deveined

Two 10-inch or three 8-inch rice paper wrappers

Handful fresh bean sprouts

3 or 4 sprigs mint, stemmed and shredded

12 (approximately) sprigs cilantro, stemmed and shredded

Chopped roasted salted peanuts, cooked rice or cellophane noodles, Thai basil, grated carrots, lettuce (optional)

In a small saucepan, place enough vinegar to later submerge the shrimp, and bring to a boil. Add shrimp and simmer, stirring gently, until just pink (about 2 minutes). Drain and rinse. Assemble the other prepared ingredients by your cutting board.

Rinse a rice paper wrapper with water (the temperature's not terribly important — anywhere from cool to warm) — just enough to moisten both sides — and shake it off. Now you'll need to work quickly, as you have about a minute and a half between when the wrapper softens enough to fold and when it becomes too limp and sticky.

Lay the damp wrapper on cutting board and, working quickly, assemble a line of ingredients on the lower third of the wrapper. Fold in the left and right edges. You should now have straight sides, and the line of ingredients should be just covered by folded wrapper on each end. Press down the edges to help them stick, and then start rolling away from you, tucking in the ingredients as you go. By the time you get to the end, the wrapper will eagerly stick to itself, making a neat package. Do not try to unroll it.


Recipe: Vegetarian Summer Rolls

Pressed tofu is a wonder to work with — firm, easy to slice and flavorful if you get the five-spice kind (it's usually available either as five-spice or plain). It's available at most Asian groceries, usually sold in packets of 4 or 6 flat, square blocks.

Makes two 10-inch or three 8-inch rolls

1 block pressed tofu

Two 10-inch or three 8-inch rice paper wrappers

1/2 cucumber, peeled and sliced into matchsticks

1/3 cup grated carrot

1 small shallot, sliced paper thin

Handful cooked rice or cellophane noodles

Several sprigs Thai basil and mint, stemmed and shredded

1/2 cup roasted salted peanuts, chopped

Holding knife parallel to cutting board, slice tofu laterally. You should be able to get 3 or 4 layers. Stack the layers and slice into matchsticks. Assemble the other prepared ingredients by your cutting board.

Rinse a rice paper wrapper with water (the temperature's not terribly important — anywhere from cool to warm) — just enough to moisten both sides — and shake it off. Now you'll need to work quickly, as you have about a minute and a half between when the wrapper softens enough to fold and when it becomes too limp and sticky.

Lay the damp wrapper on cutting board and, working quickly, assemble a line of ingredients on the lower third of the wrapper. Fold in the left and right edges. You should now have straight sides, and the line of ingredients should be just covered by folded wrapper on each end. Press down the edges to help them stick, and then start rolling away from you, tucking in the ingredients as you go. By the time you get to the end, the wrapper will eagerly stick to itself, making a neat package. Do not try to unroll it.


Recipe: Not-A-Sandwich Summer Rolls

You could really use any cold cuts — my friend Mark, for example, lives on turkey summer rolls for lunch. Although there are some choices that would seem decidedly odd to me (blue cheese, say, or egg salad) I would never actually call them wrongheaded.

Makes two 10-inch or three 8-inch rolls

Two 10-inch or three 8-inch rice paper wrappers

3 or 4 slices rare roast beef

Handful alfalfa sprouts

2 to 4 leaves of romaine (baby if possible), sliced crosswise into shreds

1/2 cucumber, peeled and sliced into matchsticks

1 small shallot, sliced paper thin

Salt to taste

Assemble the prepared ingredients by cutting board.

Rinse a rice paper wrapper with water (the temperature's not terribly important — anywhere from cool to warm) — just enough to moisten both sides — and shake it off. Now you'll need to work quickly, as you have about a minute and a half between when the wrapper softens enough to fold and when it becomes too limp and sticky.

Lay the damp wrapper on cutting board and, working quickly, assemble a line of ingredients on the lower third of the wrapper. Fold in the left and right edges. You should now have straight sides, and the line of ingredients should be just covered by folded wrapper on each end. Press down the edges to help them stick, and then start rolling away from you, tucking in the ingredients as you go. By the time you get to the end, the wrapper will eagerly stick to itself, making a neat package. Do not try to unroll it.


Recipe: Sweet Chili And Vinegar Dipping Sauce

Some of the blander rolls (particularly those made with tofu) benefit from a dipping sauce. Sweet vinegar is a common choice, as is peanut. Personally, I find peanut overwhelming for the streamlined urbanity of a summer roll. This is the sauce I prefer.

Makes about 2/3 cup sauce

1/4 cup water

2 tablespoons sugar

1/4 cup rice vinegar

2 tablespoons fish sauce

1 clove garlic, peeled

Fresh lime juice, to taste

Sriracha or other chili sauce, to taste

In a small saucepan, bring the water and sugar to a boil and stir until dissolved. Remove from heat. Add rice vinegar, fish sauce and garlic clove.

Whisk together or blend, if you prefer a smoother consistency. Squeeze in some lime juice, add a few drops of chili sauce, and adjust to taste until you have a potent but balanced blend — it will seem tamer when you're dipping the roll into it.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.