I first tried summer rolls at a busy Vietnamese restaurant a few blocks down from our apartment in New York City. Quick, cheap, and tasty, we stopped in a few times a month for dinner or take out. They hustled customers along, bringing the check as soon as we finished eating. It was the sort of place where the food was no longer fit for consumption once it touched the table: instead of soapy water or Windex, busboys wiped down tables with diners' unfinished soda. It's a wonder the health inspector didn't shut the place down; apparently the owners' ties to human trafficking were a bigger problem for city officials than the sticky tables.
After we moved away and the back room human rights violations came to light, I pined for summer rolls. The combination of basil, mint, cilantro and peanut is nothing short of magical. Their texture holds even more appeal, with sticky, molecule-thin rice paper, cool slippery noodles, and crunchy raw vegetables in every bite.
I thought I'd never be able to make summer rolls at home. The rice paper at the store was white and brittle; how was I supposed to turn it into sticky, flexible, translucent wrappers? Recent discussions on the Post Punk Kitchen forums assured me that working with rice paper is easier than it appears. When I found basil, mint, and cilantro at the farmers' market this week, I decided to go for it.
The rolls were in fact easy to make, and this both thrills and worries me. Now that I can eat summer rolls anytime I want, will I ever eat anything else? I'm in the throes of a summer roll binge. Perhaps in a week or two I'll devise some creative fillings to make this recipe my own, but today I just want to celebrate the simple, fresh perfection of the traditional summer roll. I've strayed from the original only in adding a few strips of sweet, sour mango.
Preparation and set-up are key when making summer rolls. Once the ingredients are prepared, assembly goes quickly. For my first round, I stuck pretty closely to this recipe on Chow, substituting tofu for shrimp. Before you begin rolling, it's worth watching the tutorial video on the right side of the screen. I've since played around with the filling a bit, but my ingredients are merely suggestions; add, omit, or substitute anything you'd like.
Use store-bought marinated tofu (I like sesame-ginger Pete's Tofu 2 Go), or make your own: slice the tofu as needed in your recipe and marinate in 2 parts tamari, 1 part toasted sesame oil for an hour or more. It can then be fried, broiled, or used as is.
Tofu Summer Rolls (adapted from a recipe by Regan Burns on Chow)
8 ounces extra-firm marinated tofu, cut into 8 thin, flat strips
2 ounces dried rice sticks or rice vermicelli
8 round rice paper wrappers
1/2 mango, cut into thin 3-inch strips (optional)
1/2 cup mung bean sprouts
16 basil leaves (Thai basil if you can get it)
24 small mint leaves
16 small sprigs cilantro
1 cup shredded napa cabbage or iceberg lettuce
1/2 medium cucumber, peeled, cut into matchsticks
1 carrot, shredded
2 large scallions, trimmed, halved, and sliced into 3-inch lengths
1/4 cup chopped peanuts
Cook the rice sticks according to package directions. Reserve hot water.
Clear a large surface for rolling the summer rolls. A plastic cutting board works well, as the rice paper will not stick to it. Place each remaining ingredient in its own bowl, and arrange them in the order in which they'll be used: basil, tofu, rice noodles, mango (if using), bean sprouts, mint, cilantro, cabbage or lettuce, cucumber, carrot, scallion, peanuts.
Fill a wide, shallow bowl with reserved water. Water should be quite warm, but not so hot that you can't comfortably dip your hands in. Submerge one rice paper wrapper in the water for 5-10 seconds. It will not appear pliable, but it will be by the time you're ready to roll it up.
Begin by laying 2 basil leaves on the bottom third of the wrapper. On top of these, place a slice of tofu. Follow with a scant 1/4 cup of noodles, mango (if using), a few bean sprouts, 3 mint leaves, 2 sprigs of cilantro, a scant tablespoon cabbage, a few cucumber sticks, and a generous teaspoon carrot. Place a few scallion pieces on either side of the noodle pile. Sprinkle chopped peanuts over other filling.
Fold the bottom third of the wrapper up over the filling. Holding it firmly in place, fold the sides of the rice paper in over the filling. Applying enough pressure to hold contents in, but not enough to rip the rice paper, roll the filling toward the open end. Your first few rolls might be sloppy, but by the end you'll be a pro.
Place finished rolls seam side down on serving plate. Don't let them touch—they're sticky!
Serves up to 8 as an appetizer, or as few as 2 as an entree. I can never eat more than three summer rolls, and I love them.