Wednesday, September 12, 2012
This one’s really an oldie; I remember making spring rolls for summertime dinners when I lived on my own in St. Paul in my mid-twenties. I have no idea what the original source is; back then, when the Internet wasn’t the first place we looked for information, I used to check heaps of cookbooks out of the library and photocopy appealing-looking recipes. I haven’t spring rolls this since I moved to California 8½ years ago, partly because we have a beloved Thai restaurant a block away that makes great, inexpensive ones, and partly because I’ve been too lazy to seek out the ingredients. In St. Paul, rice wrappers were readily available in ordinary chain grocery stores, but for whatever reason, none of my usual shopping stops in Pasadena carry them. Luckily, I live on the edge of the San Gabriel Valley, which has a huge Asian American population (fun fact: eight of the ten cities in the United States with the largest proportion of Chinese Americans are located in the San Gabriel Valley!), yet it still took me nearly a decade to muster the energy for a field trip. (My commute to work is long, so on the weekends, I can rarely bring myself to pilot a car for more than a mile or two.) But this summer, with our local Thai restaurant under new management and threatening to change, and a disgustingly sticky heatwave making it impossible to contemplate turning on the stove or ingesting warm food, the time was finally right to make my own spring rolls again. A quick Googling guided me to a well-reviewed Asian grocery about five miles away, in San Gabriel. Somehow I managed to get lost going there, but after I’d driven in circles for 15 minutes I suddenly realized that I was surrounded by dozens of other Asian grocery stores that could provide exactly what I needed. Sure enough, the random place I stopped (sadly, I’ve already forgotten its name) had an entire wall of spring roll wrappers in a dizzying array of sizes and varieties. After some deliberation, I went with the Double Parrot brand (“Good for restaurant”) because they were made entirely of rice (other some kinds also contained tapioca flour, which I’m sure isn’t a bad thing or probably even a noticeable difference, but I figured I’d been instructed to get “rice wrappers,” so…) and had a pretty label, in a package large enough to see me through multiple batches of spring rolls.
And that was the hardest part of the spring-roll-making process. Second-hardest was tracking down bean sprouts, which—are they out of fashion or something? Is it the increased food-borne illness fear? Because they’re another ingredient I used to be able to pick up at an ordinary grocery store in St. Paul, but I had to scour four different places here (I finally found them at Fresh and Easy, in case anyone is wondering). The bean thread (saifun) noodles I just found in the Asian section at my regular Vons grocery store, though, no problem. Once you’ve hunted down your ingredients, all you do is soak the noodles in boiling water for 15 minutes (I find the texture of these, both cooked and uncooked, and their simple cooking process downright magical), chop up a bunch of veggies and herbs (I added cucumber to my original recipe, because our local Thai restaurant uses it and I love the added crunch), and roll everything up in the wrappers. I think the wrapping process is fun; I love the way the wrappers transform from what looks like sheets of textured plastic to a pliable, semigelatinous foodstuff with just a quick soaking in water. I always feel on the verge of disaster when I’m assembling these—tearing the wrappers, stuffing them too full, barely keeping them shut—and I’m not going to lie, my finished product is decidedly homely at times, but overall the process is surprisingly forgiving. It helps that you’re double-wrapping the rolls, so even the most bulbous and precarious ones get some extra shaping and reinforcement.
I’m sure there are fancier versions of spring rolls around, and maybe I’ll eventually try some, but I like how simple these are—a fresh and crunchy salad in handheld form, basically. I do wish I could recommend a good peanut sauce recipe, but alas, I’m still looking. I made these twice in the same week (two half-recipes), and the first time I also made an easy chicken satay (post forthcoming) and just doubled the peanut sauce recipe that went with that. The sauce was good with the chicken, but I didn’t really like it with the spring rolls. (Too—peanutty?) The second time I bought a bottle of Trader Joe’s Thai peanut sauce and liked it OK, but it still wasn’t quite what I wanted. I remember when I lived in St. Paul I’d buy Leeann Chin’s peanut sauce, but that’s not available here, and anyway, I’d rather be able to make my own. What I probably want is an exact replica of our favorite Thai restaurant’s sauce. I’m going to keep testing different versions, and hopefully I’ll settle on one I can recommend.
Anyway, the point of this whole saga is that I’m happy to be reunited with this recipe, and I feel foolish for letting my laziness keep us apart for so long.
2 ounces bean thread noodles (saifun)
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 scallion, including greens, minced
1 large carrot, peeled and shredded
1 medium Persian cucumber, julienned
1 cup loosely packed mung bean sprouts
¼ cup minced fresh basil
¼ cup minced fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons minced fresh mint
16 (8-inch) round rice wrappers
2 cups loosely packed shredded tender lettuce, such as Boston, Bibb, or mesclun
1. In a medium saucepan, bring 3 cups of water to a boil. Add bean thread noodles and remove pan from heat. Let sit 15 minutes until noodles are soft. Drain noodles and cut coarsely into 2-inch pieces. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine rice vinegar, sugar, and salt. Add noodles and toss well.
2. In a large bowl, combine scallion, carrot, cucumber, sprouts, basil, cilantro, and mint.
3. Fill a pie plate with warm water. Place one rice wrapper in the water and let soak until soft and pliable, about 1 minute. (Don’t soak it too long, or it will tear.) Place wrapper on a work surface and blot dry with a paper towel. Place a layer of lettuce over the surface. Sprinkle with vegetable and herb mixture and add a layer of noodles. Fold the wrapper’s sides, top, and bottom over the filling, then roll up. Soak another wrapper, place on work surface, blot dry, and place filled spring roll in center. Fold outer wrapper around the spring roll the way you did the first.
4. Place finished spring roll on a plate and cover with a damp paper towel. Repeat with remaining wrappers, making a total of 8 rolls. Serve with peanut sauce.
Time: 45 minutes
Leftover potential: Not great—the wrappers will gradually dry out—but I’ve eaten a couple the next day and they haven’t been horrible.