We just came out of a week without air conditioning (and lived to tell the tale). When it's hot, the last thing I want to do is cook. (The first things I want to do are whine and then shower.) Summertime is the best time for quick, light, vegetable-based meals that don't require much work, and translucent, veggie-stuffed summer rolls are a fun option.
If you've never made summer rolls before, I promise that the process is much easier than it looks. The versatility of the fillings, the speed of assembling dinner, and the healthy nature of the rolls far outweigh the challenges. Most of the work is front-loaded because you'll want to prep everything before you get rolling (pun intended). The toughest parts are finding the right ingredients and then folding the rice wrappers without tearing them.
The best wrappers we've found are made by Red Rose and look like this. Around here, they're sold at Whole Foods and A Southern Season, and I'm sure most Asian markets sell them too. (If you can't find them, you might want to ask someone at your favorite Vietnamese, Chinese, or Thai restaurant where you can buy them.) We found them in two sizes; the bigger size leaves too much tasteless, chewy wrapper around the filling, but the smaller size doesn't accommodate much filling, so you end up with much smaller rolls. (We affectionately called them "summer blorps.")
For the noodles, you'll want something wispy and tangled like this. The first time I made summer rolls, I opted for bean thread noodles, but I didn't find them to be soft enough. I think rice noodles definitely work the best, and the thinner the better.
As far as fillings go, you really have an infinite number of choices, and making these rolls is a wonderful way to use up a glut of whatever summer produce you have on hand. You can make them as appetizers by using mostly light, leafy vegetables, or you can make heartier summer rolls by including proteins like tofu or tempeh. The basic ingredients and method come from this Epicurious recipe, but what follows is my personal favorite fillings and my own tips.
I know the ingredient amounts are vague -- Don't be nervous! -- but that's because you really have to play around to find what you enjoy best. Bryan and I have made these together three or four times now, and each time they've been a little different. That's what makes them fun, in my opinion!
You will need:
- dried rice noodles
- lime juice
- rice paper wrappers (The same type of "skin" is used for both un-fried summer rolls and deep-fried spring rolls, so the package might be labelled for use with either.)
- fresh basil and mint leaves
- grated carrot
- broccoli slaw mix (I've used shredded napa cabbage and cabbage coleslaw mix, and broccoli slaw is definitely my favorite crunchy option.)
- freshly grated ginger root
- tofu (I like mine pressed, cut into thin rectangles, and then sautéed in oil until crispy and sprinkled with salt, pepper, and garlic powder.)
- chopped peanuts
- other fillings you might enjoy: cilantro leaves, julienned bell peppers or cucumber, slivered scallions, bean sprouts, toasted sesame seeds, sliced serrano or jalapeño peppers, or lettuce leaves
- Place the rice noodles in a bowl and pour hot water over them. (We set our tea kettle at 180° F because a full boil can make the noodles too limp.) Let them soak for anywhere from 3 to 10 minutes, depending on the brand. Test them every couple of minutes. When they're al dente, drain them and then toss them with a sprinkle of lime juice in a bowl. Use a knife or kitchen shears to make a few cuts so they aren't too long. Set aside.
- If the veggies aren't already shredded or chopped, do that now. Assemble a little prep station for yourself so you have everything ready to go. Assuming you're right-handed, I suggest this order, from left to right, with each ingredient in its own bowl or container: a shallow dish or bowl wider than your rice wrappers (you'll use this to soak the wrappers), the basil and mint leaves, the noodles tossed with lime juice, some grated carrot mixed in with the broccoli slaw mix and tossed with a little ginger, the tofu, and then the chopped peanuts, followed by an empty plate to hold the finished rolls. (I really should have taken a photo of my prep station!)
- Pour some hot (not boiling) water into the shallow dish and then soak a rice paper wrapper for a few seconds to make it pliable. (There's a helpful video explanation here.)
- Lay the softened wrapper on a non-textured cutting board or plate. Layer on a couple basil and mint leaves, a small handful of noodles, a bit of carrot and broccoli slaw, a few pieces of tofu, and a sprinkling of peanuts. Fold up the sides of the roll, and then fold over the ends. (Again, the linked video above shows the process clearly.)
- Set the finished roll aside and start over at step #4, continuing until you've used up your ingredients.
We like to cut the rolls in half and then serve them with peanut sauce and sweet chili sauce. Some recipes I've seen have also suggested plum sauce as an accompaniment. If you're ambitious enough, there are plenty of online recipes for making your own sauces, but I just use the bottled kind.
Making the rolls is fun, especially if you're working with a partner. The first couple will probably be oddly-shaped, but once you get into the swing of things, it's easy! Bryan is usually in charge of soaking the wrappers while I pile on the fillings and roll them up. After soaking, the wrappers become sticky and sort of gummy, which means they self-seal after you've layered in the fillings, but it also means they have a habit of self-sealing before you're done if you're not careful with them. We usually end up tossing one or two of them each time we make summer rolls, but considering each package comes with approximately 56,000 wrappers (roughly), it isn't much of a problem.
So give it a try! It's basically just a funky way to eat a salad!