by Betty Thompson
You might think a Vietnamese spring roll is a deep-fried appetizer akin to egg rolls from a Chinese restaurant. Think instead of tasty packets of Vietnamese salad made up of thin noodles, savory bits of cooked chicken, beef, pork, tofu or shrimp rolled up with shredded vegetables and fresh herbs in softened rice paper.
Served with sweet hot chili sauce, peanut sauce or ginger sauce, they can be used as appetizers, salads or part of a buffet. The cool refreshing taste is sure to please.
The round, semitransparent, thin rice paper sheets used for wrapping Vietnamese spring rolls are called banh trang (ben-train). Three Asian markets in Eureka sell them. A dough of finely ground rice, water and salt -- and sometimes tapioca flour -- is rolled thin and cut into 7-to-14 inch circles. The rice papers are placed on bamboo mats to dry, imprinting them with a woven bamboo pattern. They will keep indefinitely in the dry state.
To use they must be dipped in warm water and placed between damp towels and left for a minute to soften. It is best to soften and work with just a few at a time.
Filled rolls can be prepared a few hours in advance, covered with a damp towel or plastic wrap and kept at room temperature until needed. If the wrappers dry out they become tough and brittle. If this happens, use a soft pastry brush and paint them with a little water.
If spring-roll wrapping is beyond your schedule -- or rice papers are not conveniently available -- try rolling the fillings in soft lettuce leaves such as butter or Boston.
For the filling use thin rice noodles (rice sticks) or thin Japanese wheat noodles (somen). Rice sticks should be soaked in warm water for 15 minutes and dropped into four quarts boiling water for two to three minutes. Drain, rinse well with cold water and allow them to drain thoroughly.
If you're using somen, break bundles in half and plunge into four quarts boiling salted water. Cook for one to two minutes. Drain, rinse well with cold water and drain well before using. If noodles are cooked ahead, toss lightly with one teaspoon cooking oil and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Both types of noodles can be found in grocery stores.
Almost any cooked meat will be delicious in your spring rolls as long as it is tender and cut into thin strips. Shredded chicken, thinly sliced deli roast beef or ham, shrimp and crab are good, as well as strips of shredded omelet and thin sticks of baked and seasoned tofu.
For the vegetable or salad part, use finely shredded Chinese cabbage, torn pieces of soft butter lettuce, bean sprouts, shredded raw carrot or diakon (white radish). Vegetables need to be soft and shredded so as not to tear the wrapper.
Cooked vegetables such as asparagus or whole green beans are good cut in a length to fit the roll. Include a few leaves from fresh herbs such as cilantro, mint, basil, dill and Chinese chives. Let your taste preferences dictate the filling combination.
Note: If you want to try a deep-fried alternative to the softened, uncooked wraps, soften the wrappers with a sugar-water mix (a browning agent) and fill with a filling such as used for egg rolls. Deep fry to a crisp, golden-brown. The wrappers have a crisper texture than traditional egg roll skins.
Soft noodles, shredded chicken and shrimp with fresh cilantro or mint are rolled up in a soft rice wrapper and served with a tangy dipping sauce.
1 package Vietnamese rice sheets
2 bundles Japanese somen noodles
2 cups shredded Nappa cabbage
1/2 cup shredded carrot
A few fresh leaves of mint or cilantro
1/2 pound shredded cooked chicken
!/8 pound cooked shrimp
Bring four quarts of water to a boil. Break bundles of noodles in half and boil for two to three minutes until tender. Drain, rinse in cold water and drain again. Arrange all ingredients for easy access.
Fill a pie pan with warm water. Have a damp dish towel ready. Work with just two rice sheets at one time. Dip briefly in warm water. Place each sheet on a towel not touching each other. The rice sheets will become pliable in just a few seconds.
Lay one tablespoon shredded cabbage across the bottom third of the rice paper. On this, place a small bunch of noodles, one tablespoon shredded carrots, a few pieces of shredded chicken and a few mint or cilantro leaves. Roll the rice sheet halfway into a cylinder. Fold both sides over the filling.
Lay two cilantro leaves and two shrimp on the flap for decoration and finish rolling the cylinder. Place the rolls on a plate and cover with a damp towel to keep them moist while the rest are being rolled. Serve with dipping sauce.
Spring Rolls with Beef
Try strips of barbecued tofu in place of the beef and shredded diakon and mint in place of the bean sprouts and basil.
2 ounces rice stick noodles or 2 bundles somen
8 rounds of rice paper
4 leaves Boston or red leaf lettuce, cut in half, stem removed
1/2 pound thinly sliced cooked deli beef, cut into strips
1 cup fresh bean sprouts, blanched
Leaves of fresh basil
Optional: 8 green onion tops split in half lengthwise
Boil noodles in boiling water one to three minutes until tender. Drain, rinse thoroughly in cold water and drain. Have all ingredients ready at hand. Work with two rice papers at a time. Dip into a pie pan of warm water and let rest on a damp towel covered with a damp towel a few minutes until pliable.
Place half of a lettuce leaf on top of the rice paper. Add a small pile of noodles. Top with a few shreds of beef, a few bean sprouts and one to two leaves of fresh basil. Roll the rice sheet halfway into a cylinder. Fold in both ends envelope style. Continue rolling into a cylinder. Place on a serving plate. Cover with a damp towel. If desired pour boiling water over onion tops and tie each roll in two places 2 inches apart. Just before serving cut each roll in half on the diagonal. Serve with dipping sauce.
Sweet Hot Chili Sauce
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup white vinegar
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup sugar
4 tablespoons garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon Chinese chili paste or 1 teaspoon (or less) dried chili flakes
In a small stainless steel pan, combine water, vinegar, tomato paste, sugar, garlic and salt. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Simmer about 20 minutes until slightly thickened. Stir in chili paste.
Cool and place in a clean jar. Refrigerate.
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger root
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon chili paste
Combine all ingredients and stir until honey is dissolved.
Betty Thompson has taught cooking locally since 1974.
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