Sunday, July 26, 2009

Welcome To My Lunch: Fresh Vietnamese Spring Rolls

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of watching and photographing Chef Charles Phan of San Francisco's Slanted Door restaurant as he was preparing an extravagant Vietnamese meal for some lucky diners at an intimate charity fundraiser. I had been a fan of the restaurant since its earliest days, back when it was housed in a nondescript location in an area of town that wasn't exactly on the map at that time for high-end cuisine. The restaurant has since changed and upgraded its locations a couple of times (me, following wherever that green papaya salad happened to go), and now makes its permanent home in San Francisco's Ferry Building. Needless to say, that evening when I had the pleasure to be in the kitchen with Chef Phan was a real treat - I've learned so much about cooking from observing four-star chefs in action, and predicted that that particular evening would be no exception.

Phan was preparing one of the restaurant's signature dishes, fresh Vietnamese spring rolls. It's a seemingly simple dish - fresh ingredients rolled up in delicate rice wrappers and served with peanut dipping sauce. I had tried to make them at home many times, never with huge success; seems as though whenever I would make them, the rice paper would bulge unbecomingly, or simply tear and spill its contents.

So I watched. Surely the master at work would reveal to me the great ancient Vietnamese secret required to roll these babies like a pro. A tuck here, a fold there.... there is no doubt that he and his line cooks were adept. They certainly made it look easy. I studied their every move, and asked lots of questions. And I even learned some new ideas for ingredients (a sauce similar to a lemon aioli - who knew?).

But alas, the dexterity and slight-of-hand required to make fresh spring rolls eludes me to this day. Chef Phan's ability did not magically transfer to me. I continue to make ugly, bulging, splitting, irregular and ill-stuffed rolls. But you know what? I continue making them! At the end of the day, even the ugly ones taste good. And they're SO healthy (a great place to hide vegetables), that they're often a go-to project for me on the weekends when I can make a batch to take with me to work for lunches throughout the week (they also store really well).

And such was the case this weekend. I happened to be at the Ferry Building and enjoyed a quick and delicious steamed bun lunch from Out The Door, the Slanted Door's take-away counter (see the picture). I passed on getting the spring rolls to go as well, because I was reminded that I had all of the ingredients at home to make them myself.

Making them doesn't really require a recipe, but in my mind, there are a few key ingredients: fresh mint and fresh basil. The addition of the fresh herbs gives them a truly Vietnames flavor, and just livens up the whole dish. If you don't have the fresh herbs, don't make the rolls. Or at least don't serve them to me! :) Other than that, go crazy! They're great stuffed only with vegetables, but equally good stuffed with certain proteins (shrimp being my favorite). Since my batch was being made to last for a few days, I went with baked tofu and veggies. Here's what my rolls this week contain:
  • Fresh shiso leaves (if you don't have/can't get shiso, butter lettuce or leafy green lettuce will also work)
  • Daikon radish
  • Seeded cucumber
  • Red bell pepper
  • Shredded carrots
  • Savory baked tofu
  • Chopped basil and mint
  • Lemon aioli (recipe below)
  • Peanut sauce, for dipping
And a couple of tips for rolling your own:
  • Double-up the rice wrappers. Getting the dried rice wrappers into pliable condition in order to roll them (and make them even remotely palatable), you have to rehydrate them with a dunk in simmering hot water. I dunk two at a time. By having two together in the simmering water bath, they adhere to each other, making a double-thick skin - less likely to split and bulge. Notice I said "less likely"...
  • Work with the rice wrappers while they're still wet. I even roll them from a plate that is itself slick with warm water. the minute they start to dry out, that's when they'll stick and tear.
  • Make the shiso or lettuce your first layer on the rice wrapper; pile everything else on top of that. It helps give the skin a little more backbone and structure.
  • Julienne any vegetables for easier rolling. All of the veggies and fillings I use are cut to look like matchsticks and laid horizontal to the direction that I roll. It makes for less poking and protruding from the rice wrapper.
  • Roll them up as you would a burrito, tucking the sides in first.
  • Dab a little bit of warm water at the edges to seal the rice wrapper and keep it from unrolling.
Lemon aioli
  • Juice of 3 lemons
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon crushed garlic
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 2 cups olive oil
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Place the lemon juice, mustard, garlic and egg yolks in a blender or food processor and purée. With the machine running, drizzle in the oil. If the aioli appears too thick, add 2 tablespoons of water at a time to adjust the consistency. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

1 comment:

  1. My friend had Asian neighbors growing up and she makes a great version of these as well. They're like little Asian tacos! So yummy and gluten free without the sauce. I'm sure we can come up with a suitable replacement...