I think the first time I ever had summer rolls with peanut sauce was at this little vegetarian cafe in Boulder, Colorado called “The Creative Vegetarian Cafe.” That place was responsible for introducing me to many new foods, including breakfast dosas, tempeh that actually tasted good, and last but not least, the summer roll. The combination of crisp, fresh vegetables in a soft rice wrapper and creamy rich peanut sauce was swoon-worthy; and being me once I tried it and figured out how good it was, I wanted to have it all the time. The only problem was, one just wasn’t enough. I could find them as snacks in the local health food store, but they were quite expensive- being almost $4 for one little roll. And, often the peanut sauce had wheat based soy sauce in it, making my favorite part of the whole experience off limits. So, I decided I needed to learn to make my own.
I was a little confused by the name, though. Some restaurants seemed to call them fresh spring rolls, and other called them summer rolls. But which were they? The consensus seems to be that spring rolls originated in China, and are always fried, while summer rolls developed in Vietnam or Thailand and are generally served fresh. After some time consulting vegetarian and vietnamese or Thai cookbooks, I figured out how to make my own. Happily, once you have the ingredients prepped, it doesn’t take that much time to make a batch. They keep reasonably well for a day or so, although with the right fillings they could last longer. And they are extremely portable- although packing the sauce takes a little planning.
Fillings can really vary depending on your individual preference, but my standard includes rice noodles, crisp lettuce, carrot, mint, and some kind of sauteed tofu. But honestly, it’s all about the sauce, isn’t it? “Summer rolls are normally dipped in either a simple sauce consisting of hoisin sauce, garlic, peanut butter, and water which are boiled until well blended or a combination of fish sauce, garlic, sugar, lime, and carrot.” (source: Wikipedia) Personally I like to make a peanut sauce, but if I have extra time, a sweet chili sauce or prepared plum sauce goes nicely as well.
Here’s how I generally make my summer rolls…
I season pressed, sliced tofu sticks to taste. Usually I baste Chili garlic sauce on the tofu, but tonight I mixed wheat free teriyaki sauce by Edwards and Sons with my Chili Garlic Sauce. Then I sautee the tofu slices in a little oil in a frypan, adding salt or other seasonings if desired. You could substitute seafood or chicken if that is more to your taste.
I prepare all of my vegetables, cutting cucumbers, carrots, and green onions into matchsticks. (You can add anything though- I often add avocado slices, and today I used yellow pepper that I needed to use up from the farmer’s market.) Then I rinse and dry any greens, such as lettuce and fresh herbs (mint is mandatory for me, but you can use cilantro, fresh basil- or anything that inspires you). I also prepare Thai rice noodles by adding them to boiling water and turning off the heat. I think it takes about 3 minutes, but let them soften until no longer crunchy. Then I rinse them under cold water and let them drain. I lay all my filling ingredients out on plates for easy access, and prepare a wide bowl/ plate for softening the rice wrappers. I heat some hot water in a teapot and keep it close. Then I briefly soak each rice paper wrapper in the hot water, put them on a nice flat surface (some recipes suggest a damp towel, but either way is fine), pile the ingredients neatly at the bottom of the round rice sheet, roll it over once, tucking the veggies in, fold the sides like a burrito, creating an envelope, and finish rolling the package to make a little cylinder. I then place the prepared summer rolls carefully on a flat surface to dry NOT touching each other if possible (or they could stick together). They should dry and seal themselves shut. You then have beautiful little packages of flavor and freshness, that you can take just about anywhere.
You could put anything in them of course- at a yuppie deli in Chiba-shi, Japan they had ones with potato salad inside, prawns, smoked salmon and cream
cheese… even bits of beef or chicken! Of course you have to change the sauce to suit the filling, but that’s all part of the fun, isn’t it?
If you’d like to see someone making one of these, and some professional tips for making them as a carry along snack, watch this:
An excellent instructional video showing how to make summer rolls
I like any sauce, but my personal favorite has to be the sauce below; it is the product of many comparison tests. It’s an interesting recipe because it doesn’t use high calorie, high fat coconut milk like many recipes do, but yet it still manages to be delightfully creamy and decadent. It’s all about caramelizing the onions… If you’re going to make spring rolls, you gotta make a sauce to go with them. And if peanuts aren’t your thing- sweet chili sauce is the next best thing. Enjoy… And remember, if you have sauce left over- you can use it in a killer Thai salad with rice noodles and veggies! I know it’s not summer yet… But any time of year is a good time to enjoy a crisp, delightful summer roll.
Thai Peanut Sauce
1 sliced small onion
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
2 cloves crushed garlic
3/4 cup NATURAL peanut butter or 1 cup dry roasted salted peanuts
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons lime juice
Saute onion and garlic in oil til tender. Cool. Place in blender,
add everything else, and blend carefully. Slowly and carefully
add enough boiling water to form a thick paste. (I like it about
the texture of slightly thinned peanut butter.)