No Acrobatics Required for Mastering the Summer Roll

Along with watermelon + goat cheese salad, cold sesame or Szechuan noodles, and prosciutto and melon, Vietnamese summer rolls are in my pantheon of “most refreshing snacks” to eat in this summer’s suffocating heat. Yet, summer rolls have always seemed the product of a magic act. How are stiff rice crepes transformed into thin, sheer and surprisingly supple wraps for a variety of ingredients?

I stopped in at Saiguette for the vegetarian cooked jicama and carrot summer roll ($6.50/2), marveling that their chef had managed to stuff an entire salad plus the bright white vermicelli noodles into the thinnest of containers. Their dipping sauce was one of my favorite, a mixture of hoisin and peanut with the tang of citrus. But, to be honest, even though you can procure these pretty packages at any Pho or Banh Mi shop,  the summer rolls I like best are the ones I learned to make, first from a Martha Stewart Everyday Food recipe and then through years of trial and error. You can make them, too, and you should, because there’s a lot of summer left to go.

Here are the basic elements of the Vietnamese summer roll:

Rice crepe wrappers: Sold in Asian supermarkets like HMart.

Vermicelli or bean thread noodles: Also found in Asian supermarkets. I prefer the white vermicelli “rice stick” noodles to the more glutinous, transparent bean threads. For six plump rolls you need to cook about 3 oz. of either type of noodles in boiling water for five minutes. Don’t heed directions that tell you to lay the noodles in a pan of boiling water. It. Just. Doesn’t. Work. This. Way.

Protein: Boiled shrimp cut in half along the spine (about 3 shrimp halves per roll), stir fried or grilled beef, pork or chicken strips. If you’re vegetarian skip tofu and stick with an entirely vegetarian roll. Tofu is best when it can take on flavor in a stir-fry or stew.

Vegetables/Fruits: Thin spears of raw carrot, jicama, celery, cucumber. Napa cabbage. Slices of mango or pineapple.

Herbs: Basil (Thai or regular) or mint leaves, cilantro, chives or faux chives (green scallion tops sliced lengthwise into thin, curly shreds).

Dipping Sauce: Without the dipping sauce a summer roll doesn’t have much flavor beyond the herbs, and you need that moisture, too. In fact, my friend Susana tells me that in Vietnam rice crepes are not so stiff, more like onion skin in texture. You forgo the step of soaking the rice wrap but rely on the dipping sauce to moisten the roll as you eat it (see her wonderful pictures, below, of her summer roll feast when she stayed with a family in Vietnam). Traditionally you will find these rolls served with a peanut dipping sauce. As I said, I like a hoisin and peanut sauce, but there are also tangy sweet and sour sauces and more adventurous basil and coconut milk ones, too.

The most traditional ingredient combo you can make is shrimp, mint or basil, carrot and chives. I also like this Martha Stewart recipe for chicken, mango and cilantro summer rolls. Here is a Food and Wine version for those who would like a more substantial beefy concoction, and here’s the most adventurous, beautiful presentation I’ve seen yet, which combines ripe peaches (peaches!!) with avocado, cucumber, and watermelon radishes.

The magic of the summer roll is accomplished with a pan of water. Once you assemble your ingredients, you start wrapping and rolling by dipping each rice crepe in a pan of lukewarm water for about 15-20 seconds. I take the crepe out when it still feels just a little stiff, and I lay it on a plastic cutting board. Here’s a video my daughter shot of me making them. All of the summer roll recipe links in this post (along with numerous youtube videos) will guide you through the process. To make them particularly attractive, keep the herb leaves on top of your mound of ingredients, so they show on the outside. Also, fold in all ingredients except long chives or carrot spears, tuck in the crepe corners, and THEN roll so that the pretty green and yellow spears stick out at each end.

One last tip, and this is crucial: while you are making the rolls, don't let them touch each other or the gluey, fragile rice wrappers will stick to each other and the rolls will tear as your guests lift them. Ouch! (While my cover shot above shows rolls touching, this is just before serving and my son and daughter's hands were about to grab them) So you can use plastic knives or wet paper towels as dividers. In fact, to keep these from drying out as I make them I cover with a wet paper towel and I refrigerate them, covered in the wet paper towel, before serving. Don't make them too far in advance, though. Please put any of your summer roll ideas, experiences or questions in the comments!