I came to summer rolls late in life. When I was a kid, growing up in a New York suburb (during the Mad Men era of chow mein), the only Asian appetizer rolls I knew were so-called Chinese egg rolls. They were always fried or baked, filled mostly with cabbage, and definitely boring. I had no idea that infinitely better-tasting and healthier Asian appetizer rolls existed.
Now that I’ve discovered them, I’ve got the zeal of a convert, spreading the word that summer rolls are quick, easy, and inexpensive. Perhaps their most attractive feature is that summer rolls can be whatever you want or need them to be. A salad you can hold? A repository for leftovers that cry out to be used? A refreshing appetizer for a stir-fry meal? An elegant and quick contribution to a pot-luck? A vegetarian dish that easily accommodates adding meat or seafood? The possibilities are endless, and (for those who need or want to avoid gluten), they are gluten-free too.
This is a guide to making summer rolls, rather than a recipe with specific measurements. The only required ingredient is the rice wrapper. I bought a package of more than 30 wrappers at an Asian grocery for $1.75. In Washington, D.C., the price for 2 summer rolls at local Asian restaurants hovers around $4.50 – 5.50. Check the menu of a restaurant near you that serves summer (sometimes called spring) rolls, and calculate how much money you’ll save by making these at home.
5 Tips for Making Great Summer Rolls
- The Wrapper – The rice wrapper must be dipped in water to make it pliable. The best method is to submerge the wrapper in a pan of water just about big enough to hold it for a few seconds. Don’t let go of the wrapper or submerge it for longer. If you do, the wrapper will disintegrate.
- The ingredients – The variety of ingredients seems infinite to me and I’ve listed a few below, including my new passion, sweet pea shoots. Use thin slices of vegetables (not chunks) to facilitate rolling the summer rolls. For carrots, you can even use thick curls, rather than very thin sticks. For meat, use either thin slivers or ground chicken or pork (cooked, of course.) Shrimp can be left whole if they are small or sliced lengthwise if they are larger. Pickled ginger is a great addition because it is already cut into super thin slices, perfect for rolling into a summer roll. Rice noodles (also called rice vermicelli) work well to soak up sauce. These incredibly thin sticks are quick to make – just boil for about 3 minutes and then drain them. Lay the ingredients out before you start – remember mise en place?
- Filling the wrapper – After dunking the wrapper in water, lay it on a clean counter or dish towel and quickly pile ingredients on it toward the middle, with the most attractive ones on the outside. Like cooking a stir-fry, this process requires quick work; it will go smoothly if everything is laid out ready to go. If you are using leaves (e.g. lettuce, basil, or mint), place the outside of the leaf facing the wrapper – the backside facing you – so that when you roll the wrapper, the pretty side will show. Leave space on the sides and do not overfill it.
- (Rockin’ and) Rolling – Once you have filled the wrapper, pull one side over the filling, then tuck in the sides and continue rolling – or pull the other (still empty) side of the wrapper over the filling. It’s not difficult, but do it gently; the rice paper wrapper tears easily. Roll with firmness, but not too tightly. To cut a summer roll, use an extra sharp knife and do it with decisiveness, so that the filling stays put.
- The sauces – The simplest dipping sauce is one made with just soy sauce and a bit of chili garlic sauce. But you can add lots of other ingredients in whatever proportions suit you. I often add hoisin sauce to thicken the sauce and add flavor. If you use fresh ginger and/or garlic, be sure to them into tiny pieces (mince them) or use a press for the garlic. Another possibility is to drizzle a peanut-based sauce into the roll before you wrap it. (A slightly thinner version of the sauce for Dan Dan noodles works well, thinned out with a bit of tea, extra vinegar, or hot water.) Other ingredients that you might want to experiment with for summer roll “inside” or dipping sauces are fish sauce or nước mắm, sweet red chili sauce and Sriracha chili sauce, rice wine vinegar (use unseasoned, which does not contain salt or sugar), fresh lemon or lime juice, sesame oil, and (a touch of) white sugar.
Ingredient Ideas for Filling Summer Rolls
- Basil leaves
- Bean sprouts
- Bell peppers – green, red, orange or yellow
- Lettuce – Bibb, Boston, baby Romaine
- Pea shoots
What’s your favorite combination of ingredients for summer rolls?