Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Vietnamese Food - Not Quite Spring Rolls

Somehow the winter weather has made me long for a taste of spring. What better way than with a fresh Vietnamese-style spring or salad roll, filled with healthy greens, fragrant herbs, crunchy vegetables and moist tofu, shrimp and/or fruit. Since these rolls are mostly vegetable and eaten fresh without frying they are naturally low in fat and calories.

Forming the rolls is not that hard after you practice with one or two, and even if your handiwork is a bit messy, all the tastes still combine wonderfully in your mouth. Hey, you deserve a spring break, even if it is winter.

Don’t be intimidated by the list of ingredients. I’ve given you a lot of options and you aren’t supposed to make them all. Here in the San Francisco Bay area we have lots of Asian markets so everything is pretty easy to get, but most of the ingredients can be bought at a good supermarket or gourmet store. I suggest alternatives to anything that might be truly exotic or hard-to-find and list web resources at the end of the post. Most of the work for this dish is in the shopping, especially if you serve them as we do. We tend to put out piles of the ingredients and either encourage everyone to wrap his or her own or my husband, Gary, assembles them to order. It’s a great dish for entertaining. The photo above was taken at a recent dinner with friends and shows the ingredients ready to wrap and roll.

While we ate spring rolls throughout our recent trip to Vietnam, we never quite had any like this, but the ingredients did vary. The fresh ones were very refreshing in the hot, steamy weather of Hanoi. Some spring rolls we saw or ate had cooked pork, chicken or mushrooms in them. Often they are fried. (One memorable version in Hue was filled with meat, fried, sliced into small pieces on the diagonal, speared with toothpicks and stuck decoratively in a pineapple in a way that resembled a peacock’s tail. It was quite spectacular and made me truly sorry that my camera battery was dead. The fact that it appeared that the pineapple itself was reused in the display for the next customer did not dim its charm.)

Not Quite Spring Rolls
Serves 8 as an appetizer, 2 rolls a piece

Part A – the Main Filling - Choose One or More of the Following:

16 medium to large shrimp, cooked, peeled and deveined, sliced in half vertically, so you have 32 flat halves. Drain well and pat dry.

4 ounces of firm tofu, cut into matchstick-size pieces, patted dry and sautéed or stir fried in a tablespoon of oil until just golden. Splash with a teaspoon or two of soy sauce and stir until the tofu pieces are coated with the soy sauce. Remove from the pan and drain well. Mix cooked tofu pieces with 1 teaspoon very finely minced lemon or lime zest.

4 ounces fresh, ripe, peeled and seeded (but still firm) mango or papaya, cut into matchstick-size pieces and drained.

Peeled, seeded, cucumber cut into matchstick-size pieces. Place on paper towels and allow to drain. Pat dry before using.

Part B – Rice Stick Noodles and Other Shredded Things -- Offer the Rice Stick Noodles and One or More of the Following for a Total of Four Cups or More

Prepared rice stick noodles or “bun,” rinsed in water, drained well, cooled. (These are dried, very thin rice noodles that are available in Asian markets and some supermarkets. Sometimes called rice vermicelli. Be sure to buy the very thin noodles made from rice or rice flour and not mung beans or wheat flour. Careful not to get the thin “banh pho” rice stick noodles, which are flat noodles for soups and look like linguini.) To prepare, cook about 4 ounces in boiling water for about five minutes.

Rinsed, cleaned fresh mung bean or other sprouts, well drained

Cooked, cooled, spaghetti squash, separated into noodle-like strands (very untraditional but adds a nice flavor, crunch and nutrient boost)

Finely shredded green papaya. Green papaya is not unripe regular papaya. It is a separate variety of the fruit that is eaten like a vegetable. It is available in many Asian specialty markets. It adds a bit of taste and a lot of texture to the spring rolls.

Finely shredded carrots

Finely shredded daikon radish or jicama. Daikon radish is long and white and on the mild side. Jicama works fine if the radish isn’t available. Or try finely shredded turnip for a more peppery taste.

(Note: Some Asian markets sell fresh pre-shredded green papaya and a mix of pre-shredded carrots and radishes in the produce section.)

Part C- Herbs and Greens – Use One Cup of FRESH Herbs to Go with the Lettuce for a Total of Two Cups Herbs and Greens

One cup shredded red or other soft, leaf lettuce (should be bite size pieces)
Plus One Cup of a Combination of the following:
Asian or Thai basil, chopped or shredded without stems. Sometimes called anise basil. (Do not substitute Italian style basil)
Mint, chopped or shredded without stems
Cilantro, chopped or shredded with harder stems removed
Vietnamese herbs (available in some Asian stores) such as “ngo gai,” saw-leaf herb (a member of the cilantro family), “rau ram” (Vietnamese coriander), and many others. Chopped or shredded with harder stems removed

Part D – Sauce -- Pick One or Both, You’ll Need a Little More than a ¼ Cup Total

Prepared Hoisin Sauce (buy a good quality one)
Peanut - Hoisin Sauce mixed one part hoisin sauce, one part good quality smooth peanut butter. Stir. Add hot water by the teaspoonful and keep stirring until mixture is smooth and well combined. Optional, add a splash of Vietnamese or Thai Fish Sauce (see note below in dipping sauce segment) or soy sauce.

Part E – Wrappers -- Pick One or Do Some of Both

16 (plus extras for the learning curve) Vietnamese dried round rice paper wrappers for spring or salad rolls (“banh trang”). Be sure you get wrappers made from rice not wheat flour. The size of these round wrappers seems to be very consistent between brands.

16 red lettuce, butter lettuce or other soft leaf lettuce leaves, washed, drained and patted dry (plus extras for the learning curve)

Use the lettuce leaves if you can’t get the wrappers. Wrapping ingredients like this in a lettuce leaf is not uncommon in Vietnam and is usually referred to as a salad roll. Obviously, if you are making some of each, you'll need only need 16+ total for both.

Part F – Dipping Sauce & Garnish

Nuoc Cham – Spicy Dipping Sauce

1 clove garlic, peeled and very finely minced
2-3 small hot red fresh Thai (bird) or Serrano chiles. (Remove seeds if you want a less hot sauce), very finely minced. (If it’s all you can get, use fresh jalapenos)
1 tablespoon plain, unseasoned rice vinegar
Juice of one lime
2 tablespoons sugar
¼ cup water
Tablespoon of mixed finely shredded carrot and daikon, chopped
One tablespoon Vietnamese or Thai Fish Sauce (See Note.)

Combine all ingredients and mix well. Put out in small bowls for dipping.

Note: In the photo at left are different kinds of Vietnamese fish sauces (“nuoc mam”) on display at the kitchen of a hotel in Hanoi. The nuoc mam that is imported to the U.S. is most often made with anchovies. The sauce adds an indefinable boost to many Vietnamese foods and sauces. Thai fish sauce (‘nam pla”) is an acceptable substitute. If neither is available or if you are making strictly vegetarian food, substitute a combination of unseasoned white rice vinegar and soy sauce, maybe even mushroom soy sauce. I have seen Thai fish sauce in many supermarkets and both are available in Asian markets.

For a mouth watering discussion on why fish sauce seems funky but can be addictive, please read Orangette's musings.

Garnish -- ¼ cup roasted peanuts (not salted), chopped.


At last, after all that shopping and chopping and shredding – here’s the pay off, you get to eat these rolls and customize them to your specifications.

Set out all of your choices from Parts A through D plus the peanuts. Put dipping sauce into conveniently placed bowls.

Prep rice paper wrappers. Have a flat, open container for some hot water, big enough to submerge a wrapper in without folding or bending. Submerge wrapper long enough for it to soften. Timing will depend on brand, temperature of the water and atmospheric conditions. Wrapper will emerge very soft and pliable. Place wrapper on cotton towel. It is ready to fill and roll.

If your softening of the wrappers gets ahead of the rolling, cover softened wrappers with a damp cotton towel. Don’t let wrappers sit too long.

To fill, place wrapper round in front of you. All the action is going to happen on the bottom third of the round. Start by dabbing a half teaspoon to teaspoon of either the hoisin or peanut-hoisin sauce in the middle of that bottom third section. Select your greens, herbs, shredded vegetables, shrimp, etc and place in that bottom third, leaving about an inch margin on both sides and the bottom. Top off with a sprinkling of the chopped peanuts.

Fold up 1” margin from the bottom over filling and then fold 1” margin on the sides of wrapper towards the middle over filling. Roll bottom third over towards middle and then roll again, using your fingers to help compress the roll. It is like rolling a burrito. (For another take on a Spring Roll Recipe and for step by step photos of how to wrap, click here from this article from Digs Magazine.)

If you are using lettuce leaves, fill and roll them in a similar manner.

Don’t worry if your first rolls are loose or messy. They will taste just as good.

Dip the finished roll into the dipping sauce and eat.

Leftovers? -- Cut the rice noodles into 2 inch lengths and combine ingredients from Parts A, B and C and chopped roasted peanuts into a salad, adding more lettuce if needed. Thin dipping sauce out with a bit more vinegar and a few tablespoons of grapeseed or other vegetable oil and toss with salad.

Some resources:
Mai Pham's growing empire of things Vietnamese is a great informational resource.

There are many resources for buying Vietnamese ingredients on the web. For research purposes I checked availability from Ethnic Grocer, which also provided the spring roll wrapper photo.

While it is more of a supermarket than a charming specialty store and many of their Vietnamese selections are limited, the Ranch 99 chain of markets has all the Asian ingredients needed for this recipe, although it does not offer mail order. Ranch 99 has locations on the West Coast and Arizona.

Thai basil, bird chiles and other fresh produce are available from Import Food by mail order.

This write up is part of Sweetnicks Tuesday round up of antioxidant rich food recipes (ARF). Please check out her complete list of participants. Sweetnicks also hosts the popular Weekend Dog Blogging Photo event. This should be her year since this is the Year of the Dog.

Yep, we are in the middle of celebrating the Lunar New Year and these spring rolls are also my way of honoring the event. For more information on the traditions and meanings of the Lunar New Year, check out The Hungry Rose

Friday, December 02, 2005

Vietnam -- Soup with Lemon Grass

This vegetable stall is in Hanoi's December 19th market. The food is all fresh and beautifully arranged. The market is also housed indoors and a bit less rustic than the "Wet Market" in old town and much smaller and more manageable than the Central Market (which has many offerings other than food).

These incredible vegetables show up in much of the food in Vietnam. Even the herbs that you sprinkle on your soup are some how more full tasting and delicious than the herbs we are used to, even here in California.

While I took lots of market and vegetable photos during my visit to Vietnam last summer, I kept forgetting to take a picture of lemon grass to illustrate my "faux" pho recipe. So here's just a food photo I like and a recipe I hope you'll enjoy.

Asian Noodle Soup

About Eight Servings

This soup came about after my husband came back from his first trip to Vietnam. He asked me to cook “something” with lemon grass, a traditional Vietnamese flavor. I began to experiment with the citrusy, woody stalks, looking for a way to enjoy its fresh taste in a clean, vibrant, low-calorie way. A trip to the local produce store inspired this soup, which I nicknamed “faux pho,” after the Vietnamese noodle soup. Most pho soups are beef based, but my favorite was a lighter seafood and vegetable version. (If you can’t find lemon grass, add the extra lime juice, the soup is still wonderful.) Don’t forget to add the toppings to the individual bowls, they really make the dish special.

Soup Stock
· 4 cups low-sodium or homemade chicken stock or light vegetable broth
· 4 - 6 cups water (depending on how thin or thick you want your soup)
· Fresh ginger root, the size of a walnut, peeled and cut into thin slices
· 2 stalks of fresh lemon grass (do not substitute dried), trimmed with root end cut off, outer leaves peeled off and darker top stems discarded, leaving two approximately 8 - to - 10 inch stalks. Slice each stalk into half lengthwise creating four half stalks.

“Hard” Vegetables
· 1/4 cup chopped shallot or red onion
· 1 large red bell pepper, cut into ½ inch to ¾ inch dice
· 3 cups of chopped Asian (such as bok choy, baby bok choy, Napa cabbage) or green cabbage. (I used baby bok choy, saving the green leafy part for use later in the recipe and just using the white stalks for this part.)
· 8 to 12 fresh or reconstituted dried shitake mushrooms or 8-12 medium large white button mushrooms stemmed and cut into quarters. (I think the flavor and texture of the fresh shitake are really special in this soup. To use dried, soak in hot water for 30 minutes until soft.)
· 2 large carrots, cut into thin slices

· 3 cups of Asian greens or spinach leaves, chopped. (I used the tops of the baby bok choy here as well as pea sprouts, which look like miniature spinach leaves with a long thin stem. Produce and specialty markets have a variety of Asian greens such as pea sprouts and mizuna.)

· 4 tablespoons of Vietnamese or Thai fish sauce (sometimes labeled nam pla or nuoc mam), available in large supermarkets and specialty stores. If you don’t have it, see soy sauce.
· 2 tablespoons of soy sauce. If you are not using fish sauce, increase to 4 tablespoons
· Juice of ½ of a fresh lime. If you are not using lemon grass, increase to juice of a whole lime
· Fresh small hot red pepper (such as Thai, serrano or jalapeno), cut into thin rings, optional

The Noodles
1/2 pound of dried rice noodles

Look in the Asian or regular market for dried rice noodles about the width of fettuccine noodles (about ¼” wide). In Vietnamese they are called banh pho, but often they are packaged for Thai dishes as pad Thai noodles. If you can’t find rice noodles, fresh fettuccine is a good alternative. Cook before using.

· Bean sprouts
· Chopped mixed herbs – basil, cilantro and mint (mandatory)
· Lime wedges
· Hot sauce, chili paste or other red pepper based sauce
· Hoisin sauce (optional – but I really enjoy it)
· Chopped green onions

Combine soup stock ingredients and simmer for a half hour or until the mixture has picked up the lemon grass and ginger taste.

Add hard vegetables and simmer until almost soft. Add the greens and simmer two to five minutes until they begin to soften. Add seasonings, stir well and cook until greens are cooked through. Discard lemon grass stalks and ginger slices before serving.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and put in the rice noodles. Cook for about five minutes and drain. Rinse in cold water.

To serve, add a portion of the noodles to the bowl before adding the hot soup, which will warm the noodles through. Ladle soup into bowl, top with a handful of bean sprouts and about ¼ cup of chopped mixed herbs. Pass the other toppings so every one can season to taste. A small spoonful of the hot chili paste or hoisin sauce will flavor a big bowl of soup, so add condiments a bit at a time.

Note: The chopped herbs are an important component to the taste of this soup and the bean sprouts add a very satisfying crunch. I urge you not to skip them.

Make it a Meal – Make it more substantial by trying one or both of these options.

1. Add small cubes of firm tofu after the hard veggies have been cooking a few minutes. Try about 4 to 6 ounces if using the shrimp below, or use 8 ounces if just using the tofu.

2. Add in some peeled, deveined shrimp. Add after the greens have simmered a minute or so. Simmer soup just until shrimp are pink and barely cooked through. The shrimp will continue cooking in the hot broth and will toughen if overcooked. Use about a half pound if using the tofu. If not, try a pound or so.

Vietnam -- Pyramid Power

In Hoi An, Vietnam, students at this primary school get a colorful visual of what it takes to eat healthy.

This food pyramid poster is at the main gate. In front of it is a vendor selling the students and other passersby some of the fruits illustrated on the chart.

Hoi An is at the mouth of a river and on the South China Sea.
Centuries ago it was an important trading port and Japanese, Dutch, Portuguese and Chinese influences can still be seen in town and are reflected in the food. "White roses," a kind of dim sum that seems Chinese in origin, are a local favorite. Also, a type of cracker bread was served at most meals at local restaurants instead of or in addition to rice.

We had some of our favorite meals in all of Vietnam in Hoi An at the Mermaid and Cafe des Amis restaurants. Watch this blog for more about the food and cultural heritage of Hoi An and Vietnam.

(Originally posted 10/21/05)

Vietnam - On the Street Where You Eat

A street corner chef in Hanoi, Vietnam, this past August barbecues the meat for bun cha over a small charcoal brazier. This pork, rice noodle and broth one dish meal was one of the best meals of our lives and cost roughly $1.10 for the two of us.

We sat at a low table surrounding by locals who seemed tickled to see the big clumsy Americans try to fit on the small stools. But our enjoyment of the food transcended our differences and we all were nodding and beaming and smiling at each other in no time.

I had the "fancy" version of this dish at my cooking class at a hotel in Hanoi. It was good, but our street corner repast was even better.

Watch for more on food in Vietnam.
(Originally posted 10/18/05.)

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Hats Off to Vietnam

Tonight we thanked some friends for lending my husband a sun hat for our trip to Vietnam. We invited them to dinner and when they were too full to move sprung the photos on them! We had culled down our digital photos to only 132 images (which was still way too many) and played some of the traditional music cds we bought for atmospheric music.

We also put on a feast -- vegetarian salad rolls, green papaya and chicken salad, lemongrass beef with rice noodles, water spinach with garlic and taro ice cream.

When I have more time to figure this blog thing out, I'll post some Vietnamese photos. I'll post some recipes from the dinner, too.