summer rolls

Start - err, spring - with summer rolls.
Start – err, spring – with summer rolls.

As I write this, I’m keenly aware that there is a pile of washing up behind me that closely resembles a small mountain.

I’m breaking the rules a bit here, because although it’s certainly achievable to make these even in a small space, this isn’t exactly an ideal tiny kitchen recipe. It’s time consuming, a little fiddly and uses more plates than I would like – but I have to include it, because I simply can’t have you going into Spring without the deliciousness of summer rolls.

In truth, my love affair with Vietnamese food began with these rolls. Gỏi cuốn, nem cuốn or bánh tráng cuốn, as they’re known, are rice paper rolls stuffed with bún (rice noodles), herbs, vegetables and meat. They’re best served at room temperature with a dipping sauce – I personally think that you can’t beat the classic nước cam, but you can also serve them with a sweet hoisin or chilli sauce and peanuts.

Gluten-free and easily adapted to suit vegans and meat-eaters alike.
Gluten-free and easily adapted to suit vegans and meat-eaters alike.

Summer rolls embody everything I think is amazing about Vietnamese cuisine. Light and zingy, crunchy and softly dense, summer rolls have a certain balance of tastes and textures designed to bedazzle the palate. They’re commonly served as an entrée, and they make a beautifully bright introduction to the stronger flavours of phở and cơm tấm.

So while there may seem like there’s a lot of ingredients and a load of washing up to do at the end; persist, friends. It’s most definitely worth it.

There's something exceptionally light, fresh and tasty about summer rolls.
There’s something exceptionally light, fresh and tasty about summer rolls.

Summer rolls
10 rice paper sheets
100g rice vermicelli noodles
1 carrot, julienned
Small bunch of coriander
Small bunch of mint
Three lettuce leaves
Bean sprouts (optional)
Cooked prawns (three per roll) – for a vegetarian alternative you can use fried tofu

Prepare all the ingredients so that they’re ready to roll. Start with the noodles; you can cook according to directions but in my opinion you almost never need to boil them. Soaking them in boiling water is fine. Like pasta, make sure the noodles are al dente – they should be springy but not chewy. Drain well.

While the noodles are soaking, take the carrot and blanch in equal parts water and vinegar. If you’d prefer to save time and not to pickle your carrot, that’s fine too.

Finely chop the lettuce.

Pull the mint and coriander into leaves and pick over the bean sprouts.

When you’re done, you should have a crowded-looking plate of noodles, carrot, lettuce, herbs and bean sprouts. The key is to make sure that all the filling ingredients are as dry as possible.

To prepare the rice paper, have a bowl of very hot water and a clean tea towel next to your rolling surface. Dip the paper in the water until it softens and carefully fish it out, trying not to break it. Lay it briefly on the clean towel to absorb the excess water and then lay it flat on the board.

Assemble your summer roll. I use three prawns or one tofu puff sliced into three, plus a few shards of everything else. Try to make it as compact as possible as this will help when you roll.

Rolling is an art. I’ve rolled plenty of spring rolls, but they’re a cinch compared to the fiddly nature of the summer roll beast; all the lightness and springyness that we love about a summer roll seems to work against us here in a very irritating manner.

My tip is to flip up one end over the ingredients and use it to push them into as compact a roll as possible. Using one hand to keep the roll tight, fold up the sides and then push the roll forwards to complete.

Also, be careful about flipping rice paper – running a close second to the nasty possibility of the paper tearing is it sticking to itself. Once it does that, it’s very difficult to unstick it without tearing.

Serve with nuoc cam.