START HERE Good spring rolls begin with their exteriors.
In America, you can make your way through life without cooking. My friend is a Warmer Upper. Her meals are hot dogs and other frozen, jarred, or packaged things you heat up. And yet, she was at my house one afternoon for lessons on how to make fresh spring rolls. She saw her lack of cooking (and corresponding lack of cooking skills) as a shortcoming, and one that deprived her of nutrients. Well, we all have our shortcomings. Mine is just the opposite: I cook everything. And because I nevertheless live a modern American life with way too many things going on, this makes me a Totally Unrealistic Time Manager. I'm frequently up at 11, pissed off at a mountain of pots and pans.
So, as great friends do, we share our differences. She tells me, "Get the frozen Wolfe's Neck meatballs at the store — they're great!" And I show her how to cut a head of iceberg lettuce into fine strips fast — without chopping her fingers. I show her how to pick the cilantro, mint, and basil leaves and stack them in separate piles; how to cook the fine rice noodles (just like regular noodles, only for two minutes), and then how to roll all the ingredients together inside the magic rice paper. She was getting it! After an hour she moved through the beginner stage and was performing advanced spring-roll making. Her moves were fluid. Her husband was going to flip at what she'd made. Two hours later, she was a changed woman. Now, my turn: where's the frozen meatball section?
Fresh Thai spring rolls
With chili peanut sauce
Total time: 1-2 hours, depending on how good you get | Makes 40 (enough for a giant party platter or a light meal for 8)
1 head iceberg lettuce, cut into quarter-inch strips
half-cup cilantro leaves
half-cup mint leaves, sliced thinly
half-cup basil leaves, sliced thinly
6 ounces thin rice noodles
1 package rice paper spring roll wrappers
optional: diced cooked chicken or teeny shrimp
quarter-cup sweet chili sauce (Mae Ploy brand "for chicken")
eighth-cup distilled vinegar
2 teaspoons unsalted peanuts, ground in coffee grinder or chopped
5 cilantro leaves
Prep Put rice noodles into boiling water for two minutes. Drain and let cool. Gather all your roll ingredients into separate dishes or piles.
Assemble Heat 2 inches of water in a large sauté pan until steaming; turn off heat. Clean countertop for assembly. Put one piece of rice paper in hot water until it softens like a jellyfish (5 seconds). Use a spatula to remove it, or your fingers if you're tough. Spread rice paper out directly onto counter. Put a second piece of rice paper in the water until soft, then place it above the first, overlapping a couple inches. Place an oblong mound of iceberg lettuce just below the center of the wrapper closest to you. Put half as much rice noodles on top of lettuce, and then line the top with strips of basil, mint, and whole cilantro leaves. Pull the bottom of the rice paper tightly over the mound of fillings, and roll up. When you've rolled into the second rice paper, fold the edges in, and complete rolling.
Make sauce Mix the dipping sauce ingredients together in a small bowl and garnish with cilantro leaves.
Watch a video of how to do it (it's much easier if you see it!) www.immigrantkitchens.blogspot.com. Lindsay Sterling, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, thanks Rattana Sherman, from Bangkok, Thailand, for teaching her the recipe.