Fresh spring rolls
This Vietnamese-inspired starter is light, fresh, fun to make and a great way to exercise your creativity. Spring rolls, as served in France, consist of a very thin rice-flour crepe (store bought) wrapped up around a lettuce leaf and a filling. They come with a tangy dipping sauce and are served cold, unlike the fried version (nems).
In this recipe, I’ll explain how to make three types of spring rolls — filled with shrimp marinated in lime juice, chicken marinated in soy sauce and sesame oil, and mango relish. Each filling also involves crushed peanuts, fresh mint or cilantro and hot sauce. You can make all three, but if you’re a first-timer I’d recommend choosing just one.
This recipe differs from the original in that, in France, rouleaux de printemps generally involve rice vermicelli, bean sprouts and/or grated carrots. By expermenting at home, I’ve found that leaving them out delivers a more intense burst of flavor. But feel free to include them if you like, along with any other ingredients of your choice.
And what about the ingredients? Rice-flour wrappers (galettes de riz) may be found at Asian grocery shops or ordered online. Likewise the tangy sauce (sauce nem), although if you’re feeling ambitious you can make it yourself (see below). As for the lettuce, French spring rolls are generally made with Boston lettuce (laitue), but other varieties may be used. You will also need various Asian sauces, as noted below.
This recipe is more time-consuming than most on this site, but it’s well worth the effort. And there are shortcuts, like buying shrimp that are already peeled or using a cooked rotisserie chicken instead of starting from scratch with a fresh chicken leg. Meantime, while shrimp are traditionally used to decorate spring rolls in France, the mango version, shown at right, is vegetarian/vegan and you can decorate with fresh herbs instead.
Count on serving 2-4 spring rolls per person, depending on the rest of your menu. You can serve one type or mix and match. Each filling described below will make enough to fill 4 spring rolls — multiply or divide as desired. Be sure to read down right to the end before embarking, as beyond the filling there are additional ingredients for the assembly stage.
1) Shrimp filling
16 medium shrimp, fresh or frozen
1/2 tsp. sugar, preferably cassonnade or demerara
1/2 tsp. fish sauce (nuoc mam) or 1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. sambal oelek or another hot sauce
Steam or boil the shrimp for 2-3 minutes, just until they turn pink. Plunge them immediately into a bowl of cold water. Allow to cool.
Make the marinade. Squeeze the quarter-lime into a small bowl. Add the sugar and stir to dissolve. Add the fish sauce and the hot sauce. Stir to blend.
Drain the shrimp and shell them. Slice 4 shrimp in half lengthwise. Set aside. Chop up the remaining 12 shrimp. Stir into the marinade.
2) Chicken filling
1 chicken thigh (top part of the leg)
1 tsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. oyster sauce or hoisin sauce
1 tsp. sambal oelek or another hot sauce
1/2 tsp. sesame oil (an Asian brand would be best)
4 medium shrimp, fresh or frozen
Place the chicken in a large pot of water and bring to a boil. Simmer for 20-30 minutes, until cooked through. Drain. Plunge the chicken into a bowl of ice water. Allow to cool.
While the chicken is cooling, make the marinade. Combine the sauces and sesame oil in a small bowl. Stir well to blend.
When the chicken is cool enough to handle, discard the skin and shred the flesh. Stir the shredded chicken into the marinade. Set aside.
Steam or boil the shrimp for 2-3 minutes, until they turn pink. Plunge immediately into a bowl of cold water. Allow to cool. Drain, then shell. Slice in half lengthwise. Set aside.
3) Mango filling
1/2 ripe mango
1 spring onion (with bulb) or 1 scallion
1 tsp. sambal oelek or another hot sauce
4 medium shrimp, fresh or frozen (optional)
Peel the half mango, slice in thirds lengthwise and chop into small dice.
Make the marinade. Squeeze the half lime into a small bowl. Stir in the hot sauce. Mince the spring onion or scallion. Add 2 tbsp. of it to the marinade. Stir.
Add the diced mango to the marinade. Set aside.
If using shrimp, steam or boil them for 2-3 minutes, until they turn pink. Plunge immediately into a bowl of cold water. Drain, then shell. Slice in half lengthwise. Set aside.
Assembly (for 4 spring rolls)
3 tbsp. salted cocktail peanuts
several sprigs fresh cilantro, rinsed
several sprigs fresh mint, rinsed
1 head Boston lettuce or another lettuce of your choice
4 rice-flour spring roll wrappers
Have your filling at the ready.
Place the peanuts on a flat cutting board and crush by rolling over them with a rollling pin a few times. Add to the filling.
Chop enough cilantro leaves to make two tablespoonsful. Add to the filling. Stir to blend.
Remove 8 large mint leaves from their stems. Set aside in a small dish.
Cut two lettuce leaves from the core. Rinse and spin dry. Cut each leaf in half. Remove and discard the hard central spine. You now have four lettuce pieces.
Prepare your counter top. You will need a flat cutting board. Place the filling, mint leaves, halved shrimp and lettuce alongside.
Turn on the hot water. Hold a spring roll wrapper under the tap, turning it back and forth for 10 seconds to wet all sides. Place on the board. It will still be a little stiff but will soften as you work.
Place a lettuce piece on the bottom third of the wrapper. If it’s too big, i.e. if it overlaps the edge, trim it a bit. Place two mint leaves on the lettuce. Add 2 heaping tsp. of the filling. Now place 2 shrimp halves in the center of the wrapper, cut side up. If making the vegetarian/vegan version, skip the shrimp and instead place two large cilantro leaves in the center of the wrapper.
Now fold the sides of the wrapper over the filling and roll up tightly, bottom to top. If making more than one kind of spring roll, make them identifiable by inserting a mint sprig in one sort and a cilantro sprig in another as you’re rolling. Transfer to a platter.
Repeat to make 4 spring rolls. Add the dipping sauce and some mint sprigs to the platter. Serve as a starter, accompanied by a chilled dry rosé.
Four spring rolls will serve 1-2 people.
Note on sauces: If you’d like to serve homemade dipping sauce for the spring rolls, here are two recipes (loosely translated by me) from the excellent French-language Vietnamese site Miss Tam Kitchenette.
1) Heat 9 spoonfuls of water to a simmer in a small saucepan. Remove from heat. Stir in 2-3 spoonfuls sugar (preferably cassonnade or demerara). When the sugar has dissolved, add 3 spoonfuls nuoc mam (fish sauce), 2-3 spoonfuls fresh lime juice, 1 spoonful rice vinegar, 1 minced garlic clove and 1/2 bird’s eye pepper. Taste and adjust the seasonings as desired. (This is the sauce served in northern Vietnam.)
2) In a small saucepan, mix together 3 spoonfuls of hoisin sauce, 10 spoonfuls of hot water and a crushed garlic clove. Stir in 2 spoonfuls peanut butter and, if you like, some hot sauce or minced bird’s eye pepper. Simmer for two minutes. Allow to cool. (This is the sauce served in southern Vietnam.)