“It’s like bubblegum!”
We’re in class talking about Chinese New Year. Instead of dumplings or egg rolls (which we covered last semester) I’m taking a nod to China’s southern neighbor Vietnam to make summer rolls. I explain this in class, go on that it is the Year of the Rabbit, so we’ll start it off, well, eating like rabbits. (The real reason we’re making summer rolls is because spring was in the air as I walked to work Monday. An incredible 65 degrees with sun shining bright. I needed some summer loving food to match the day. Sadly, temperatures dropped again and are now barely hovering in the 30’s. Jinx.)
We get down to business discussing ingredients and smelling mint leaves trying to decipher what the smell is. They’re so close to naming it but can’t pull the word out.
“What kind of toothpaste or tea?”
“The green one.”
“Which is called…”
We put it down for a bit and pick up some basil leaves, we’ll return to mint shortly. We’ve worked with basil before and I’m sure my students will get this. It’s a kindergarten/1st grade class. We take a deep sniff in…
“Mint! It’s mint!”
“Really? The one we’re smelling now is mint?”
“Yeah, it’s mint.”
“Seriously? Smell the other one again.”
Sniff checks: “I don’t know what that is, but this is mint.” (Picking up basil.)
I hang my head and take a sigh of obvious disappointment.
“What?” My students ask incredulous. “It’s mint. I got it.”
Yes, basil is in the mint family. I get it. It can smell a little minty, especially some of the spicier Asian varieties (which we are not using). But these kids are New Yorkers. I want them to smell basil and think… I don’t know maybe pizza, or tomatoes. Or if they’re really poetic I want them to smell summer.
We return to our sniff test. We taste. We’re still convinced the basil is mint and the mint is some sort of toothpaste plant. I correct them, talk about the herbs a little and we move on.
We shred carrots. We slice cucumbers. We pluck our basil-mint and toothpaste plant leaves. We keep working until I hold up a semi-translucent circle.
“This,” I explain, “is rice.”
Rice is cool. Rice in the form of edible “paper” is even cooler. There is stunned silence in the room then fifteen pairs of hands go zombie and reach towards the rice paper I’m holding up. I pull it away from them. Explaining this is way too fun for them to start grabbing the paper just yet, besides they’ll all get a chance soon enough.
The first time I used rice paper I have to admit I thought it pretty amazing. Made out of rice and tapioca flours it is molded then pressed into round sheets. You can purchase it in the Asian section of many food stores. A package containing 30 to 40 sheets costs a few dollars. Soak in warm water for 20 seconds and voila, a pliable rice sheet ready to fill. A-maze-ing.
I dip the rice paper sheet in water. 20 seconds later out comes a slimy, slippery form. It’s really cool.
“…like a jellyfish.” A student whispers in amazement.
I fill it with our vegetables, roll up the demo and send them back to their seats to make their own. They’re getting creative. Some rolls are all carrot shreds. I see some students building happy faces, then rolling them up. Some are building “beds” out of snowpeas then filling them with red pepper “princesses.” “Mmm,” I nod, “the Princess and the Pea, nice.”
So while this dish is not exactly fully seasonal, it can be made with seasonal ingredients: cooked sweet potatoes, carrots, some sprouts, some herbs. It’s a great garden activity or for when the weather does finally decide to grace us with warmth. But whatever you use to fill your summer rolls, make sure to use plenty of the toothpaste plant, it really adds a certain zing.
Vegetable Summer Rolls
Makes approximately 8 rolls
1 red bell pepper, julienned (sliced thin)
1 carrot, shredded
15 sugar snap peas, halved lengthwise
2 scallions, sliced
1/2 English cucumber, julienned (sliced thin)
1 bunch fresh mint, leaves only
1 bunch fresh basil (or Thai basil), leaves only
1 pint soy bean sprouts
1 packet 10-12 inch rice paper wrap (Available in Asian foods section, or Asian markets
Prepare vegetables. Fill a mixing bowl with warm tap water. Lay a large plate or cutting board in front of you as a work surface. Fully submerge rice paper for about 20 seconds in the water, until slippery and pliable, the warmer the water the less time needed. Remove with both hands, keeping spread apart and lay out on work surface. Working in just the center 3-4 inches of the rice paper circle, layer preferred ingredients horizontally. Fold over the right side of the rice paper to just over center. Fold over the left side of the paper to just over center. Fold the bottom side over then push down slightly and roll up to complete, keeping the ends tucked in. Continue until remaining ingredients are used.
NOTE: Other fun ingredients include shrimp, beef, lettuce, rice, radish, baby turnips, pickles, cabbage, cilantro.
Use soy sauce as a quick dipping sauce option or whisk together the following:
1 lime, juiced & zested
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1/2 teaspoon sirachi or other hot sauce (optional)