I’ve touched on many Asian cuisines over my years as a chef, and when I’m choosing a restaurant, places that feature the fresh flavors of Asia are hands-down my personal favorite. As a chef, I’ve learned the hard way that the only way to really mess up a stir fry or a noodle dish is to cook it too long. But really, the only way these dishes can be cooked too long is if the prep work isn’t done ahead of time. The focus on fresh and minimally-adulterated ingredients means the main goal when preparing Asian dishes should be to prepare everything quickly, but that can seem frustrating when the ingredient list seems so long. Assembly line-style preparation is the key to enjoying your favorite Asian dishes without tearing your hair out. There’s a reason why you don’t see chefs at Chinese restaurants chopping vegetables and meat to order: it’s already done.
One Asian dish that took me a while to learn to appreciate eating–and later master making–is the spring roll. Like egg rolls, spring rolls are basically a bunch of stuff shredded up, rolled up in a wrapper, cooked and served with a sauce. Fresh spring rolls, commonly associated with Thai restaurants but technically a mainstay of Vietnamese cuisine (gỏi cuốn), contain cooked and/or uncooked ingredients in a rice paper wrapper. The rice paper itself tastes like, well, it really tastes like nothing. Its primary role is to serve as the neutrally-flavored vehicle by which we can move a tasty array of fresh foods from the plate to our mouths. Spring rolls are usually enhanced by the presence of one or two aromatic herbs, such as fresh mint or basil, and served with a dipping sauce.
The problem with spring rolls for me is that they never seem to be a meal; rather, I think of them as just a snack or an appetizer. I want something more substantial for meals, even when I want something light: sometimes I’m so busy with kids or with work that I’m never sure when the next opportunity to get a good meal is going to come, so protein is important. I developed this spring roll recipe to provide that boost of protein from lean beef (or if you prefer, shrimp or tofu).
I decided to go quasi-Japanese in terms of the marinade and sauce because mainstream (read: Americanized) Japanese cuisine doesn’t use so much salt, sugar,and, well, all those Southeast Asian fermented fish things that freak so many people out. Feel free to come up with your own version by adding things like minced fresh ginger, hot sauce or substituting fresh citrus juice for the orange juice if you like things a little on the tart side. You can substitute fresh basil for the mint or do a combination of both. Also, if you don’t want to use rice noodles, you can just use rice. Or quinoa. Or more veggies. Or nothing. You get the idea. My general rule is that any substitutions you make should be in equal measurements and proportionate in flavor assertiveness–and as always, if it gets Guiding Stars on the shelf, it’ll get Guiding Stars when it’s added to your dish. So substitute away.
In the interest of time, I also developed a marinade that serves as the dressing for the noodles–we just take a little of it out of the bowl for the noodles before the meat takes a dip in it. Between the marinated protein and the dressed noodles, the necessity of a dipping sauce is eliminated, making this a true grab-and-go item. In fact, a trick I learned from my friend Suwanna Truong, owner of the best Thai restaurant in Maine (and that’s not just my opinion), is to wrap each spring roll individually in cling wrap just after making them so they’ll last several days in the refrigerator. Really, when you have a pile of spring rolls stacked in your refrigerator, life seems good. Even better, it makes $3 protein bars (and eating the equivalent of candy bars for lunch) look downright silly.
Don’t forget to stock up on extra rice paper wrappers as well–they’re cheap. There is a slight learning curve in learning to handle them, as it seems as though they’re made from the laboratory-isolated cell walls of the very rice grains they’re made from…cut in half…and then cut in half again. In other words, they’re thin, and not just “read the newspaper through them” thin. Exceedingly thin. But don’t let that deter you. The trick I’ve adopted over time is to place a damp towel on your work surface, soak the rice paper skin in warm water until it’s just pliable, and make your spring roll right on the towel: the residual moisture on the towel’s surface (plus the moisture in your ingredients) will finish the job of reconstituting the rice paper. By the time you’re done forming the roll, the wrappers will be perfectly tender. The uneven texture of the towel keeps the wrapper from sticking to your prep surface and when you’re done, you’ve got a handy cleanup rag ready to go.
Back to the assembly line concept: while it may seem pedantic, when preparing a dish assembly line style, I just mound the prepared ingredients on a cutting board or cookie sheet so I have everything together and I use fewer dishes in the process. If you’re visual like me, you may find that the easiest way to assure that each component is divided equally among servings is to physically divide the components up into smaller piles. So if I have sixteen spring rolls to make, I’ll divide my piles of each ingredient up into four equal sections, and I then make four rolls at a time using one of the four sections. It just eliminates chance. There’s nothing more frustrating than low-balling the first few rolls and ending up with half skinny rolls and half fat ones.
Once you’ve mastered the art of the roll, your kitchen mojo will blossom. As is the case with sandwich wraps, puff pastry, phyllo and flatbreads like tortillas and lavash, stuffing stuff into stuff is never a bad idea time-wise. Using the Guiding Stars nutritional rating system when choosing that “stuff” is the most convenient way to make sure that the satisfaction you experience from your meal extends to its nutrition as well. Pretty soon you’ll be kicking the protein bars to the curb, and this super-fresh, lean and potently flavorful new addition to your culinary repertoire means your culinary street cred will skyrocket.
If steak isn’t your thing, try substituting shrimp or extra-firm tofu. Or just use extra veggies and noodles. Remember that when assembling the rolls, arranging the ingredients in neat parallel lines gives the best visual effect when you cut them in half to serve.
Servings: 16 (94 G)
Prep Time: 30 min.
Cook Time: 3 hours 30 min.
- 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
- 1 Tbsp. tamari
- 1 Tbsp. rice wine vinegar
- ¼ cup orange juice
- 1 tsp. sesame oil
- Pepper to taste
- 2 tsp. minced garlic
- 1 tsp. cornstarch
- 1¼ lbs. lean sirloin steak, trimmed
- 4 oz. rice noodles, cooked
- ¼ cup chopped green onions
- ¼ cup chopped fresh mint
- 2 tsp. toasted sesame seeds
- 1 cup grated carrot
- 2 cups shredded romaine lettuce
- 1 European cucumber, cut in 4" matchsticks
- 16 rice paper wrappers
- Whisk together marinade ingredients except for cornstarch and garlic. Set aside 3 tablespoons of marinade to dress rice noodles and stir the garlic and cornstarch into the remainder. Add steak to the marinade and marinate in the refrigerator (1-24 hours).
- Discard marinade and grill steak over medium-high heat until just seared (1-2 minutes per side). Cool completely in the refrigerator (2-24 hours).
- When ready to assemble, toss the cold cooked noodles with reserved dressing, onions, mint, carrot, and sesame seeds. Set aside.
- To assemble, soak a rice paper wrapper in warm water for 3-4 seconds and place on a cutting board. Place a scant ¼ cup of the noodle mixture across the lower third of the wrapper. Slice steak thinly and top the noodles with a few strips of steak and some lettuce and cucumbers.
- Roll the wrapper up from the bottom (making a tight roll) and over the layer of ingredients. Fold the sides of the roll inward toward the center then roll upward to finish. The rice paper will stick to itself readily. Repeat with remaining ingredients. Serve immediately.