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vietnamese summer rolls (goi cuon) with peanut sauce: an OCD tutorial

Whether you call them Vietnamese summer rolls or fresh spring rolls or “salad rolls” (which is the direct translation of goi cuon), variations on these tasty bites are wildly popular these days. I see versions at all kinds of restaurants, in magazines, on blogs, and at potlucks and dinner parties, where they are often a hit among guests. I suspect the popularity is due in no small part to how good something so healthy can taste, as well as to its adaptability to whatever ingredients you have on hand.

I always took for granted how easy these are to make, but over the years I’ve been surprised (and sometimes a little appalled, I confess) at all the ways these can go wrong, from people soaking the rice paper in water until it turns into a soggy mess, to putting the finished rolls in the refrigerator until the rice paper turns tough. I am, admittedly, a little OCD in general, and even more so when it comes to particular foods. But someone might as well benefit from my obsessive tendencies, right? So here I give you my slightly OCD recipe for making classic Vietnamese summer rolls, which includes pork and shrimp. I hope you’ll find it worth your time! :)

This post is a submission to this month’s Delicious Vietnam, a monthly food blogging event started by A Food Lover’s Journey and Ravenous Couple, and hosted this month by Phuoc’n’delicious.

Vietnamese Summer Rolls (Goi Cuon)
Makes 12 rolls
Serves 4-6 as an appetizer

Summer rolls can be as easy or complicated as you want, but the better your individual ingredients, the better the roll. You want good rice paper that will retain some stretch. Bad-quality rice paper can not only tear while wrapping but sometimes even disintegrate in your fingers while you’re eating. I find that the Rose brand rice paper is usually reliable and more readily available (I’ve even found it in the ethnic aisles of everyday supermarkets). (See Viet World Kitchen for a fuller discussion on rice paper brands.) Some of the work can be cut down if you purchase pre-cooked, pre-shelled shrimp, but since those are often frozen, I find that their sometimes rubbery taste can ruin a roll. I also prefer to briefly cure my pork and then roast it in the oven (I use a toaster oven), which gives it a nice salty taste with some caramelized bits. Grilling the pork works as well, as does microwaving it if you’re in a hurry. My family usually uses pork belly or some kind of semi-fatty cut, but you can also use lean pork. Whatever the cut and cooking method, I’ve found that curing helps bring out the flavor of the meat.

The other key to a good roll is in how you wrap it. The rice paper should be properly moistened and topped with enough ingredients as to make a full, plump roll but not so much as to cause bursting or tearing. The thickness should be bite-size (not burrito-size!). The roll should also be wrapped tightly, so that the ingredients are not falling out as you eat it. And, finally, the rolls should have a consistent size, shape, and look if you are presenting them together on a dish.

When I serve these as an appetizer, I wrap the rolls a couple hours ahead of time, cover them with a damp cloth, and keep them at room temperature until they’re ready to be served. To complete the meal, I often serve these along with vermicelli noodle bowls, since many of the ingredients overlap. For a family-style meal, I prepare all the ingredients and let everyone wrap their own rolls at the table. In that case, I often make extra noodles so people have the option of assembling their own noodle bowls in addition to making rolls. Because the prep work can be rather involved, when I’m using this as a weekday meal, I’ll often make enough of everything for several meals and keep the leftover vegetables, meat, and noodles in the fridge overnight. The noodles will need to be reheated in the microwave to soften them up again, and the rice paper should only be moistened just before wrapping.

1/2 lb pork (as lean or fatty as you like)
2 Tbsp kosher salt
1/2 lb shrimp
6 oz. thin round rice noodles (also called vermicelli noodles)
4-6 lettuce leaves, whole (choose lettuce with soft leaves such as green, red, or butter lettuce)
2 cups Vietnamese herbs, such as mint, cilantro, fish mint, perilla, and Vietnamese coriander
1 cup bean sprouts
1/2 cucumber
12 sheets rice paper, plus a few extra in case any tear
a few sprigs of Chinese chives (optional)
peanut sauce (recipe follows)

1. Rinse the pork in cold water and pat dry with a paper towel. If working with one large chunk of meat, you might want to cut it into a couple pieces to help it cure more evenly and cook more quickly later (you’ll eventually be cutting the meat into small slices). To cure the pork, cover it liberally in salt (about 2 Tbsp or more — it will be rinsed off before cooking) and let it sit at room temperature for an hour or more while you prepare the other ingredients.

2. Clean and devein the shrimp. If you choose to take the shells off (to make deveining easier), reserve the shells to cook along with the shrimp in order to get a fuller stock. In a small sauce pan, boil about 1 1/2 to 2 cups of water (or just enough to later cover the shrimp). When the water comes to a boil, add the shrimp (and the reserved shells if they were taken off earlier). If there’s too much water, pour a bit out so that the shrimp is only just covered. Let the shrimp cook 2-3 minutes or until they just turn opaque. Take the shrimp out, peel, and slice in half lengthwise (slicing it this way will make them less bulky when wrapping). At this point, you can toss the shrimp shells back into the sauce pan and let the liquid continue to simmer to get a more concentrated stock. Reserve the shrimp stock for making the peanut sauce or for another use.

3. Boil a pot of water. Add the thin round rice noodles and cook 3-5 minutes or until al dente. Set an overturned bowl into a colander and drain the cooked noodles into the colander and over the inverted bowl, which will help the noodles not clump together. Rinse the noodles under cold water. This will stop the cooking, get rid of excess starch, and prevent sticking.

4. When the pork has cured for long enough, rinse off all the salt and pat dry. Roast in oven or toaster oven at 375°F for about 30 minutes. Let the meat cool, then cut into thin slices. Reserve any juices or pan drippings for making the dipping sauce later.

5. Wash and drain the lettuce, herbs, and bean sprouts. Wash the cucumber and cut into thin spears about 3 inches long.

6. Prepare your mise en place: Set the shrimp, pork, noodles, cucumber, lettuce, herbs, chives (if using), and bean sprouts into bowls or on a large platter. Fill a deep plate or wide bowl (a pie plate works well) with warm water. Set out the dry rice paper, a large plate for wrapping, and platter on which to set the wrapped rolls. Dampen a small kitchen towel or washcloth with warm water and wring it out well — you want it to be just a little damp but not dripping wet or it will ruin the rice paper. You’ll use this to cover the prepared rolls so that they don’t dry out before you serve them.

7. Moisten a sheet of rice paper by briefly dipping it into the plate or bowl of warm water, making sure that the entire surface is moistened. Shake off any excess water. Do not leave the rice paper in the water. The rice paper should still be stiff at this point, which allows you to lay it flat and smooth on your plate, where it will continue to soften. If you leave it in the water, it will become too soft to handle and will eventually turn wrinkled and soggy.

The rice paper on the left is too moist. Notice the haphazard wrinkling that results from the rice paper softening even before it was laid onto the plate. (If you wait too long, it will become difficult to even lay the paper flat onto the plate without it sticking to itself.) The rice paper on the right, however, has wrinkles that form an even gridding left over from the texture of the original dry rice paper and the way the paper gradually expanded on the plate after moistening. It still has some cling to it, as can be seen in the way it sticks to the plate. It is pliable but still has stretch.

8. Setting up the roll: You generally want to lay the ingredients out to be the length that you want your finished roll (about 5 inches is a good length). Keep an eye on the amount and proportion of ingredients as you arrange them, so that you end up with a full but not bursting roll. I also like to arrange the components of my roll in a certain order so as to provide a soft cushioning for the harder ingredients, otherwise things like bean sprouts may stick out and puncture the rice paper. Start by laying the moistened rice paper flat onto the large plate. Tear off a small piece of lettuce and set it on the lower third of the rice paper, centered (see photo below). (The leaves are soft and easy to use, but you can also use the stem too — I just crack the stem all over with my fingers so that it becomes soft enough to roll.) Using the lettuce as a base, add as few or as many herb leaves as you like. Arrange some vermicelli noodles into a stretched-out nest on top of the lettuce and herbs. Nestle a spear of cucumber, a couple bean sprouts, and a few slices of pork into the noodles. Arrange three pieces of shrimp (that have been sliced lengthwise) cut-side up on the top third of the rice paper, centered (see photo below) — this way, the outer part of the shrimp will show through when rolled.

9. Rolling: By the time you’ve arranged all the components of your roll onto the sheet of rice paper, the rice paper should be soft enough to handle but still be sticky and have some stretch to it. If there are any dry spots, just dab a bit of water with your fingers there and allow to soften. When ready, first fold the bottom of the rice paper up over the nest of ingredients. Then fold in the two sides. At this point, if using chives, tear off a piece about 1-2 inches longer than your roll and set it over the two folded-in sides and just above the other ingredients, leaving 1-2 inches of the chive sprig sticking out one side of the roll. (Some people fold the two sides in first and then fold over the bottom, stick in a sprig of chive, and continue to roll up — either way works.) Now comes the important part — as you roll, the ingredients will start to shift, so keep your fingers spread out across the length of the roll, pressing down and tucking things into place as you roll from the bottom up. If you’ve rolled sushi or, yes, burritos, it’s the same challenge of keeping the ingredients in a tight, neat bundle. Set the finished roll onto a serving platter and cover with the damp cloth.

10. Repeat steps 7-9 until all rolls are complete. Rolls should be kept at room temperature and eaten within a few hours. It is best not put the rolls in the fridge, as the rice paper will thicken and harden.

Peanut Sauce
Makes about 1 cup

This is the more common peanut dipping sauce served in restaurants, not the traditional Vietnamese nuoc leo dipping sauce, which uses minced pork liver instead of peanut butter.

1 tbsp oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp chili paste
1/4 cup hoisin sauce
1/2 tsp sugar
2 Tbsp peanut butter
1/4 cup shrimp stock and/or pork drippings from goi cuon recipe above, or water
toasted peanuts, crushed

Heat oil in a small sauce pan over medium-high heat. Add minced garlic, and when it begins to turn golden, add the chili paste, hoisin sauce, sugar, peanut butter, and shrimp and pork juices. Stir until the peanut butter has dissolved and mixture is well blended. Adjust the thickness of the sauce by adding more peanut butter to thicken or more stock to thin out.

In a small skillet, toast a handful of raw peanuts over medium heat until they turn golden. Crush peanuts with a mortar and pestle or chop with a knife. Sprinkle crushed toasted peanuts over the sauce before serving.

wonton soup

Thanks to our Cantonese roots, my dad made lots of Hong Kong-style wonton soup while we were growing up. His wontons are characterized by the addition of finely chopped, almost ground, shrimp in the filling, and sometimes, he even uses crabmeat for an extra-rich flavor. He also cooks the wontons and noodles separately, never in the broth they’re served with, so that the starch from the wontons or noodles won’t thicken and contaminate the broth.

For as long as I can remember, my dad’s soup for wonton has consisted mainly of chicken broth or a combination of chicken and pork broth. He might add some extra seasonings, but these were fairly normal pantry staples. This all changed one night as we sat in the kitchen of a family friend’s home.

As we started eating the noodles that our friend had prepared for us, my dad slowly contemplated the strangely familiar taste. He realized suddenly that the noodles reminded him of the wonton soup back in Saigon. He learned that it was made with the same type of dried flounder that’s used to flavor wonton soup back in his hometown. After some research, I’ve discovered that dried flounder is also one of the key ingredients in the wonton soup served at the famous wonton restaurant in Hong Kong, Mak’s Noodle.

Since the rediscovery of dried flounder to flavor soup, my dad has taken it upon himself to turn his wonton soup up a notch. So, without further ado, here is my dad’s current recipe for authentic, Hong Kong-style wonton soup.

Serves 4

You can substitute shrimp with crabmeat in this recipe, though in that case, I’ve found that 1/4 lb of crabmeat works better than 1/2 lb, because the crab taste can overwhelm the traditional pork flavor of the wonton.

1/2 lb shrimp
1 lb ground pork
1 tsp pepper
1 1/2 tsp garlic powder
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp sesame oil
2 tsp cooking oil
2 tsp corn starch
1 egg
1/2 tsp dried flounder powder, see recipe below (you can also substitute fish bouillon powder or anchovy powder as well, but the taste will not be quite the same)
1 package of wonton wrappers
handful of chopped scallions and/or cilantro
a few drops of sesame oil

1. If using fresh whole shrimp, peel and devein. Finely chop the shrimp.

2. Combine the ground pork and chopped shrimp together with the other dry ingredients.  Add in the oils and egg.

3. Completely mix the ingredients together, but be careful not to over-mix (over-mixing makes the meat tougher).

4. Using a spoon, scoop out a dollop (about a generous teaspoonful) of the meat mixture onto a wonton wrapper. Fold two of the opposite corners together and pinch the top.  Be careful not to press the other corners close yet.  There should be air in the middle, so it looks almost like a loose cannoli.

5. Next, take the two side corners and gather them up to meet the top. Press on the part just above the meat, so that there is a nice flat, overlapping layer of wonton skin sealing the meat pocket. Do not twist and squeeze like you would a candy wrapper around a hard candy, however. The seal should be flat, not twisted. It should look a bit like a lionhead goldfish, with a flowing tail. Depending on your preference, there are also various other ways that you can fold your wontons. My sister likes to use my dad’s mysterious method of spontaneously scrunching up the entire bundle.

6. Place finished wontons on a lightly floured plate or tray.  Be sure to do this step or else all your hard work will go to waste as you peel your sticky wontons off the plate and tear holes in the wrappers. (I speak from experience :\) At this point, you can also freeze your wontons for future use. Place them in a single layer first on a tray, with a little space between each wonton, so that they don’t stick together. After they freeze on the tray, you can pack them together into a bag for storage.

7. Bring a 3-qt. pot of water to a boil (use more water if you’re planning to cook noodles as well). The flour from the wontons adds excess starch and unnecessarily thickens the cooking liquid, so you don’t want to contaminate your beautiful broth by cooking either wontons or noodles in it.

8. As the water starts boiling, drop in your wontons, about 8-10 at a time.  When the wontons float to the top of the water, they should be done.  This takes about 5-8 minutes.

9. When wontons are done, put them in a bowl and generously ladle soup over the wontons.  Sprinkle with scallions and cilantro.  Finish with a dash of sesame oil.

Dried Flounder Powder
You can find dried flounder at most Chinese supermarkets.  They may also be labeled with the names “Stock Fish” or “Rough Scaled Flounder.” This can be made in advance and stored for several months at a time.  For a quick pick-me-up for bland soups and dishes, add in a sprinkle of flounder powder!

1. Deep-fry pieces of dried flounder in oil.  Fry until crispy, but do not burn.

2. Let the pieces of fish dry on paper towels, allowing the paper towels to soak up excess oil.

3. Using a blender, food processor, or mortar and pestle, grind up the dried flounder until it becomes a fine powder.

4. Store in an air-tight jar for up to 3 months.

There are several different ways to make the soup for wontons, depending on the amount of time and effort that you’d like to put into the soup. I’ll start with the simplest and end with the most complex.

1. Water + wonton soup base
At your local Chinese supermarket, you should be able to find instant wonton soup base.  I like to use the Knorr brand wonton broth mix. This works great if you’re in a rush and don’t have the time to make your own broth.  The flavor is decent, and you can easily spruce it up with a dash of pepper and fish sauce.

2. Chicken broth + dried flounder powder
If you have chicken broth on hand (maybe after poaching chicken), simmer up some of that broth for the wonton soup.  Add in 1-2 tsp. of dried flounder powder (or fish bouillon or anchovy powder), and you’re all set!  Again, a dash of pepper or fish sauce may help enhance flavors.  This is my usual go-to method for making wonton soup.

3. Chicken bones + pork bones + dried flounder + dried shrimp
If you’re feeling like impressing your in-laws or dinner guests, try this version of soup.  Dry-roast the dried flounder at 300 degrees for about 10 minutes.  Meanwhile, parboil the chicken and pork bones.  After bones have been washed, combine 1 lb. of chicken bones,  1 lb. of pork bones, and 1 piece of dried flounder about the size of the palm of your hand with 3 quarts of water. You can add a few slices of ginger if you wish. Simmer for at least 2-3 hrs. During the last 30 minutes of simmering, add a small handful of dried shrimp.  Add salt to taste.  Before you serve the soup, strain the soup to get rid of the bones, fish, shrimp, and ginger.  Serve hot!

You can certainly have a bowl of wonton soup as a starter or as a meal of its own, but it’s tasty served with noodles as well. Fresh thin yellow egg noodles are best, but if not available, dried thin yellow egg noodles will work too. Similar to cooking the wontons, boil a separate pot of water to cook the noodles, so as not to thicken your wonton broth with any excess starch. (If you boil an extra-large pot of water, 5-6 quarts, you can probably cook both the wontons and the noodles — one after the other, not together –  using the same pot before the water turns too thick and goopy, in which case you should start a new pot of water.) Cook the fresh noodles for about 3-5 minutes, until al dente. Unlike pasta, where you never rinse the noodles, so that the extra starch helps the sauce cling better, in this case rinsing the noodles actually helps. My dad always runs egg noodles under ice-cold water to give them an even firmer bite and to wash off excess starch. When serving, place the noodles in the bowl first, add 6-8 wontons on top, ladle soup over until it covers both noodles and wontons, and garnish with chopped scallions, cilantro, and a few drops of sesame oil. You can also add some boiled greens, such as bok choy, to the bowl if you like. The greens can be boiled in the broth itself to give the soup a bit more flavor.

Dipping Sauce
Though this is entirely unnecessary because the wontons are quite flavorful eaten plain with soup, I grew up eating my wontons with a dipping sauce.  Here’s a basic recipe for the sauce.

2 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp Chinese red vinegar
1 Tbsp oyster sauce

Mix everything together well. Enjoy!