Thursday, May 27, 2010

Rocking the salad roll.

Orchid salad rolls
I wouldn't say I had a complete breakdown on Tuesday, but I wasn't far off. Thankfully I was alone when -- a mere two hours into what I'm calling Project Salad Roll -- I muttered aloud: What the hell was I thinking? An hour later, it slipped out again. Several times. To no one in particular. Then, half an hour after that, as I was bagging up five little boxes each containing five bundles of shrimp, slaw and vermicelli, I burst: These fuckers better be worth it. Forgive me, but I'd invested nearly four hours on what I thought would be a quick snack.

When I arrived at my friend's house a bit later, I was thrilled (nay, relieved) that they still looked good. Sure, they weren't nearly as pretty as the salad rolls I've had in restaurants, and some of them were sporting holes and leaking a bit, but they tasted good. I knew this for a fact because for every half dozen I managed to wrap semi-correctly, I botched at least one, which of course had to be eaten. I thought it a miracle I actually wanted to eat more of them, but I did. They were that good: the gelatinous chew of the vermicelli next to the crunch of the julienned cucumbers; the salty meat of the shrimp dotted with a brilliantly fragrant red cabbage and carrot slaw.

True to my spirit, I'd gone rogue in my planning; what was intended to be a buffet of individually julienned vegetables, turned into a slaw that stole the show. To the cabbage and carrots, I added basil, lovage and raw shallot. At the last minute, there was some raw ginger and lime juice, rice vinegar and sesame oil. Was it too much? Had my delicate dish been compromised?

Carrying the plate from the kitchen to my friends outside, my emotions were akin to a child's on the first day of school. I was excited and a bit nervous, scared of rejection and fearful that everyone but me would be allergic to shellfish. Did I imagine the "oohs" and "aahs" as I lowered the platter to the table? My friends aren't the kind who blow smoke, of that I am certain. So when they said they were good, I believed them. When they went back for seconds, I sighed. And when one friend exclaimed excitedly that my salad rolls looked like orchids, my heart swelled. The hours spent crouched on a step stool next to my kitchen table -- bowls of warm water on both sides, scads of ingredients all around -- did not fade from memory, but almost turned fond.

Yeah, the fuckers were worth it, all right.


You'll forgive me further, I hope, for not sharing the complete salad roll recipe, because there really isn't one to share. Buy a bag of rice papers, some shrimp and vermicelli, channel some patience and experiment like mad. Some tips I found useful:

-- Be sure to soak rice papers in warm warm water. You should be able to touch it, but the water shouldn't be too cool. Change water frequently, if necessary.

-- Compose rolls themselves on the glass plate. Wet rice papers stick to cutting boards.

-- Have a spray bottle of water on hand. Composed rolls should remain damp. I misted mine, then wrapped them in plastic wrap.

-- Relax. You're going to make mistakes. That just means more chances to sample the goods!

If you feel inclined to give salad rolls a go, try using this slaw. It's an attractive and interesting way to compose an otherwise orderly dish. Besides, it makes your prep work a whole lot easier. Salad rolls, I now know, aren't meant to be easy. But no one ever said pleasure was painless.

Asian-style slaw for salad rolls


1 small head red cabbage
5 small carrots, peeled
1 1" piece of raw ginger, peeled
1 small shallot
1/2 cup basil
1/2 cup lovage
1/2 tablespoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
Juice of 1 lime
Sea salt, to taste

Using a food processor (or mandolin, or your own little hands), shred cabbage, carrots, ginger, shallot, basil and lovage.

Whisk together sesame oil, vinegar and lime juice.

In a large bowl, mix vegetables and dressing. It will be fairly dry, that's OK. The vegetables will sweat some.

Salt to taste.

Will make roughly 30 small salad rolls, or individually serve 6-8 people.


coconutandquinoa said...

I know those private kitchen outbursts well! At least you didn't curse at the final product, they sure look tasty. xo

JJN said...

I find that hard to believe, Amy, but thanks for the support! x

Prunella said...

The were sooo delicious, and beautiful too! When you carried them out to the deck, I remember thinking it looked like a plate full of orchids.

danielle said...

Om nom is all i can say! They were worth the effort, and they looked beautiful too with the purple cabbage peeking through the wrappers. I never knew that rice papers needed so much attention! I love your blog, thanks for looping me in...

Michael said...

The roll(-littleseaguy) that I had was AMAZING... you must repeat this for our summer party, we're having a summer party, right?

view from 5'2" said...

There is no such thing as too-strong language when rice-papery-slaw-rolls are at stake. I cannot wait to try the slaw.

Joy said...

I grew up eating/making fresh Asian salad rolls and have some tips to share with you:

- Do all the ingredient-chopping previously so that you can build the salad rolls in a fast, assembly-line manner.

- Compose your salad roll on a damp, lint-free towel. The rice paper will NOT stick to the damp towel and will be so much easier for you to handle.

- Line the platter on which you plan to serve the salad rolls with wax paper; this will help control the sticking.

- If they're not going to be eaten right away, lay a damp, lint-free towel ((wring it out well) on top of the salad rolls. I even put the towel on top of the rolls as I finish each one. This will keep them from drying out. You can use this method to keep them in the fridge for up to 2 hours before serving at a party.

- I've found that the best herb mix is Thai basil (rather than sweet basil), fresh mint, & cilantro.

Good luck, Jen!