Rice Paper Rolls with Peanut Sauce (vegetarian/vegan)
Source: Pamela Sheldon Johns
Vegetarian For All Seasons
I remember very clearly the first time I tasted a spicy Asian peanut sauce. I was at a restaurant with a vegan friend of mine.
Choosing to be vegan can't be easy - especially in the Midwest. Virtually the only foods people eat around here without meat in them are cheese and Jello. I think the day I fully realized the scope of his dietary dilemma was when I offered him an Altoid and he refused because it contains gelatin (made from animal bones and hooves).
One of the tactics my friend used to make his diet possible was to learn the cuisine of other cultures - particularly cuisines from India and eastern Asia. We would go to a Chinese or Indian restaurant and he would regularly order dishes that weren't even on the menu. Some were simple substitutions of Tofu for meat. Others were more complicated but the restaurants always seemed eager to comply.
On one of these occasions, we were at a Chinese restaurant and he ordered a Thai noodle dish from the menu inside his head. He offered me a taste and I was stunned. It tasted a lot like peanut butter but it was spicy, sweet, and savory at the same time. It crossed lines that usually weren't crossed in western cuisine. It lit up every section of the tongue like a Christmas tree.
Since then, I've tried a wide variety of bottled peanut sauces and all have disappointed. None have compared to that original experience. So, when my wife, who is also a vegetarian, asked me to prepare a recipe containing a peanut sauce from a cookbook of hers, I gladly obliged in hopes of reproducing my experience from years earlier.
1/2 cup coconut milk
1/2 cup peanut butter
1 green onion
1 lemongrass stalk (3 in. long)
2 cloves garlic
juice of 1/2 lime
1 tbs soy sauce
1 tsp curry powder
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp cumin
1 tsp chile paste
1/2 lb dried rice stick noodles
3 tbs peanut oil
1 clove garlic
1/2 teaspoon Asian sesame oil
1/2 lb Chinese broccoli
1/2 cup bean sprouts
Rice Paper Rounds
Boston lettuce leaves
Required kitchen wares:
Coffee grinder (or mortar & pestle) for grinding spices
Blender (or food processor) for smoothing sauce
Wok (or large frying pan)
You really want to grind your own spices whenever possible. Once spices are ground, the clock is ticking. They're losing flavor by the day. Before they're ground, most spices will last for years if stored properly. The difference in flavor is truly astounding. It can easily be the difference between a dish that is just edible and a dish that tastes like it came from a 4 star restaurant.
Also, once you get a good feel for how much of what spices you use, you may not want to buy them from your local grocery store. I use cumin and coriander in large quantities. A very small bottle (approx 1.5 oz) of whole cumin seeds is $3-5 at my local grocery store. Luckily, I live a block away from a Penzey's Spices store where I can buy it in larger quantities at a far better price. If you don't live near a good retailer, there's nothing wrong with mail order.
The easiest way to grind your own spice is to buy an electric coffee grinder and use it exclusively for spices (unless you want cumin and coriander flavored coffee I suppose). Alternately, you could go the traditional route and use a mortar and pestle but it's a lot more work.
First comes the peanut sauce:
Mince the green onion, lemongrass, and garlic. Grind the coriander and cumin. Put a saucepan over medium heat and combine all of the peanut sauce ingredients except for the chili paste. Stir it over the heat until it's well combined. Finally, put it in a blender or food processor until it's smooth. Add water as required to thin the sauce. Once it's finished, add the chili paste (don't hesitate to add extra if you want things to be spicier).
I added a few tablespoons of water while blending but decided later that I probably should have added more. Keep in mind, the rice paper that everything is rolled in is somewhat delicate. As such, you want the sauce to be thin enough for dipping without worries of tearing the wrapping. My sauce was a little on the thick side.
Next - the filling:
Bring a quart or so of water to a boil. After it comes to a boil, pour it into a bowl with the rice noodles and let them soak for 15 minutes. After they're soft, drain the water and slice the noodles into 2" long segments. Peel and grate the carrot with a coarse grater. Cut the broccoli into appropriate sized pieces for a roll. Heat the peanut oil in your wok (I used a cast iron pan because the 1970's electric wok I inherited from my parents finally died). Fry the garlic in the wok until golden brown (about 2 minutes). Add the broccoli, carrot, and sesame oil and cook until soft (4-5 minutes). Add the noodles and cook until hot (2-3 minutes). Add the sprouts and toss to heat and soften.
Finally - the wrapping:
Put a piece of rice paper on a flat surface (I used a cookie sheet) and brush with water. In a minute or so it will be soft and pliable. Put a heaping tablespoon of the filling into the middle of the rice paper. Roll it into a cylinder and plate it, sitting on top of the Boston lettuce as a garnish. Serve with the peanut sauce.
I was very happy with the peanut sauce. It was far better than any of the bottled peanut sauces I've tried. It was spicy, sweet, and aromatic. I anticipate using this sauce with other dishes in the future.
It was also interesting using the rice paper rounds to make rolls. I've had similar rolls in Vietnamese and Thai restaurants but I've never made them myself. It was much quicker and easier than I'd expected. These will become a pantry favorite in my household. Coming up with new fillings could be a regular pastime.
As for the filling from this recipe, as I measured it, it produced far too many noodles for the amount of broccoli and carrots. I'm not sure where/if I deviated from it. I would recommend eyeballing the ratio of carrots, broccoli, sprouts, and noodles as opposed to following the measurements here. Shoot for something like 50% noodles, 20% sprouts, 20% broccoli, and 10% carrots.
Ease of preparation: 4/5
Speed of preparation: 3/5
This is a great recipe to try. Not only is it a tasty dish to eat, but the peanut sauce should be usable for other recipes and the rice paper rolls should be great with a wide variety of fillings.