A few weeks ago after work, Mr. T and I tootled off in a trusty zip-truck to the furthest reaches of Northwest DC to help friends move some furniture about. It wasn’t really that far, but that part of the city does tend to feel like another (gentler, more bucolic) planet… In any event, we found ourselves out in the leafy suburbs. I’d already categorized this expedition as our mitzvah du jour, so it was an added bonus when we got to the pick-up location to find a lovely dinner waiting for us.
The simple spread of salad, corn, and things from the grill (oh, to have a grill and a yard to put it in…) was as delicious as it was unexpected, but the sleeper hit was definitely the Laotian sausage. Oh my lord, were these things good: juicy and crackling from the grill, richly porky, and redolent with garlic and lemongrass.
The chatelaine of the house is quite renown for her encyclopedic knowledge of the greater DC food scene, particularly of the Asian persuasion. So, no surprise that she’d managed to track down the one artisanal producer of Laotian sausage in the DC metro area. There are apparently clandestine phone calls and secret knocks on a certain door involved in their procurment. Of course. And I got the leftovers: winning!
Of course, I am unlikely to see a Laotian sausage ever again, and unless you’ve got some serious hook-ups, you’re probably not likely to see a Laotian sausage… ever. Nevertheless, their fleeting transit through our culinary orbit serves as an excellent starting point for a discussion of summer rolls, as my precious haul of magical sausages found themselves all bundled up with herbs and veggies in translucent rice paper wrappers. Totes delish.
Of course, summer rolls (or salad rolls, or garden rolls, or fresh spring rolls, or fresh rolls, or crystal rolls; the branding seems a bit schizo) aren’t Laotian, but Vietnamese. National borders have never stopped the PassionFruits, however, and in any case, the summer roll is well on its way to being a truly global food. Vietnam’s neighbors have adopted the dish into their own repertoires, and the West is understandably quite enamored with the combination of light, cool textures and strong, pungent flavors that the summer roll has to offer.
Part of the summer roll’s appeal, I think, comes from its protean nature. Within the accepted boundaries (as espoused by me, obviously) the summer roll can accommodate any number of delicious fillings. Here, though, is what you absolutely have to have in order to make a decent summer roll:
Rice paper wrappers. Obviously. These are such fun to play with, too. Just a quick dip in hot water, and you’re ready to wrap.
Rice vermicelli (bun). A little body for the filling, and a nest for your other ingredients to perch on. I like to toss the noodles with tiny chunks of supreméd lime and a bit of fish sauce, but this may be slightly sacrilegious and is most certainly lily gilding. You’ll notice from the picture that I didn’t HAVE any when I made my rolls, so I just used rice instead. Everyone survived, but noodles are better.
Herbs. Specifically, basil, mint, and cilantro. Have at least two of them, or don’t bother. All three really make things sing
Veggies. Julienned carrot and (peeled, seeded) cucumber add welcome crunch and color. Mung bean sprouts are frequently pressed into service, but I think they taste like dishwater. Lettuce usually finds its way, chopped, into the rolls. It’s also good as whole leaves to line your serving plate as the finished rolls tend to stick to each other, the plate, and just about everything else.
And then there’s the sauces. Two options: peanut sauce and nuoc mam pha. It’s unclear to me if one is the more authentic accompaniment, but both are delicious. Peanut sauce, here. Nuoc mam pha, a fish sauce-based elixir is also de rigueur: 1 part fish sauce, 1 part lime juice, 1 part sugar, 2 parts water. Stir/cook lightly to dissolve the sugar. Add a bit of minced ginger, garlic, & chile (serrano) to taste.
Once you’ve gotten the basics together, go nuts with the rest. On the vegetable front the sky’s the limit. If you want something more than carrot and cucumber, how about something a little south of the (our) border, jicama? Radish, green beans, asparagus? Wherever your whimsy takes you. Traditionally, shrimp or strips of pork are the traditional proteins, but Ming Tsai serves a glammy summer roll with lobster and mango, and I’ve used smoked tofu to great effect in a vegetarian version. Just made a compact little pile of ingredients on a moistened rice paper round and wrap it all up. Divine. And, obviously, if you happen to have some Laotian sausages just lying around, they’d be lovely too.