As strange as it may seem, it was in a tacky Thai restaurant set in a run-down strip mall in Maine where I ate my first fresh roll and was shown the light. Thai Dish was, in my opinion, the only restaurant worth visiting in the immediate area around Bates College. There fresh rolls were, and will always remain, my ideal of what a fresh roll should be. Thick with fresh herbs, greens, and rice noodles, they were wrapped so well that you could bounce one off the floor if you dared to waste one. Eating a fresh roll always feels a bit like a walk through a summer garden on a cool morning; it seems healthy, and refreshing, and green. Thai Dish delivered, so even in the middle of a Maine snowstorm, my roommate and I could have fresh rolls delivered to the doorstep of our dorm. When the dinning hall felt too far away, or when the hamburgers and soggy french fries they were serving there felt too heavy to touch, we could order our own secret garden to bite into.
Fresh rolls, it turns out, are not at all hard to make. My mom and I discovered a recipe that lives up to my fresh roll ideals in the cookbook In Nirmala’s Kitchen when I wanted to make them for the first time for a dinner party for my dad’s birthday. I’ve adapted Nirmala’s recipe a bit, and have been making them now for several years, and although they are always excellent, each time I can’t help but wish I could still order take out from Thai Dish.
Vietnamese Fresh Rolls with Spicy Peanut Sauce
makes about 15 rolls
2 ounces rice vermicelli noodles, soaked in hot water for 15 minutes
1/2 cup mung bean sprouts
1 medium carrot, shredded
1/2 large cucumber, shredded
1/2 cup fresh basil (preferably Thai)
1/2 cup fresh mint
small bunch of fresh chives, chopped
1 cup chopped romaine lettuce
20 rice paper spring roll skins (because you will probably break a few)
Spicy Peanut Sauce (recipe follows)
Drain vermicelli and place in a large bowl. Add the bean sprouts, carrot, cucumber, herbs, and lettuce, and toss to combine.
Prepare your rolling work station:
Fill a pie plate or a cake pan with about 2 inches of cold water, and use this to soften the wrappers.
Soak two clean dish towels in water and wring them out. Lay one towel out flat on your work surface, and lay the other one out on a platter to cover your finished rolls.
Once your work station is ready, soak a wrapper in water until soft, about 30 seconds.
Lay it out on your work surface, and then put another wrapper in the water to soften while you do your rolling.
Place a scant 1/4 cup of the filing on center of the wrapper.
Fold the bottom half of the wrapper over the filling with one hand, while pushing the filing down with the other.
Fold the sides inward.
Continue to roll the wrapper forward, until, voila, you’re done!
Transfer the roll to the platter and cover with the damp dish cloth.
When all the rolls have been made, refrigerate until ready to serve.
Spicy Peanut Sauce
makes about 1 cup
1 Tbs. canola oil
1 tsp. minced garlic
1 tsp. cayenne powder
2 Tbs. tamarind paste
1 Tbs. agave nectar
1/2 cup canned unsweetened coconut milk
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbs. lime juice
1/2 creamy peanut butter
Heat oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and saute until soft, about 1 minute.
Stir in the cayenne, tamarind, agave, coconut milk, salt, and lime juice and bring to a just boil, then remove from heat.
Pour the peanut butter into a medium bowl, and whisk in the hot mixture until the sauce is thick and smooth.
This sauce can be made ahead and stored in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 1 week.