Summer rolls (variable servings)

We just came out of a week without air conditioning (and lived to tell the tale). When it's hot, the last thing I want to do is cook. (The first things I want to do are whine and then shower.) Summertime is the best time for quick, light, vegetable-based meals that don't require much work, and translucent, veggie-stuffed summer rolls are a fun option.

If you've never made summer rolls before, I promise that the process is much easier than it looks. The versatility of the fillings, the speed of assembling dinner, and the healthy nature of the rolls far outweigh the challenges. Most of the work is front-loaded because you'll want to prep everything before you get rolling (pun intended). The toughest parts are finding the right ingredients and then folding the rice wrappers without tearing them.

The best wrappers we've found are made by Red Rose and look like this. Around here, they're sold at Whole Foods and A Southern Season, and I'm sure most Asian markets sell them too. (If you can't find them, you might want to ask someone at your favorite Vietnamese, Chinese, or Thai restaurant where you can buy them.) We found them in two sizes; the bigger size leaves too much tasteless, chewy wrapper around the filling, but the smaller size doesn't accommodate much filling, so you end up with much smaller rolls. (We affectionately called them "summer blorps.") 

For the noodles, you'll want something wispy and tangled like this.  The first time I made summer rolls, I opted for bean thread noodles, but I didn't find them to be soft enough. I think rice noodles definitely work the best, and the thinner the better.

As far as fillings go, you really have an infinite number of choices, and making these rolls is a wonderful way to use up a glut of whatever summer produce you have on hand. You can make them as appetizers by using mostly light, leafy vegetables, or you can make heartier summer rolls by including proteins like tofu or tempeh. The basic ingredients and method come from this Epicurious recipe, but what follows is my personal favorite fillings and my own tips. 

I know the ingredient amounts are vague -- Don't be nervous! -- but that's because you really have to play around to find what you enjoy best. Bryan and I have made these together three or four times now, and each time they've been a little different. That's what makes them fun, in my opinion!

You will need:

  • dried rice noodles
  • lime juice
  • rice paper wrappers (The same type of "skin" is used for both un-fried summer rolls and deep-fried spring rolls, so the package might be labelled for use with either.) 
  • fresh basil and mint leaves
  • grated carrot
  • broccoli slaw mix (I've used shredded napa cabbage and cabbage coleslaw mix, and broccoli slaw is definitely my favorite crunchy option.) 
  • freshly grated ginger root
  • tofu (I like mine pressed, cut into thin rectangles, and then sautéed in oil until crispy and sprinkled with salt, pepper, and garlic powder.)
  • chopped peanuts
  • other fillings you might enjoy: cilantro leaves, julienned bell peppers or cucumber,  slivered scallions, bean sprouts, toasted sesame seeds, sliced serrano or jalapeño peppers, or lettuce leaves

Steps: 

  1. Place the rice noodles in a bowl and pour hot water over them. (We set our tea kettle at 180° F because a full boil can make the noodles too limp.) Let them soak for anywhere from 3 to 10 minutes, depending on the brand. Test them every couple of minutes. When they're al dente, drain them and then toss them with a sprinkle of lime juice in a bowl. Use a knife or kitchen shears to make a few cuts so they aren't too long. Set aside.
  2. If the veggies aren't already shredded or chopped, do that now. Assemble a little prep station for yourself so you have everything ready to go. Assuming you're right-handed, I suggest this order, from left to right, with each ingredient in its own bowl or container:  a shallow dish or bowl wider than your rice wrappers (you'll use this to soak the wrappers), the basil and mint leaves, the noodles tossed with lime juice, some grated carrot mixed in with the broccoli slaw mix and tossed with a little ginger, the tofu, and then the chopped peanuts, followed by an empty plate to hold the finished rolls. (I really should have taken a photo of my prep station!)
  3. Pour some hot (not boiling) water into the shallow dish and then soak a rice paper wrapper for a few seconds to make it pliable. (There's a helpful video explanation here.) 
  4. Lay the softened wrapper on a non-textured cutting board or plate. Layer on a couple basil and mint leaves, a small handful of noodles, a bit of carrot and broccoli slaw, a few pieces of tofu, and a sprinkling of peanuts. Fold up the sides of the roll, and then fold over the ends. (Again, the linked video above shows the process clearly.) 
  5. Set the finished roll aside and start over at step #4, continuing until you've used up your ingredients. 

We like to cut the rolls in half and then serve them with peanut sauce and sweet chili sauce. Some recipes I've seen have also suggested plum sauce as an accompaniment. If you're ambitious enough, there are plenty of online recipes for making your own sauces, but I just use the bottled kind.

Making the rolls is fun, especially if you're working with a partner. The first couple will probably be oddly-shaped, but once you get into the swing of things, it's easy! Bryan is usually in charge of soaking the wrappers while I pile on the fillings and roll them up. After soaking, the wrappers become sticky and sort of gummy, which means they self-seal after you've layered in the fillings, but it also means they have a habit of self-sealing before you're done if you're not careful with them. We usually end up tossing one or two of them each time we make summer rolls, but considering each package comes with approximately 56,000 wrappers (roughly), it isn't much of a problem. 

So give it a try! It's basically just a funky way to eat a salad!

 

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Baby bok choy and tofu in marmalade sauce (4 servings)

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According to the April/May 2012 issue of Vegetarian Times, "High temperatures and constant stirring are the secrets to great spring stir-fries." I know I'm a few months late testing out this claim, but it's definitely true, and it applies to stir-fries in all seasons, of course. The other night, I made that issue's baby bok choy and tofu stir fry, glazing the seared ingredients with a sweet and tangy marmalade sauce. The only change I made was to use bottled ginger juice instead of the julienned fresh ginger the recipe suggested, and I did so only for convenience. 

You will need:

Sauce

  • 1/4 cup orange marmalade
  • 2 Tbsp low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 tsp cornstarch
  • 1-2 tsp ginger juice
  • 2 Tbsp warm water

Stir-fry

  • 2 Tbsp canola oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, thickly sliced
  • 2 8-oz packages plain or Asian-flavored baked tofu, drained of package marinade and cubed
  • 4-6 dried hot red chiles or 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes 
  • 1 lb baby bok choy, cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces and well-rinsed (I chop and then rinse because I think it's easier to get the grit out that way)
  • 1/3 cup roasted unsalted cashews

Steps:

  1. Whisk the sauce ingredients together in a small bowl and set aside.
  2. Heat wok or large rimmed skillet over high heat. When it's hot, add the oil and garlic, stirring constantly for a minute or two. (Don't let the garlic burn, or you'll have to start over.)
  3. Add tofu cubes and chiles; stir-fry 3 minutes, or until the tofu starts to brown. 
  4. Add the bok choy and stir-fry 2-3 minutes, or until the leaves are beginning to wilt.
  5. Stir in the sauce and continue to look another 2 minutes, or until the sauce is warmed through and the stir-fry is enveloped in a shiny glaze. Stir in cashews and serve immediately, preferably over rice.

As with many Asian-style recipes, the prep work takes more time than the cooking itself, but even there, the prep is easy. Baked tofu saves you the time of pressing, draining, and marinating regular tofu. For this recipe, I tried Wildwood Teriyaki, which was lovely. It was flavorful without being assertively so, and it wasn't salty or tough. I liked the way the tofu held its shape, despite my enthusiastic stirring and the heat. 

When I make this again, I'll probably double the sauce, since I'm a sauce-loving type of girl. As is, the recipe made just enough to coat the tofu and bok choy, but I'd prefer a little extra that can seep down into the rice in my bowl! I'd also try a different heat factor, as the Aji Limo Rojo chiles (yes, I know they're Peruvian and don't really belong in this dish) weren't noticeable in the final product at all. I don't know if they're old or if I need to slice them open or what, but they really didn't add anything to the dish. I might just use red pepper flakes next time. If you're a Sriracha fan (not me!), this would be a great recipe to use it in!

Tofu 101

In a recent post, I mentioned that the key to cooking tofu well is to prepare it properly. There's an excellent tutorial titled "How to Make Tofu Really Freaking Delicious" over at Herbavoracious. I haven't tried the salted water method myself (and I certainly don't buy my tofu from a specialty store), but I think Michael's explanation is simple, helpful, and worthwhile. Definitely check it out if you're still hesitant to try making tofu at home. If you follow his instructions, you'll be just fine!

Sesame-maple roasted tofu (4 servings)

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Once upon a time, I was scared of tofu. I didn't like the way it... behaved. It had a way of jiggling that made me nervous. And that grayish color and spongy texture? No thanks. Besides, foods that came packaged in brick form made me suspicious.

Luckily, I eventually learned to love tofu after I found out it's versatile and easy to prepare if you know a few tricks. The number one rule with tofu is to drain out as much moisture as you possibly can. My usual method is to cover a plate with four layers of paper towels, slice the brick of tofu into eight uniform rectangles, and place them on the plate. Then I cover the tofu with another four layers of paper towels and another plate, which I then top with something heavy, like the canister of sugar or two big cans of tomatoes. After that, I let it sit, anywhere from an hour to all day in the refrigerator while I'm at work. When the tofu is drained of excess moisture, it soaks up added flavors better, plus it's able to get a gorgeous caramelized crust, as in that luscious photo above. Otherwise, it's gummy, limp, and gag-worthy.

I found this recipe on Eating Well a couple months ago when I was searching for new ways to make tofu. I already knew how to make it with two kinds of noodles, put it in a wrap, and make it resemble orange chicken, but I wanted something different. Roasting the tofu gives it a crispy outside while the inside remains fairly creamy. The sauce complemented the roasted veggies, which were further enhanced by the sesame seeds. It was delicious!

You will need:

  • 14-oz block extra-firm tofu, drained and cut into 1-inch cubes (you can cut it up after you let it drain, using the method I described above)
  • 1 medium red onion, sliced thinly
  • 2 tsp canola oil
  • 2 tsp toasted sesame oil
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 1 Tbsp low-sodium soy sauce
  • 2 tsp pure maple syrup
  • 1 tsp apple cider vinegar
  • 1 lb green beans, trimmed
  • 1 Tbsp sesame seeds (white, black, or a combination)

Steps:

  1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
  2. Toss tofu cubes, onion, canola oil, sesame oil, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Spread out on a large rimmed baking sheet; roast until tofu is lightly golden and the onions are turning brown (about 20 minutes).
  3. Whisk soy sauce, maple syrup, and vinegar in a small dish. Remove the tofu from the oven, and stir to turn the tofu over. Add in the green beans, and drizzle the maple sauce over top; toss to combine. Sprinkle sesame seeds over top the mixture and return to oven. Roast another 10-12 minutes, or until the green beans are tender and the tofu is nice and caramelized.

I sliced my onions into thin half-moons, and they got quite crispy, as you can see in the photo. I really like them that way though! You could easily serve the tofu and veggies with rice, but I just brushed a pita with olive oil and sprinkled onion powder and sesame seeds on top and baked it until it was crispy. Then I sliced it into wedges and served that on the side. 

Orange chicken-style tofu (2-3 servings)

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The more I cook with tofu, the more I'm impressed with its versatility. It can be flavored to taste like just about anything, and its texture can change depending on how it's prepared. Lately, I'm lusting after my friend Lisa's new TofuXpress, which draws the water out of a block of tofu to make it chewier and firmer. Apparently, freezing and thawing tofu gives it a "meatier" texture, but I haven't tried it yet.

The sauce is really what makes this recipe great. My favorite local Asian restaurant dish is the orange tofu from Jade Palace in Carrboro, and this sauce comes pretty darn close. It's not as sticky and thick as the restaurant's, but the flavor is almost as good!

You will need:

  • 3 Tbsp canola oil
  • 1 lb extra-firm tofu, drained, pressed, and chopped into bite-sized pieces
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 green onions, chopped
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 3 Tbsp orange juice
  • 1 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 3 Tbsp rice vinegar
  • 4 Tbsp low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1 Tbsp grated fresh ginger (or ginger juice)
  • 4 tsp flour + 2 Tbsp warm water

Steps:

  1. Heat 2 Tbsp canola oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Saute the tofu pieces in oil until browned, turning occasionally. Set aside.
  2. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, saute garlic and green onions in the remaining tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat. Saute until the garlic is just golden.
  3. Add the rest of the sauce ingredients (water through ginger) to the saucepan; bring to a soft boil. Reduce the heat to medium.
  4. In a small cup, mix flour and water until blended. Pour into the sauce mixture, stirring constantly. Cook and stir over medium heat until the sauce reaches the desired consistency.
  5. Remove the sauce from heat and mix in the browned tofu. Serve with steamed rice and broccoli.

The only problem I had with this recipe was that the sauce reached an intense, bubble-snapping boil and made a mess on my stovetop. That's probably the fault of the evil "safely plates" on the stove though, because they hold heat for too long.

I added ginger to the original recipe, and I'm so happy I did. It gives the sauce a warmth and bite that it would otherwise lack. I was able to put this dish together in under half an hour (not counting tofu draining time) and had some leftovers for Bryan for lunch the next day. Definitely give this one a try the next time you're craving takeout!