This week at I Heart Cooking Clubs we begin cooking with Mark Bittman, best known for his books How to Cook Everything and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, as well as his regular column in the New York Times. (As an aside - many of you may find his article this week on Eating Sustainable Fish particularly interesting.) I love Mark Bittman's food philosphy of - as he puts it - "lessmeatarianism", which is totally consistent with my own - the notion that if we all ate a bit less meat then both the environment and our bodies would be a whole lot better for it. I also love the way his recipes offer more a simple basic guide which you can springboard off in all sorts of different directions, and suggesting lots of different alternatives, rather than a strict set of instructions that need to be adhered to or failure will surely ensue. This is my kind of cooking.
For our first week our theme is "Bites of Bittman" - think appetisers, nibbles, tapas - and I chose to make his Summer Rolls from the How to Cook Everything book. Even though summer has now really passed here, our autumn days are still warm and golden and I thought these would be perfect for an "end of summer" appetiser ... or light lunch ... which is actually how I enjoyed them. Mark's original recipe makes 8 rolls - I'm only giving you instructions here for 4, but you really don't need precise quantities for these, and it is easy to multiply to make any quantity you like. I think that actually 3 rolls would make a perfect size appetiser for two people - I actually ate three rolls on my own for lunch - which may seem excessive, and I will readily admit to being greedy, but these are very light and I didn't feel as though I had over-indulged.
Some variations I made - Mark suggests using some aioli in the rolls, which would indeed be very nice, but as I had some leftover lemon tarragon mayonnaise that I had made a few days ago I used that instead and I think that made a very pleasing alternative. I'm not giving you a precise recipe for that here, but it is really nothing more than a simple one-egg mayonnaise with plenty of lemon juice and chopped tarragon added. Yes you could add those things to a store-bought mayo if you must, but really why would you when making your own is so incredibly easy, tastes so much better and, to me, is still probably the most exciting thing I ever do in the kitchen - there is something about the alchemy which enables an egg yolk when mixed with a little bit of liquid and some oil to emulsify into something so wonderful that never ceases to thrill me - it's just like magic. But I digress.
I also added some avocado to the rolls, which really added a nice creaminess, and as I didn't have any regular mint I used some Vietnamese mint instead. Coriander or Thai basil would also be wonderful in these.
I used up some leftover Soy Chicken (made from the Donna Hay "Seasons" book), but as Mark suggests roast pork would be good in these, or I think they would be positively sublime with some crispy skinned roast duck which is what I intend to try next time. Hot-smoked salmon would also be a nice addition, both texturally and flavourwise.
Bittman also suggests serving these with a Peanut Dipping Sauce, which would be great. I should have taken that advice - being a little bit lazy I tried a dipping sauce of fish sauce, soy, sugar and chilli paste. After a couple of dunks of that, I just felt it was a bit too overpowering for the "delicate" flavours of the filling, so I put that to one side and had a few dips into a bit more of that mayo that was leftover ... perfect!
Summer Rolls Recipe
Adapted from Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything"
Makes 4 rolls
Click here for a printable copy
4 rice paper wrappers (10 inch)
shredded lettuce, such as butterhead, about 1 cup
rice vermicelli noodles, about 1 cup
shredded cold meat, about 1 cup:
chicken, pork or duck
aioli or mayonnaise, about 1/3 cup
fresh herb sprigs:
mint or coriander or Vietnamese mint or Thai basil
8 cooked shrimp, cut in half lengthwise
1/2 avocado, thinly sliced
Begin by assembling and preparing all your ingredients, and then make each of your rolls one at a time - don't try going for some kind of assembly line technique. Take care not to "overfill" your rolls, and - a bit like making crepes - the first one might not be perfect, but you will quickly get the hang of it.
Firstly, cook your rice vermicelli according to the directions on the packet. I soaked mine in a pan of hot water for about 5 minutes to soften, then put the pan over heat to boil - about 2 minutes - or until cooked. Immediately drain and refresh in cold water.
Meanwhile, shred lettuce, slice avocado and chicken, tear up herbs (if leaves are large), and cut shrimps in half lengthways (so they are not too fat).
Now it's time to assemble. Spread a damp tea towel out on your bench. Fill a shallow bowl (at least as wide as your rice paper wrappers) with hot water and also set that on the bench. Working one at a time, soak a wrapper in the hot water until you feel it go soft (this really just takes a few seconds), then lay it out on your tea towel.
Then begin to fill. Imagine a line running crosswise through the middle of the wrapper. Position your filling below that line (in the half closest to you), keeping filling about one inch in from each side. I started with some of the rice vermicelli noodles first, and then some of the chicken on top of that.
Next add the shredded lettuce, herbs, avocado and mayonnaise.
Lastly add the shrimp.
Then comes the fun part - beginning to roll. Firstly fold the sides in over the filling.
Then fold the piece of the wrapper closest to you up and over the filling.
Then roll up, et voila ...!