by: Chef Jim Berman
Springtime is sensational for reinvention. All around us there are new vegetables poking up there first little leaves of the season. The gift wrapping is an early morning shower, shrouding the plantings in a damp haze. There are wonderful fruits hitting the market from closer rather than further away. Different specimens of ingredients are afoot. With invention comes innovation. And improvisation. So, with so many delicious components for our meals, it is meaningful to play with your food rather than simply prepare it. Look at those lime-green leaves, gently dusted with moist earth and ponder their destination. And then think beyond the typical and go for surprising.
Do the beet leaves really need to be discarded simply because the tuber is the desired by-product? Or, perhaps will the verdant, kelly green tops make their way into an amalgam of napa cabbage, ginger and tender shrimp over bits of brown rice and bean sprouts? Do the tomatoes really need to be part of a turkey and cheese sandwich or would they do well to team up with the basil leaves under a drizzle of sickeningly sweet, super-aged balsamic vinegar? Approach the cook's garden with a reinvented cook's palate. Do not settle for squash and zucchini sticks dipped in ranch dressing. Attempt thin-sliced zucchini beer battered and sprinkled with some nutty Parmesan and lemon juice. Already neighbor Tom's garden is alive with lettuce and the looks of some curly spinach. While grilling a fillet of salmon, consider snipping some of that fresh spinach, either from the garden or the produce section, and wilting with some screaming hot garlic-infused olive oil and tossing it with chunks of smoky bacon or (gasp) anchovies. Cantankerous has been cultivating baby leaves of basil, oregano and woodruff, sprinkling with some coarse salt, a splash of orange juice and a healthy drizzle peanut oil. That's a salad!
Herbs, root vegetables and their leafy by-products smack of improvisation. Eliminate all parameters and start playing. Pull up 'net resources, check out the flood of good cookbooks and go to it. Experimenting with Asian vegetables? Probably not. Mustard greens, bok choy and daikon are wonderfully light garnì for amping up the mundane. What about doing something other than strawberry shortcake with the new California crop of berries? Ever try macerating the fruit? Ask somebody from Europe, they'll tell you what it means. In the meantime, start poking around in the garden and the market to see what looks new.
Let's deconstruct what you know of spring/eggrolls and rebuild them; not that there is anything wrong with what is out there now, but together we can make them better. There is more to a good spring roll than little bits of pork and overcooked cabbage. Do not shy away; across the garden awaits the promised land.
Few simple pleasures are greater than immersing some unsuspecting amalgam of ingredients into a vessel of sizzling fat. Just crisped and blistering hot, nothing tops little pillows of corn fritters, battered bracelets of Spanish onions or an oozing mound of scantily clad wedges of white Jack cheese, dressed only in a dusting of freshly milled bread crumbs. There are few cooking components that do not fair well amidst the sea of bubbly shortening. At least, those items that are on the lesser side of pricey should be subject to such a violent cooking method. Dangling a handful of crusted mushroom caps over the almost smoking caldron of oil is a fearful fate, indeed.
We often surrender fried food as kids' food or junk food. There may be a half-truth in there. Junk, as defined by unhealthy, may be almost accurate. But do not relegate fried food to a lesser class of gastronomy. Ranhoffer, Careme and Larousse all wrote of food cooked in fat. If cooked with any amount of finesse or know-how, a puddle of grease should not be the evidence left by a deep fried course. Deep rooted and spiritual gratification should be amidst the afterglow of having consumed some well-prepared fried delicacies.
As life began in the garden, so shall we begin our look at one of the garden's greatest contributors to the fryer. Spring rolls, aptly named for the vegetable-only content of their neatly rolled 'skins' are a pleasant addition to the table contrasting some heavy, meaty dish. Or they may stand on their own as a meal or evolving into the egg roll, laden with meat, seafood or pork and tucked with eggs, cabbage and other garnì. Spring rolls epitomize the garden meeting the fryer. More specifically, the complexity of flavors in a spring roll age the palate for fried foods; there is an air of distinction to a freshly created roll that dismisses the notion that fried food equates to ineloquent and void of visceral stimulation. A well-crafted spring roll likens to good eating.
The components of vegetable composed pockets vary by their respective creator. I am going to throw some ingredients at you that may or may not be familiar. If the latter rather than former, fear not as the ingredients I propose for your examination are readily available, although often overlooked. Scrounge the produce section of the (gasp) supermarket or, better yet, an open-air market for some bok choy, napa cabbage, scallions, daikon, ginger root, mustard greens and crispy carrots. In that same section, pick up some egg roll wrappers, also known as skins. They are generally packaged in twenties and should be pallid to almond in color; skip the gray as they are too mature and will most likely crumble when handled. Susanna Foo offers a recipe for homemade spring/egg roll skins in her requisite read. I think we may not be so adventurous on our outing together.
This crispy, pocketed mainstay of every chopstick bearing gastronome is due respect rather than ridicule or as an "oh yeah gimme and an egg roll with my chop suey". We build a typical spring roll with:
Scant amount, Toasted sesame oil
1 small head, napa cabbage (get a specimen without rust spots and 'wrapped' tight), shredded with a coarse chop by the knife avoiding the box grater
2 carrots, peeled and julienned- cut into 1/8" by 1/8" strips
4 scallions, cut on the bias from the tip top to just above the goatee-looking root bottom
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger; dry will not work - it will develop an unwanted spiciness as it cooks
1 or 2 teaspoons chopped fresh garlic
¼ cup, Soy sauce
Aji Mirin (optional)
Rice Vinegar (optional)
Ground black pepper
Heat about ½ cup of peanut oil with the sesame oil in a large skillet until it appears to 'quiver' with heat. Add the napa cabbage and carrots. Toss about for 2 minutes, until wilted but not mush. Add the scallions, ginger and garlic. Stir for a minute or so, until the aroma of the garlic and ginger just begin to permeate. Stir in the soy sauce and remove from the heat. If you wish, sprinkle with a tablespoon of the Aji Mirin and/or Rice Vinegar. Sprinkle with a pinch of black pepper. Set aside and allow to cool. If soupy, set in a colander to drain some of the liquid.
To assemble the rolls:
1 package, large spring/egg roll wrappers (in the produce section, generally)
2 Tablespoons of cornstarch and 3 Tablespoons of water mixed in a shallow bowl
Pastry brush, if you have one. If not, 3 fingers will do.
A pinch of the filling in the lower third of the wrapper, with one of the corners pointed towards you.
A pinch of the filling in the lower third of the wrapper, with one of the corners pointed towards you. Brush a bit of the cornstarch-water mixture (slurry) on the four edges of the wrapper in a strip about ¼" wide, like glue. If you do not have a pastry brush, 3 fingers work well. Try one or 2 wraps at a time, as the wrappers will dry out if allowed to sit for too long. Now roll it like a burrito.
Once wrapped, be sure to place them on a sheet tray with the little triangle face up (so it doesn't unwrap when removed to be cooked). Place in the freezer to and allow to set about 2 hours.
When ready to serve, being sure to cook them only when ready to serve, heat a high-wall saucepan or small saucepot with enough oil to submerge the rolls. Heat to 350 and place 2 or 3 rolls in the oil, careful not to overload the oil as the temperature will drop and cause greasy spring rolls. While cooking times may vary, they should cook for about 4 minutes, until deeply tanned, but not burnt. Remove to a paper-towel lined plate and serve immediately. A dipping sauce of soy sauce with a splash of chopped garlic is tasty or you can get elaborate and go with a hoisin sauce, duck sauce or teryaki.
Now that we attempted a basic roll, try it again and again until it actually works. It takes some time and technique, but you will be rewarded in perpetuity for your hard work. Move towards some other adventurous components of the spring roll, incorporating items from the Spring garden as well as from the sea. Alas, practice the basic roll for it is always better to first go deep rather than go long.