Do-it-yourself Vietnamese prawn summer rolls
Now this is the kind of thirty-minute meal even foodies-like-us will love. Fresh ingredients, nothing pre-cut or pre-cooked, but still you can put it together in less than 30 minutes, ok, 45 with not-so-fast knife skills. The ingredients are not all that exotic either: if you can find fish sauce and lemongrass at your local market you're all set.
As we're getting deeper into the summer season, I'm always craving something light and refreshing. This Vietnamese wrap dinner I put together the other day fits the bill perfectly. And no, Adam, you don't need an outdoor grill to make this dish. I grilled my prawn "kebobs" right there on a ridge pan on my kitchen range. It works just as well for this. It's also a pretty low-stress dish, you don't even need to bother rolling each one before serving. Just put everything on a big platter and set out some dry rice paper with a bowl of warm or tepid water. Your guests can roll their own as they eat. It's more fun that way anyway.
I didn't even start out with a recipe, so I'm not even sure if I should write this as one. It's really so much simpler than that. I guess I'll just talk you through it, it really is that simple.
So, the basic ingredients are some prawns, use a good size one because if the tiny ones are just too annoying to peel. The prawn marinade consists of lemongrass, garlic, cilantro roots, a bit of oyster sauce (if you had it, a sprinkle of brown sugar if not), and fish sauce. You'll need one or two medium carrots, and some daikon radish (if you can find it), and you'll also need a bit of rice vinegar (white wine vinegar will do in a pinch) and sugar to "pickle" them. Any nice and crunchy veggies you'd like to add to your roll, I usually add some cucumber slices, and definitely a bunch of nice lettuce. You'll also need some basil--Thai basil will be nice but regular basil will be just fine too--and some mint, perhaps also cilantro. You'll need vietnamese rice paper of course, it won't be a vietnamese wrap dinner with them, so hopefully you could find them at your local Chinese store. Get some rice vermicelli too while you're at all, I like to bulk up my rolls with them, but then again not everyone is a carb-lover like me so perhaps it's not so essential. For the sauce I use peanut butter mixed with Thai roasted chili paste--completely inauthentic of course but I love it and I think it adds a nice zing to the sauce. Some sambal to be added at table so each person can make it as hot as they want. Don't forget a bottle or two of good rieslings to wash everything down properly.
I'd start with the quick "pickled" carrots and daikon. Take about two medium carrots and perhaps a daikon radish too if you can find it. Use a box grater to cut them into thin ribbons, about and inch or two long. Put a cup or so of rice vinegar in a small pot, add to it about half a cup of sugar and heat up just until the sugar is melted. Pour the mixture over the carrot and daikon ribbons and just let them macerate while you attend to other things in the recipe. By the time everything is done your "pickles" will be ready.
Then you move on to the prawns. Depends on how much your friends or family like prawns, but about two pounds should feed about for people for dinner, I'd say. Make a marinade with some lemongrass--use only the bottom two inches on a stalk, peel out one or two outer, tough layers, and chop finely. You'll need about 3-4 tablespoons of chopped lemongrass. Pound that with four cloves of garlic, a few turns of pepper, about 1-2 tablespoons of chopped cilantro roots or stems. If you add a handful of rough salt in the mortar, you'll have an easier time working everything into a fine paste. (You can easily do this in a small food processor if you're not up for elbow grease.) Once everything comes together into a paste, transfer it into a large bowl, add about 1-2 tablespoon of oyster sauce, about 3-4 spoonfuls of fish sauce. Taste it and see if you like the taste, add more fish sauce or oyster sauce if you think it needs it. I'll also add about 2-3 tablespoons of cooking oil just to make sure everything sticks to the prawns nicely. Mix everything well and then throw in all the prawns, shells and heads and all, and toss them around to coat well with the paste. I sometimes clean the prawns by cutting the shell through the back of the prawns (using a kitchen shear) and pull out the black vein inside before tossing into the marinade, but when I'm lazy I just don't. It's not as pretty but it won't kill you either. Let the prawns marinate while you put other stuff together.
If you're really short on time, you can skip this marinating business altogether. Just make sure you sprinkle them with some salt and pepper when you grill them. They'll be perfectly fine.
My sauce is super simple, I just mix some peanut butter with a bit of my homemade roasted chili paste--your store-bought one will be just fine. The roasted chili paste is a little garlicky, a little sour, a little salty, and a little spicy--just perfect for adding a bit of complexity to the peanut sauce. Depends on how sticky your brand of peanut sauce is you might want to thin it out a little with some water. I also put a bowl of sambal out so that each person at the dinner table can add just as much or as little to their own bowl as they like.
Set a big platter out and put the lettuce, cucumber, basil, mints, cilantro, and pretty much any other veggies you'd like in your wrap on it. Make sure you cut them into easily-wrapable size, by the way. If you'd like a bit more carb, cook a little bit of rice vermicelli and put them out on the platter as well.
You're almost there. Now you just need to grill up the prawns. I don't bother with a real outdoor barbeque for this. I just use a ridge cast iron pan right there on my stove top. You can throw the prawns loose in the pan, but the easier way to do it is to put five or six prawns on two sticks into prawn kebobs. Flipping these kebobs on the grill is much easier than trying to flip each prawn one at a time. The prawns should only take a couple of minutes on each side. When they are done, set them out on a platter on the middle of the table. The last thing that you need to do is to drain the "pickles". Pour out the vinegar from the carrot and diakon ribbons and put them on the same platter as the veggies.
Set out a couple of big bowls filled with warm water on the table next to the dried rice paper and you're ready to serve. Give each of your dinner guest their own little bowl of peanut sauce so they could add as much or as little sambal as they want. Each person can take a dried rice paper, soften it for a minute in the warm water, then make their own wrap with the grilled prawns, veggies, and herbs. Roll it into a big wrap and dip it into their tailored peanut sauce. Wash the whole thing down with a bottle or two of good Riesling, for the table, not for each diner.