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Rollin' into summer

Fresh summer rolls are a great way to sneak vegetables onto the picnic menu, and children will devour them

By Sara Moulton

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 1:46 a.m. HST, Jun 19, 2013

When it comes to packing a picnic basket, sandwiches are almost always the stars of the menu. And why not? They are easy to eat with your hands, pack well and are versatile enough to keep everyone happy.

And for the rest of the meal, we tend to lean toward yet more finger food — chips, cookies, hopefully some fruit. In other words, gobs of carbs. But vegetables? Not so much.

Sure, carrot sticks, celery sticks, strips of bell pepper and stalks of broccoli and cauliflower are every bit as handy as a sandwich. But let's face it, many of us feel that eating raw, unadorned veggies is like taking medicine. You do it because you're supposed to, not necessarily because you want to.

So here's a tasty — and handy — way to smuggle vegetables onto the picnic menu: fresh summer rolls. This Chinese dish involves filling a rice paper wrapper with a combination of raw vegetables, herbs, cooked noodles, protein and, sometimes, fruit. And frankly, despite the name (they sometimes are called fresh spring rolls, too), I consider them to be delicious in any season.

And they're so easy to prepare. You don't even have to cook them. All you do is soak the wrapper in warm water to make it pliable. Then fill it with just about anything you like. My recipe focuses on vegetables because I wanted to help fill the veggie gap at the picnic table. But whatever the filling, please don't lose this recipe's fresh mint (or basil if you prefer). The fresh herb is key.

Conveniently, summer rolls can be made ahead of time, covered with damp paper towels and plastic wrap and stored for up to four hours in the refrigerator. The damp towels keep the rolls from drying out and sticking to each other. And given their compactness, summer rolls also travel well. You can layer them side by side in those plastic snap-tight containers, covered with the damp towels and plastic wrap.

By the way, it was the sauce in this recipe that first sold me on summer rolls. Years ago, Chinese cookbook author Rosa Ross was a guest chef in my Gourmet magazine dining room. Rosa happens to make the most delicious peanut dipping sauce on the planet. That day at Gourmet I killed a bunch of those rolls just so I could return for yet another mouthful of her sauce.

Years later, at work on my second cookbook, I started concocting a peanut sauce of my own. I did a ton of research, trying to sort all the possible ingredients. But to keep myself from filching her ideas, I deliberately didn't check Rosa's recipe. When my rolls didn't turn out to be as wonderful as hers, I was forced to look at her formula. It featured most of the usual suspects: peanut butter, of course, and hoisin, sesame oil and soy sauce.

But it also contained one ingredient that I saw in no other recipe: scallions. Who knew that two lonely little scallions could make all the difference? I called up Rosa and asked if she'd allow me to use her recipe, slightly adapted, in my cookbook. She graciously said yes. Now I'm sharing that sauce with you. Next picnic, don't be surprised if your kids start ignoring the chips and dogging the veggies.

Just blame it on the peanut sauce.


» Dipping sauce:
3/4 cup smooth unsalted natural peanut butter
1/2 cup hoisin sauce
2 to 3 tablespoons lime or lemon juice, or to taste
2 scallions, white and green parts, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
2 teaspoons sesame oil
Hot sauce, to taste
2 tablespoons water

» Rolls:
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Kosher salt
1 cup coarsely shredded carrots
1 cup shredded Napa cabbage
16 (8-inch) rice paper wrappers
1 cup jicama, cut into julienne strips (about 1/2 medium jicama)
1 cup thinly sliced red bell pepper strips
1 cup blanched and thinly sliced snow peas
32 large fresh mint leaves

To make dipping sauce: In food processor or blender combine peanut butter, hoisin, 2 tablespoons lime juice, scallions, soy sauce, sesame oil, hot sauce and water. Purée until smooth.

Taste and add more lime juice or hot sauce if desired, and additional water if necessary to bring sauce to dipping consistency. Transfer to bowl and set aside.

To prepare rolls, in small bowl, combine rice vinegar, sugar and hefty pinch of salt. Whisk until salt and sugar dissolve. Add carrots and cabbage and toss well. Set aside.

Fill large bowl with hot water. Add 1 rice paper wrapper and let soak 10 to 15 seconds, or until just barely soft and pliable. Lay wrapper flat on counter. In center of wrapper, place small, oblong mound of carrot-cabbage mixture and add a bit each of jicama, bell pepper and snow peas. Top with 2 mint leaves.

To fold, start by folding right and left sides of wrapper over filling. Next, fold end closest to you up over fillings and sides. Holding the roll firmly, roll away from you until remaining wrapper is completely rolled up. Transfer roll, seam side down, to a plate and cover with damp paper towel. Repeat with the remaining wrappers and fillings.

The vegetable rolls can be made up to 4 hours ahead, covered with a damp paper towel and plastic wrap and chilled. Serve with the dipping sauce. Makes 16 rolls.

Approximate nutritional information, per roll: 140 calories, 7 g fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, no cholesterol, 16 g carbohydrate, 2 g fiber, 5 g sugar, 5 g protein, 250 mg sodium

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