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I don't know why I don't serve spring rolls more often at home. They're inexpensive, typically easy to prepare, and have that same DIY-at-the-table appeal that the taco nights of my youth did, but with flavors that are a little more sophisticated than premixed taco seasoning and jarred salsa.* The real key to great spring rolls is to balance the textures and flavors of the ingredients inside the soft, stretchy rice paper wrapper. For this version, I'm using tender pea shoots, along with carrots cut into a fine julienne, crispy marinated tofu, herbs, chilies, and toasted peanuts. You could add rehydrated rice or mung bean vermicelli if you'd like, or cucumbers, citrus fruits, spinach, bean sprouts, radish—really anything you want.
* That reminds me: I've been meaning to come up with a series of hard-shell taco night recipes for that straight-from-the-supermarket-shelf nostalgia factor, but with much better flavor.
To get the tofu extra crisp, I use my low-and-slow frying technique, which delivers a golden-brown exterior and a substantially thick, crisp crust that makes the tofu perfect for absorbing a flavorful marinade. The key is to dry out the tofu by first pouring boiling water over it (a step that, counterintuitively, ends up evaporating more moisture than it adds), then drying it carefully with paper towels and slowly frying it in oil.
The balance of crunchy, flavorful ingredients inside the rice paper wrapper is important, but I'd argue that the right dipping sauce is even more important. For this vegan recipe, I wanted to make a sauce that is as hearty as the spring roll itself, so I decided to base mine on peanuts and tamarind. It's more of a classic Thai pairing than a Vietnamese one, but it works just fine as a dipping sauce (save some to use as a satay sauce the next time you fire up the grill) and as a post-fry marinade for the tofu (as I've discovered, marinating tofu after frying is far more important than marinating it before frying).
I start by toasting peanuts in the oven. Meanwhile, I pound together garlic and sugar using a mortar and pestle. A mortar and pestle is the best tool for making chunky purées and sauces like this, as it extracts much more flavor through grinding and masticating than a food processor or a knife can.
Next, I add the peanuts, pounding them down into a purée. For flavor, I add soy sauce and intensely sour concentrated tamarind paste. (It's widely available in any Asian market, in the international aisle of most grocery stores—I found it at both Whole Foods and Safeway here in the Bay Area—or online.) I've made similar dipping sauces from scratch using lemongrass, shallots, coriander roots, and chilies, but it's much easier to just add some commercial curry paste, which has comparable ingredients conveniently packaged in one jar. If you're trying to make a world-class Thai curry, you'll want to make your curry paste from scratch, but for a quick and easy dipping sauce, this is great to have around.
When the paste is incorporated, I add vegetable oil and water until I get a pourable yet rich and creamy consistency.
Some of it goes into a bowl with the tofu, while the rest I keep for serving.
And, as far as preparation goes, that's about all you need to do. The rest is up to your dinner guests. Arrange all the fillings on a large platter or two, serving the dipping sauce, extra crushed peanuts, and herbs like cilantro, mint, and basil on the side, along with a plate of rice paper wrappers and a bowl of warm water for moistening them.
To form a spring roll, start by dipping the rice paper in the warm water, then transfer it to your plate or cutting board. Layer a small amount of each filling into the center of the wrapper. The number one error I see folks making here is overloading the wrapper. It's the same error people tend to run into when making dumplings for the first time, or perhaps when stuffing a burrito. Go easy—you can always eat more of them when you're done with the first!
To roll the spring rolls, I lift up the edge of the rice paper closest to me with the thumbs and forefingers of both hands, pulling it forward over the filling while simultaneously pushing back on the filling with the middle finger of each hand to get the roll nice and tight. Once the paper is over the filling, I fold one side inward, then continue rolling forward, keeping everything nice and tight. (If you are making these in advance and want to store them for later on, you'll need to fold both sides inward to form a completely sealed roll.)
You should end up with a tight package that's open on one side, showing off its fillings and ready to be dipped.
And, once you taste the peanut sauce, you're going to want to dip it again and again.