How to Cook Like Rachel

July 11th, 2010


Step 1: Inspiration. You are restacking rice noodles, dried mushrooms, and rice crackers, trying to find room in your kitchen cabinet for soba noodles you just bought at the Asian market. Sorting through all the strata, eventually you get all the way down to the shelf, where you unearth the flat plastic cylinder, still surprisingly full of dried rice paper wrappers. The artifact brings you back to your Platonic ideal of Vietnamese fresh rolls: served room temperature with two different dipping sauces at the Saigon Grill. I should try making those again, you think.

During grad school in NYC you used to walk just a few blocks for another order—the chewy rice paper wrapper enclosing crisp mung bean sprouts and salad vegetables, one tender shrimp, and the zing of Thai basil inside the roll playing against the dipping sauces, the spicy and fishy sweet-and-sour and the sweet peanut sauce.  You’ve had other fresh rolls since you moved four hours north to the Adirondacks, but not like Saigon Grill’s, not with those two perfectly balanced sauces. You have Thai Basil in your own refrigerator right now. You could recreate Saigon Grill fresh rolls for the party you will be attending tonight.

Step 2: Steel your resolve. It occurs to you that the delicate Thai basil you bought and imported all the way from the Asian market in NJ is rapidly wilting. It’s now or never. Yes, you remember this project took three hours last time and yielded five misshapen rolls, barely hanging onto their innards, impossible to dip in the both too-bitter and too-sweet sauce you made. Nor have you forgotten that after all that work, your guests bit into them tentatively, sampling only out kindness, and discreetly pushed them to the edges of their plates. This time, however, you are confident the rolls will be more appealing. Today you are prepared to wrestle those pesky rice paper wrappers, which are no match for your perserverence.

Step 3: Research. Go to your cookbook shelves and pull out the two likely candidates, Asian Noodles and Wok and Stirfry. Find at least two recipes. Leave the books open on the dining room floor, their authors calling out to the emptiness, and then go into your study to Google “fresh rolls recipe.” The results are posted by one-name authors of dubious credentials. One calls for pre-made peanut sauce.  Print out up to three additional recipes, anyway; they’re just for ideas.

Step 4: Fret, mull, pace. Don’t rush the anxious planning phase; this is part of your creative process. Contemplate which ingredients and which procedures you might take from each recipe. Perhaps other people view recipes as self-contained sets of instructions, and therefore follow one recipe at a time. This linear thinking doesn’t work for you. Maybe it’s your ADHD brain, which is wired in such a way that refuses to follow a set of directions as written, or perhaps it’s your creative temperament which views recipes as stories in the conditional tense: how one might prepare a dish.

Step 5: Envision. Spread out the cookbooks and printouts on kitchen counter. Imagine the completed rolls, the combination of crunchy sprouts and cucumber contrasting the soft rice noodles and wrapper, the taste of pungent basil playing against the two sauces. Get out a pen to mark your improvisations on printouts, and a pencil in case you want to write directly on your glossy, full color cookbooks. Your husband will raise his eyebrows when he sees you doing this. In the end, you will mostly pay attention to the recipe in Asian Noodles, and your own imagination.

Step 6: Prepare. Take out all your ingredients, including cucumbers, which are not in the recipe but you seem to remember from Saigon Grill. This is when you will also realize which ingredients you don’t have or are not in good shape, like the Thai basil, drooping and splotchy, past its prime and possibly should be thrown out. Don’t panic. You could use sweet Italian basil or mint, passable second choices. Maybe a mixture of the two would yield close to the right flavor notes. There are some salvageable Thai basil leaves, though. Use these first, worry about later rolls, later.

Step 7: Organize. Retrieve every small bowl, container, and cutting surface in the kitchen. Cut, chop, peel, measure, or soak each ingredient you have deemed worthy into a separate vessel. Now you are starting to feel like a chef on T.V., except for the pile of dishes mounting in the sink and shrinking counter space on which to work.

Step 8: Create the Sauces. Dipping sauces are key to the fresh roll experience. At Saigon Grill there was a sweet and sour one, which seems like it might be recreated in the cookbook recipe, with fish sauce, sugar, lemon or lime, sugar, and chili peppers. More or less follow these directions, to taste, but add rice vinegar and substitute Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce for crushed red peppers, because this is what you do every time a recipe calls for spiciness. Then there is the sweet and spicy peanut sauce. In other restaurants you’ve had fresh rolls served with a peanut sauce contaminated with the taste of Hoisin. This is exactly what all your recipes want you to do! Set to work making up your own recipe using peanut butter, soy sauce, agave nectar instead of sugar, Sriracha sauce, and water. Add, taste, add until you are happy.

Later, in order to justify your horror at the blasphemous version of the peanut dipping sauce, you will look online to try to prove that Vietnamese do not use Chinese Hoisin sauce. Instead you will find a Wikipedia entry claiming Hoisin is traditionally used in Vietamese cooking. It’s your recipe, now, though.

Step 9: Next Time, Trust Yourself. Toss the bowl of drained noodles with spicy lime marinade and cilantro as unwisely directed in the Asian Noodles cookbook, even though you know this is a mistake. The marinade is tasty, but will make the rice noodles slippery, preventing them from adhering to one another and creating the structural integrity of the roll. As a result, when cut into rounds, the insides will immediately slip out, making the finger food require fork and knife. Still, you follow the recipe because you are afraid guests around the pool will not dip in the spicy sweet and sour sauce. This way at least the rolls will be flavorful, if ungainly to eat.

Step 10: Arrange. Create an assembly line to construct the rolls. Place rice paper wrappers next to a bowl of warm water, and a cutting board covered in one paper towel, and other towels standing ready to dab the wrappers. Line up the slick noodles in sauce. The marinated tofu will follow. Then, the heaping bowl of fresh mung bean sprouts from Asian market, to use as many as possible since they are close to the end of their useful life, and when will you again be able to get this kind of sprout—larger, whiter, more delicately flavored than the ones in the regular supermarket? Put the sliced cucumbers in the queue, those beautiful knobby pickling cucumbers in the farmer’s market which are so flavorful, though not seedless like the ones traditionally used in Asian dishes. Next, the bag of lettuce also from the farmer’s market.  Don’t worry about the carrots you forgot to buy.

Step 11: Assess. Call out to your husband, “I’m almost done” to reassure him, because it is 6:00 already and you had told him that’s when you wanted to leave for the party. This is a gross underestimate, but he’s used to it by now.

Step 12:  Assemble. As you dip the first rice paper wrapper into the warm water, you remember why you vowed last time to never try this again. You have come too far to give up now, though, even when the first and second wrappers rip before receiving their insides, the third, which comes out looking like a bundle of sticks inside a transparent sleeping bag, doesn’t adhere at all, and the bean sprout pokes right through the rice paper wrapper. Quickly you also discover that the bottom of the bowl of warm water has to be at least the same diameter as the wrapper, so you swap for a different bowl. Two rejected wrappers are wadded up on the edge of your cutting board. There are plenty more wrappers left, however, and technique is coming back to you.

You remember, each wrapper has to be soaked about 25 seconds, and as you immerse each disk, you keep your fingers lightly on it to gauge it’s progress. This requires you to slow down, wait, breathe. It’s kind of Zen-like, you reflect. You gently hold the wrapper under water until it just begins to get flexible, and you can still feel the strange criss cross pattern, muse about why it was made this way, but do not wait until it suddenly goes limp like a sheet of silk. It will feel like it is too stiff to possibly work, but you must withdraw it already, trusting the process. You blot excess water with a paper towel before flopping the wrapper onto the cutting board. It continues getting softer and becomes more resilient. Now it wants to adhere to itself. You become hopeful.

You lay the ingredients inside, regretful about the slippery noodles, but gaze optimistically at the photo in the Asian Noodles cookbook. Apparently she did it with slick noodles; so can you. The ingredients go on the edge closest to you, then roll one turn towards the opposite edge, flip the ends over to seal them and roll the rest of the way. The rolls end up looking like laundry bags of various lengths and girths, with the innards like wadded up clothing jutting out at various angles. You don’t pause to reflect on the orderly insides of Saigon Grill’s fat, cylindrical fresh rolls. It is far too late to worry about that; it is nearly 7:00. Try not to think about whether or not the Thai basil came pre-washed from the Asian market, either. You are used to pre-washed organic produce from the farmer’s market. Surely they washed off any pesticides on the Thai basil before wrapping it in plastic and shipping it across continents. It seemed clean, anyway.

Step 13: Cut, Arrange, and Serve. At the party, people will enjoy this batch of fresh rolls. The peanut noodles, which took you only half an hour, were the big hit, however. You tell your husband that you already know what changes you will make to the fresh rolls next time. He is silent on the issue.

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