Today a warm, sunny Saturday called for a lighter lunch. I make variations of these Vietnamese fresh rolls on regular rotation, experimenting with fillings and dipping sauces – always balancing textures (crunchy vs. soft) and flavors (herby vs. umami). Today’s version is my favorite, filled with fresh mint, basil & lettuce, crunchy peanuts and carrots, and umami seared marinated tofu and garlicky mushrooms.
When I’m in a rush I just slice and panfry tofu for the rolls, but when I want extra flavor, I marinate the using the method from Anna Jones’ cookbook A Modern Cook’s Year, helping to layer flavor in each ingredient so I don’t need to depend on the sauce for all of the flavor. Sometimes I make a peanut-based dipping sauce, but at times that feels too rich. Lately I’ve preferred a lighter vegan approximation of a fish-sauce adapted from Cameron Stauch’s cookbook Vegetarian Vietnam, reducing the sugar for my own palate because I don’t have a sweet tooth.
RECIPE – MAKES 12 ROLLS TO SHARE
- 2 small carrots
- 1/2 cup roasted peanuts
- 1 cup mint leaves
- 1 cup Thai basil leaves
- 3-4 large romaine lettuce leaves
- dried rice noodles
- 12 rice paper sheets
FOR THE TOFU:
- 14 ounce block firm tofu
- 2 cloves garlic, grated on a microplane
- 2 teaspoons tamari or light soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons honey
- 1 teaspoon rice vinegar
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil
- For the mushrooms:
- 1 box cremini mushrooms
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1/2 cup Thai basil leaves
FOR THE DIPPING SAUCE:
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1/4 cup water
- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon light soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon lime juice
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 garlic clove, grated on a microplane
- 1 fresh red Thai bird chili, finely chopped or thinly sliced, optional
For the tofu: combine the 2 grated garlic cloves, soy sauce, honey, and rice vinegar in a pie plate. Slice the tofu into 6 planks. Arrange the tofu planks in the pie plate to marinate while you work on the mushrooms. After several minutes flip the tofu to marinate both sides.
For the mushrooms: trim and slice the mushrooms. Peel and thinly slice the 2 garlic cloves. Sear the mushrooms and garlic in a hot skillet with a little oil. Sprinkle with salt. When seared, add Thai basil and let it wilt. Remove to a bowl and reserve the skillet for the tofu.
For the dipping sauce: add all of the ingredients in a small bowl and let the sugar dissolve.
Prepare the remaining filling ingredients. Soak the dried rice noodles in a wide shallow bowl with hot water until soft. Drain. Julienne the carrots. Wash and dry the romaine, mint, and basil. Tear the herbs from the stems and tear the lettuce into manageable strips. Crush the peanuts with a mortar and pestle.
To finish the tofu, heat the skillet. Melt the coconut oil. Arrange the tofu planks in the skillet. Carefully drizzle the remaining marinade over the tofu for maximum flavor. When browned, flip the tofu pieces and sear on the second side. Transfer to a cutting board and slice lengthwise to make 12 strips.
To assemble the rolls, pour boiling water in a pie plate. Quickly dip the rice paper sheets in the boiling water. I rotate the sheets in the water at an angle, about one second per section. If you soak them too long, they will become too sticky and stretchy. Lay the soaked rice paper sheet on a work surface. Place a tofu strip an inch from the bottom. Top with about 2 tablespoons of rice noodles, a few mushroom slices, a few carrot strips, a quarter teaspoon crushed peanuts, several mint and basil leaves, and a few strips of lettuce. Fold in the sides of the rice paper, then roll them up to seal.
Arrange the rolls on a serving plate that is spritzed with coconut oil spray to keep from sticking.
You can experiment with layering the filling ingredients in different ways to highlight different colors against the rice paper. When I use larger leaves (especially purple leaves) sometimes I layer those first to show them off. Today my leaves were smaller so I highlighted the tofu.