A few years ago, Sarah and I discovered the Steelhead Diner in downtown Seattle. This place is great. Good food, served without pretension. I’m a big fan of this type of restaurant (it’s a lot better than the alternative: crappy food served with a lot of pretension — which, unfortunately, you see a lot) and I always walk out of there feeling like I got a good deal. It’s not super cheap, but for a nice meal before or after the symphony, you can’t beat it.
Anyway, one of my favorite things to get here are the crispy chicken spring rolls. This is basically a riff on gỏi cuốn, also known as Vietnamese spring/summer rolls – but with fried chicken tenders instead of shrimp. It’s a weird idea, but it works incredibly well. About two years ago, I decided to figure out how to make them myself.
Other than the chicken fingers, these are pretty traditional. Each roll contains rice noodles, chicken, and thinly sliced carrots and green papaya, which can be found at any Asian market (you can substitute cucumber if you can’t find the real thing anywhere). You can fry your own chicken, but since it doesn’t have to be warm, I cheat and just buy chicken fingers from the deli at Safeway. This isn’t the healthiest or cheapest option, but each roll only has about 1/4 of a finger in it, so it’s not too bad. Of course, you could substitute strips of grilled chicken breast if you wanted to be more virtuous.
First, the rice noodles. You want thin rice “vermicelli”, which you can find at any supermarket. Don’t get the wider ones (that look like linguine and are used for Pad Thai). These are really easy to work with (and good in stir fries, like this one from Dad Cooks Dinner). To rehydrate them, soak in hot tap water for about 10 minutes, or until soft (today, it took a bit longer and I had to add some boiling water to get them soft enough – but mine may have been a little old).
The vegetables should be in long, thin strips. To do this, you can either use a mandoline, which costs about $35 (and is an excellent kitchen investment), or you can use something like this julienne peeler. If you don’t have either of those gadgets, you can grate the carrot and papaya on the large holes of a box grater, but I think that mushes them up too much, so I try to avoid it.
Once you have your vegetables prepared, toss them in some soy sauce and rice vinegar and lay them out in bowls. I like to try to keep the shreds of carrot and green papaya parallel, but it doesn’t really matter too much.
Finally, wrapping. These are wrapped in rice paper wrappers, which are rehydrated with a 5-6 second dip in hot water. Working with rice paper wrappers takes some practice, but you will get the hang of it. Here is a helpful video, courtesy of the excellent Chow.com:
You can serve these on their own, with peanut sauce, or with some bottled sweet chili sauce (I like Mae Ploy). Or you can make a ginger vinaigrette, as they do at Steelhead. This vinaigrette is also excellent on salads or as a dipping sauce for other vegetables and meats.
I like to serve these either as an appetizer on their own, or with a simple stir fried vegetable and some rice as a main course.
Crispy Chicken Spring Rolls with Whirred Ginger Vinaigrette
makes about 12 spring rolls, enough for 4 main servings or 6-12 appetizer/side servings
- about 8 ounces rice vermicelli noodles (you probably won’t need them all but I never like to run out mid-wrapping)
- 1 small green papaya, peeled and trimmed
- 4 carrots, peeled and trimmed
- 1 bunch scallions (optional)
- about 12 sprigs cilantro and/or Thai basil (optional)
- 3 or 4 largish fried chicken fingers (about 12 ounces), cut into 12 thin strips (or substitute an equal amount of grilled chicken breast meat or cooked, peeled shrimp)
- soy sauce
- rice wine vinegar
- black or white sesame seeds, optional
- 14 or 15 rice paper wrappers (usually called “Vietnamese Spring Roll Wrapper” or “Vietnamese Salad Wrapper” – here’s a picture) (you’ll only need 12 but you’ll probably loose a few, so have extras)
Soak the rice noodles in hot tap water for 10-15 minutes, or until tender (you may need to leave them for longer and/or change the water halfway through). Drain in a colander or strainer and set aside.
Using a julienne peeler, mandoline, or grater, shred the green papaya and carrot into tiny shreds about 4-5 inches long. Thinly slice the scallions lengthwise and cut crosswise so they are the same size. Keeping them in separate bowls, toss each vegetable with about a tablespoon of soy sauce and a tablespoon of rice vinegar. Set aside.
Get your wrapping station ready: put down a clean dishtowel or cutting board and lay out the vegetables, herbs (if using), chicken, rehydrated noodles, and sesame seeds. Fill a large bowl full of very hot water.
Working with one at a time, dip a rice paper wrapper fully in the water until soft (about 5-10 seconds) and lay flat. Fill in the following order: a few sesame seeds, then a few noodles, then a few vegetables, then 1 sprig of cilantro and/or basil, and then 1 piece of chicken. Roll tightly, folding in the sides as you go (see the video for more help here). Make sure you don’t fill them too full, or they will explode. Set aside on a clean dishtowel (they tend to stick to plates).
Serve with your favorite dipping sauce or with the Whirred Ginger Vinaigrette (recipe below).
Whirred Ginger Vinaigrette
Combine the following ingredients in a blender or in a bowl with an immersion blender:
- 1 large chunk (about 2″) of ginger, peeled and cut into chunks
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil