I’ll own that I have a reputation as a high-maintenance beachgoer. All summer long, Christopher heads out to find a spot on the sand between Long Nook and Ballston with his novel and a bottle of water and not much else. I never go before August. And packing for my expeditions is a bit of a production: I don’t like to be hot or wet or sandy; I want a real lunch; and I wouldn’t say no to a glass of bone-cold Grüner Veltliner to enjoy under my umbrella. I’m not sure that’s legal — but life is short.
Over the years, I’ve developed a reliable list of good beach-lunch options, dishes that don’t require too much effort, travel well, and are best eaten cold. Spicy sesame noodles or Wiley Cottage lobster rolls, fragrant with tarragon and lemon-pickled onion, often find their way into the kitted-out picnic backpack my friend Pat gave me.
When I’m feeling really energetic, cold fried chicken and lovage-laced potato salad are a beach-lunch winner. In the heat of this climate-change summer, I definitely want cold and easy (sorry fried chicken, you don’t meet the criteria) but I also want something different from what’s in our regular rotation. And whatever I make, I want to use the herbs that are rioting in the kitchen garden right now.
Rummaging in the pantry, I find inspiration in an open package of rice paper wrappers. I can’t remember when these came into my possession, but I’m pretty sure they last indefinitely. Same with thin rice vermicelli. Anytime you discover these in your cupboard, you are halfway to summer rolls.
You can put just about anything inside a summer roll — julienned carrots or cold garlicky greens left over from yesterday’s grain bowl, and handfuls of herbs, plus a protein. For the latter, there’s tofu, or strips of well-set scrambled egg, or a few boiled shrimp, or leftover roast pork shoulder.
What you end up with is a cool, crunchy, herby, and satisfying lunch all wrapped up in neat little packages. Summer rolls are the perfect beach-lunch food or an excellent back-porch supper after an apocalyptically hot summer day.
But not naked. A good dipping sauce is crucial. I recently came across a tip from food writer Martha Rose Shulman, who puts her peanut sauce on the inside of the roll. Genius! I thought: fewer things to fiddle with on the beach. But when I try them out on few friends who are over for drinks, we all agree we miss the bright flavor of a freshly mixed sauce as well as the ritual of dipping our rolls. I head to the kitchen and whisk together a batch of my go-to soy dipping sauce and not a single roll goes uneaten.
If you’ve never made summer rolls before, you’ll quickly get the hang of it. It helps to have all the fillings ready before you start. The rice paper rounds get a quick dip in warm water to soften — don’t dip the wrappers for too long or they’ll disintegrate. When one of the wrappers tears while you’re rolling, dip a second one and roll the torn one inside it. No one will notice.
Your first couple of rolls will likely be a little misshapen; don’t worry, they’ll still be delicious.
For your trip to the beach, wrap each roll separately in plastic (I know, I know, but it keeps them from drying out and sticking together). The rolls can be made well ahead of time, as they will keep in the icebox for a day.
The beach awaits. And with a pile of rolls all packed up and two former jam jars full of my go-to sauces — a peanut-ginger mixture and a spicy soy one — I’m ready to roll.
Fresh Summer Rolls
Makes 8 substantial rolls
2 oz. rice vermicelli
¼ cup rice wine vinegar
2 tsp. soy sauce
6 cooked shrimp, peeled, or ¼ pound well-drained firm tofu
2 large carrots, peeled and julienned
2 medium turnips or a daikon radish, peeled and julienned
½ cup coarsely chopped cilantro, plus some sprigs
⅓ cup coarsely chopped mint leaves, plus some sprigs
¼ cup Thai (or other) basil leaves, plus some whole leaves
Salt to taste
8 to 10 inner romaine lettuce leaves, cut in a chiffonade (roll them up and slice through the bunch crosswise into thin ribbons)
One package of 8 half-inch rice flour spring roll wrappers
- If you didn’t buy already-boiled “cocktail” shrimp, boil the shrimp in heavily salted water for just a couple of minutes until they’re opaque, then drain and chill in ice water. Cut them in half lengthwise for the rolls.
- If using tofu, cut it in dominoes, about ¼-inch thick by ½-inch wide. Prep the daikon and carrots. Chop the herbs.
- Place the carrots and daikon or whatever vegetables you’re using in a large bowl and toss with 2 tablespoons of the rice vinegar and salt to taste.
- Cook the rice noodles, following the directions on the package. Depending on the brand, they must be soaked in hot water or briefly boiled and drained. When they are soft, rinse the noodles with cold water, drain, and transfer to a bowl. Using kitchen scissors, cut the noodles into 2-inch lengths. Toss with 2 teaspoons of the rice vinegar and the 2 teaspoons of soy sauce.
- Fill a bowl with warm water and place a spring roll wrapper in it until it is just pliable, about 15-20 seconds. Remove from the water and blot with a kitchen towel. The wrapper will continue to soften. Place the wrapper on a work surface in front of you and arrange several cilantro sprigs, whole mint leaves and basil leaves on the lower third of the wrapper (the edge nearest you). Next place a handful of the carrot mixture on the wrapper. Top with tofu or shrimp (or other protein), then a handful of lettuce and chopped herbs, and finally a handful of noodles. Fold the sides of the wrapper toward each other, then roll up the spring rolls tightly, squeezing the filling to get a tight roll. If not serving immediately, wrap each roll in plastic and refrigerate until ready. Serve with one or both of the sauces for dipping.
Peanut-Ginger Dipping Sauce
Makes about 1 cup
½ cup chunky, unsalted, unsweetened peanut butter
1 Tbsp. rice wine vinegar or lime juice
2 tsp. soy sauce
1 to 2 tsp. light brown sugar, to taste
1½ tsp. grated ginger
1 Tbsp. chili paste or chili oil
¼ cup warm water
Whisk together all ingredients and serve in a bowl alongside the summer rolls.
Spicy Soy Dipping Sauce
Makes about 2 cups
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp. grated ginger
1 tsp. Korean (or ordinary chili flakes)
1 Tbsp. rice wine vinegar
1 cup soy sauce
2 Tbsp. water
1½ tsp. toasted sesame oil
1½ tsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
6 scallions, trimmed and sliced fine
Mince the garlic with a big pinch of kosher salt, mash with the side of your knife, and mince again to make a paste. Whisk together all ingredients and serve in a bowl alongside the summer rolls.