1 part chaos, 2 parts calm
By Mary Ann Ebner
Puffy golden egg rolls are a familiar sight atop plates at all-you-can-manage buffets or with takeout servings of beef and broccoli, but when you rely only on those sources, you’re missing out on a joyous do-it-yourself meal.
Takeout offers convenience on busy days, but cooking Chinese food at home can bring on even more flavor. As the Chinese New Year approaches, falling on Jan. 28 this year, make room for a meal of Chinese cuisine or at the very least a Chinese-American recipe without ready-to-eat containers.
For the last few years, it’s been my good fortune to attend festive gatherings to welcome the holiday. The menu typically includes two to three versions of stir-fry, steamed and fried rice, dumplings, tofu with sesame, wontons and those crunchy yet tender treats known to some as spring rolls and to others as egg rolls.
Though contemporary fans of Chinese food may use the terms interchangeably, my Chinese cooking inspiration refers to her family’s carefully wrapped creations as spring rolls. No Chinese New Year feast would be complete without them as a favorite side that can easily stand in as the main attraction.
Unraised sheets of dough wrap around a filling of chopped vegetables like cabbage, carrots, onions, celery and mushrooms while some variations include mung bean threads and pork or shrimp.
Tradition holds that spring rolls shared among family and friends trace their origin to the Chinese New Year to signify the renewal of springtime based on the lunar calendar. The term egg roll may be accurate for thicker wrappers made with egg, popularized by restaurants beyond the Chinese mainland during the last century. Other Asian cuisines claim their own varieties, and whether you call them egg rolls or spring rolls or shape them more squarely than roundly, those who pause to argue about names or misnomers could turn to find the platter empty.
Fresh spring-roll skins prepared with flour, salt and water may taste best, but you’ll find me assembling spring rolls with wheat-based ready-made wrappers sold in packages of 20 to 25 pieces for around $2. Local markets, including Foodtown and Key Food, stock super-thin wrappers that fry up lightly and crisply.
When using even the best ingredients, this easy endeavor can flop without proper technique. For her fried spring rolls, my guide in all things Chinese raises the heat and stirs swiftly when cooking the filling. She generously fills the wrappers and recommends rolling them tightly not only to keep the filling in, but to keep the frying oil out. Though she teaches the study of Chinese language professionally, spending far more time in a classroom than a kitchen, she’s very much at home sharing the joy of spring roll preparation and appreciation.
Find a little happiness in the new moon with this simple recipe. Serve with citrus sauce or plum preserves.
Share the joy of the Chinese New Year with make-your-own spring rolls. Photos by M.A. Ebner
Yield: about 20 spring rolls
1 pound ground pork
8 to 10 stalks scallions, chopped
1 medium-sized cabbage, shredded into small strips
1 cup shredded carrots
2 cups mung bean vermicelli (rinsed, uncooked and cut with kitchen scissors into small pieces)
salt and fresh ground black pepper
1 package 25-count spring roll wrappers (skins, shells)
canola or vegetable oil
1 to 2 beaten eggs for sealing wrappers
- Brown pork with scallions over medium heat. Add cabbage strips, stir and cook on high heat to warm through completely. Lower heat to medium, stir in carrots and cook additional 2 minutes. Add mung bean vermicelli and cook 1 to 2 minutes. Season with 1 half teaspoon salt and a few twists of pepper. Drain any excess liquid to minimize moisture. Cool cabbage mixture completely to prevent wrappers from breaking while filling.
- To fill and shape rolls, lay a small stack of skins on a work surface with one corner of the skin pointing to you. Spoon a thick row of filling across the base of top skin, below its center. Fold bottom corner up and over filling, hold firmly and fold over left and right corners to opposite sides in envelope style. Complete rolling and brush the final corner with egg. Fold corner over to seal.
- To fry, use a 12- to 14-inch pan that allows oil to cover bottom to a quarter inch. Bring oil to high temperature before adding spring rolls individually. Just as pan is full, turn the first one, and then one-by-one turn the others in the order they went into the oil. Once rolls have all been turned, remove them in the same order and place on a paper towel-lined plate to absorb excess oil, allowing space between each roll to preserve crispness. Serve whole or cut diagonally.