Vietnamese Shrimp and Pork Belly Spring Rolls

Pen and Palate Vietnamese Shrimp and Pork Spring Rolls

illustration: tram nguyen

Last year, I signed up for a little plot in my local organic community garden with the intention of winning.  Yes, I know, it’s “not a competition.”  Never mind the fact that (a) I knew absolutely nothing about gardening and (b) I had never been able to keep a plant alive for any reasonable length of time. In fact, on two separate occasions I have murdered plants on my way home from the garden store. Mankind has been doing this since the beginning of time practically, how hard could it be? I put my dismal track record aside, imagining myself strolling home with a basket of fresh local, organic produce on my arm, maybe sporting a chic pair of Isabel Marant denim overalls, looking like a Brooklyn homesteader straight off the pages of Kinfolk.

I soon discovered that if I had to live off the land, I would be dead by autumn, or at the very least, severely malnourished. Gardening is actually hard work! I learned that the first day, sweat dripping off of me, wearing inappropriate footwear, shovelling dirt, I mean, soil, into wheelbarrows to dump into my little 4’x8′ plot for hours on end. It’s messy, and gross bugs that you can’t murder with chemicals because you’ve signed an agreement to not use pesticides, even though you’re pretty sure the couple next to you with the Schwartzenegger-sized monster tomatoes is using Miracle Gro, but of course you would never report them to the proper authorities because you’re not a snitch. It’s also not particularly cost effective? For the amount of time, energy, and money I put into the garden, I might as well have been tearing up bits of twenty dollar bills and sprinkling them in my coffee every morning. The result would have been the same. By the end of the season, I had harvested one sad little squash and the little green things that I had been dutifully watering turned out to be weeds. My mason jars would remain empty, unfulfilled.

If you haven’t figured it out already, I did not win last year. Apparently, I have no long-term memory, because despite the fact that it was a time suck, and that I had not really enjoyed the process, I re-upped again this year. I wish I could quit, but I would miss smugly bringing up my community garden in casual conversation too much to abandon it entirely. But mostly, I’m back for my favorite part of the community garden: The whiteboard where my fellow gardeners leave passive aggressive messages for each other. So much drama! Backstabbing! Intrigue! Who stole the cherry tomatoes in plot #228? My money is on the rats.

I am coming in with significantly lowered expectations, a little chastened and not much wiser. For instance, this year, I can tell the difference between a weed and a tomato plant. I planted chives last year, and those bastards decided to take the scenic route, not showing up for a full 12-months after they were due to arrive. But they’re here now, in great abundance, along side some mint and Thai basil, and a pretty respectable Bibb lettuce crop. If you are not a member of an organic community garden, you can purchase your herbs and lettuce at a grocery store like a smart person. These Vietnamese spring rolls are great for a low-key summer dinner party. It’s a bit of prep work, but once that is done, your guests can assemble their own rolls, leaving you free to sip on your Goop drink and wait for the perfect opening in the conversation to inform your friends that the meal they are currently enjoying, was grown by yours truly.

Vietnamese Shrimp and Pork Belly Spring Rolls

Makes about 3-4 servings

Hoisin sauce
Peanut butter
Thai basil
Small head of lettuce
Handful of bean sprouts
1/4 lb large shrimp (31-35 count)- steamed, peeled and deveined, sliced in half lengthwise. Don’t be a chump and buy pre-cooked shrimp!  Or you can, but you know, it takes less than two minutes to steam fresh shrimp and the taste and texture is so much better.
1/4 lb strip of pork belly- poached, sliced approximately 3/8″ thick (Don’t toss that broth!  Freeze it for later.)
10 oz extra firm tofu- sliced into 3/8″ thick slices
Tapioca sheets, sometimes called Rice Paper Sheets(can be purchased at Vietnamese grocery stores and sometimes bourgie western grocery stores)
8 oz. rice vermicelli, cooked al dente.
A handful of peanuts – dry roasted, crushed
Sambal oelek or Sriracha

For the peanut sauce:

Mix roughly equal parts of the peanut butter and hoisin sauce in a small sauce pan.  Heat on low, stirring frequently.  Thin the sauce with either water or some kind of milk until your sauce is uniform in color and has the consistency of yogurt (regular, not Greek).  I use half and half, but an almond or soy milk would work equally well.  Turn off the heat.  The sauce should thicken as it cools.

For the rolls:

Immerse a sheet of rice paper in warm water completely, for two seconds max. Place this on your plate, it should soften up as you assemble the roll. Stack in this order: a lettuce leaf, rice vermicelli (a smallish amount, about the size of a roll of quarters) a few herbs of your choice, your hard earned chives, and bean sprouts.  Then place a few slices of the protein of your choice. The combination of shrimp and pork belly is classic, the rich butteriness if the pork belly is balanced by the sweetness of the shrimp. Roll this up tightly, burrito style.

Serve with peanut sauce, garnished with crushed peanuts and hot sauce.  Smugly announce to your guests that the meal they are eating came from your organic garden.

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