As I am writing this, cold rain is beating on my roof. It’s the kind of gray winter day that makes me feel chilly even though I am wearing two sweaters, socks, a scarf and fuzzy slippers and am wrapped in a blanket. (In deference to the planet, which is heating up alarmingly everywhere except in my house, I’m trying to keep my thermostat set low this season and bundle up instead.)
In an effort to trick my brain into thinking I’m warm, I spent the morning scrolling through photos of my trip to Vietnam, where the daily temperatures varied between hot and really, really hot. The images are bringing back fun memories, though unfortunately, I am finding it far easier to relive the beautiful scenery, noisy cities, sweet iced coffee and delicious meals than the tropical heat in which we enjoyed them.
Looking at the pics has mostly just made me hungry, not warm. For some reason, a disproportionate number of my photos feature large, tempting plates of food.
As you know, I don’t believe in dieting. But I’m sorry to report that the severe scolding I gave my excess pounds has not yet resulted in them departing on their own. (They really don’t take a hint. I can’t believe they insist on sticking around where they are so clearly not wanted.) I have been forced to play hardball, making it even more inhospitable by starving them out. It’s not a diet, because, of course, I don’t diet, but I have been eating very lightly and cutting out carbs, just to send a message.
Staring at pictures of past meals isn’t very conducive to that, so today I have been trying to concentrate on my landscape shots. Fortunately, in the brief intervals between meals on the trip, I did manage to capture a few striking scenes of mountains and beaches, as well as the rocky islets and still waters of breathtakingly beautiful Halong Bay. Vietnam is very photogenic, as well as a wonderful, friendly place to visit.
But surprisingly, what is missing from my photos — because we didn’t see it — is the classic image of Vietnam: a shot of terraced rice paddies. Oops. I guess I’ll have to make a return trip.
We did see lots of rice paddies, because there are a lot of them to see, but our itinerary largely took us past ones that were on flat ground, not carved into the hills. I don’t have many pictures of them because they weren’t very picturesque, just flat, fallow fields. Our timing was bad, as we were there shortly after the harvest.
But no worries, we made up for it by seeing rice itself in massive quantities. It was everywhere, especially on those heaping plates whose pictures I’m trying not to look at.
It wasn’t always immediately recognizable as rice, however. One surprise for me in both Vietnam and Cambodia was that plain rice showed up very seldom at meals, and when it did, it was usually just a small bowlful to go with a particular dish. Even so, rice was the basis of nearly every meal in some guise. It’s just that the Vietnamese are magicians at turning it into other things.
We ate rice congee at breakfast, rice noodles in dozens of dishes, rice paper wrappers on spring rolls, rice noodle wrappers on dumplings, savory rice crepes and crunchy puffed rice crackers, and weird mochi balls in flavored liquid in a genre-bending dessert/drink that defies description. Even the beer we drank was made from rice. And those deservedly famous Vietnamese sandwiches, bahn mi? The secret to them is the bread — and the bread’s secret, that makes it so incredibly light and its crust so crispy, is rice flour mixed into the dough.
Oh man. I should have stuck with describing the scenery and not written that last paragraph. Now I’m not only cold, but also starving. And those rice carbs are calling my name.
I suspect that rice noodles and the like are the main reason for the stubborn extra pounds that have been hanging around since I got home from the trip, so I really should put off indulging until the weight has departed.
Then again, why worry? I’m sure the pounds will be gone by next week at the latest. I was really quite firm with them.
And in the meantime, I’ve got myself covered. Literally.
No one could possibly tell what I look like underneath all these heavy sweaters.
Vietnamese Spring Rolls
As I promised last time, I have been working on spring rolls. I made these for a party last week and thought they turned out very well. They really are easy, so I urge you to try your hand.
When I was making them, I realize that they are basically rice wrapped around rice — a rice paper wrapper around a filling that is mostly rice noodles. Those are two of the blandest foods I can think of, but fortunately the other ingredients and the dipping sauce give the rolls great texture and flavor.
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12 dried rice paper wrappers (9-inch diameter)
1 head leaf lettuce
1 bunch fresh mint
1 bunch fresh cilantro
8 ounces (approximately) dried rice vermicelli
1/2 pound boneless pork shoulder (optional) or substitute ham or cooked chicken
1-2 carrots, cut into very fine matchsticks
4-5 scallions, cut into 3-inch lengths then thinly sliced
1/2 pound medium raw shrimp (about 18 or so)
Cook the pork by simmering it in water for about half an hour or until tender. When it is done, let it cool, then cut it into matchsticks.
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add the shrimp and cook until they turn pink, about 2 minutes. Fish them out with a slotted spoon and let them cool. Add the dried noodles to the boiling water and turn off the heat. Let sit for 5 minutes. Drain in a strainer or colander, rinsing them with cold water, followed by very hot water, followed by cold water again.
When the shrimp are cool, cut them in half the long way.
Cut the ribs off 6 lettuce leaves and discard them. Strip a couple dozen mint leaves off of their stems and an equal amount of cilantro. Prepare the carrots and scallions. Arrange everything within reach.
To assemble, fill a wide, shallow pan (a frying pan would work) with fairly hot water. Take a rice paper wrapper and submerge it in the water. It will soften in 5-10 seconds. Don’t worry if it isn’t completely soft — it will continue to soften after you remove it from the water.
Place the wrapper on your work surface. Tear a piece of lettuce to mostly cover the bottom third of the circle. On top of that, arrange a couple pieces of pork and some carrot matchsticks. Add a small handful of noodles, about 1/4 cup, enough to cover the lettuce. Top with 2 or 3 large mint leaves, a couple sprigs of cilantro and some scallion shreds.
Using your fingers, roll the wrapper away from you, forming as tight a roll as possible, folding in the sides tightly and stopping after you achieve a cylinder. Then place 3-4 pieces of shrimp in a row (the number needed depends on the size shrimp you use), pink side down (that is, facing the wrapper), and continue rolling to the end. Set aside on a plate.
Repeat the process until you have 12 or you have used up all your ingredients. When you put them onto the plate to rest, make sure they don’t touch one another, or they may stick.
To serve, cut each roll in half diagonally. Serve with the dipping sauce I gave you last time or with sweet chili sauce (generally available in supermarkets).
Betty Teller is knitting a new sweater but would prefer tropical heat. Tell her where to go at email@example.com.