If you grow a giant garden, each day’s harvest fills multiple boxes and baskets and then every spare corner of your refrigerator. But if you grow a more reasonably sized garden, your harvest likely comes in dibs and dabs: a couple of cucumbers and tomatoes, perhaps a pepper, a small mound of greens, a handful of herbs. Combining these garden-fresh favorites into a meal that showcases your effort often means coming up short for a standard recipe.
This is why I love fillings and stuffings; the ingredients are endlessly variable, a little goes a long way, and the result is a sparkling-fresh meal that highlights produce just off the vine. Whether you’re filling summer rolls, stuffing squash blossoms, or even building Grilled Fish Tacos, the key is to use less filling than you think you’ll need. A gentle hand while wrapping delicate rice paper or petals around that filling is also essential for success.
1 stalk lemongrass, crushed
1 tablespoon salt
2 blocks rice vermicelli
2 handfuls of fresh herbs and greens, such as mint, basil, chives, sorrel, and baby lettuce
2–3 small vegetables, such as cucumber, carrot, and red bell pepper
3 tablespoons peanuts
6 8-inch rice paper wrappers
Place the lemongrass and salt in a small saucepan; cover with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the shrimp, lower to medium heat, and poach for 2 minutes, until just pink. Drain, cut in half lengthwise, and chill until ready to use.
Put the noodles in a large bowl, pour boiling water over them until covered, and let them sit for about 4 minutes, until al dente. Rinse well under cold water and drain thoroughly.
Prepare all other roll ingredients. Herb and small leaves can remain whole, but sliver any large leaves. Peel the cucumber and carrot, and then cut these and the bell pepper into thin matchsticks. Crush the peanuts with the side of a large knife and then roughly chop as needed.
Choose a pie plate slightly larger than the wrappers and fill halfway with cold water. Add a wrapper and gently press it down until just dampened; flip it over, press again, and then remove while the hatch marks are still visible and the wrapper is still fairly stiff. Lay the wrapper flat on a cutting board or large plate.
Layer the ingredients down the middle of the wrapper: crushed peanuts; a small clump of noodles; a couple of chives; a few cucumber, carrot, and bell pepper sticks; a few lettuce leaves, and a line of other herbs. Bring the bottom edge of the wrapper tightly over the filling. Top with a line of 4–6 shrimp halves, and then roll the shrimp and filling once to secure. Fold the ends in, and then continue to roll, pulling the wrapper tightly but gently so that it doesn’t tear. Lay the roll on a plate, and repeat with the remaining ingredients and wrappers. Serve with a dipping sauce (see Tips & Tricks). Makes 6 rolls.
Tips & Tricks
- Other ingredients can be added or substituted into summer rolls; just keep the pieces small enough that they roll up comfortably into the wrappers. Vegetable options include small snap peas, watercress, jicama, avocados, grated ginger, and numerous other herbs. Shiitakes sautéed and then patted dry are also tasty.
- Tofu is a great vegetarian option: Cut it into 1/4-inch slices and splash with a bit of sesame oil and soy sauce. Fry the slices in sunflower oil until crisp, pat dry of the oil, and then cut into matchsticks.
- If you’re using shrimp, choose raw prawns and cook them yourself for the best texture and flavor. Traditional rolls sometimes also use pork belly simmered in salted water until tender and then thinly sliced. I’ve also seen recipes that use chicken, turkey, bacon, and even lobster.
- Moistening the wrapper and rolling without tearing it can take practice, but you’ll get a feel for it as you work. If in doubt, err on the side of too dry; the wrapper will keep absorbing the water as you fill it. Once filled, you can gently press the exposed portions with damp fingertips to soften the paper.
- Dipping sauces for rolls and Stuffed Squash Blossoms (see below) vary as widely as fillings. I like a simple sauce of 2 parts lime juice, 1 part fish sauce, and 1 part sugar flavored with a crushed garlic clove and pinch of dried chili. Or use lemon juice, soy sauce, and brown sugar with a dash of sesame oil and sriracha. For a trio of options, add a thicker peanut sauce, as for satay.
Twice as Tasty
Among the joys of growing your own garden is the ability to grow delicate produce that can’t be picked before it’s ripe, won’t travel well, and won’t last long in a grocery store bin. Edible blossoms such as lilac, nasturtium, and squash are among these hard-to-commercialize treats. Even if you can find them at a farmer’s market, they want to be taken straight home and used.
Squash blossoms are becoming more popular, but that doesn’t make them less delicate. Even on the plant, they only last a day before they begin to fade. It’s best to harvest them when they are opening in the morning, after the dew is off the petals but before they begin to close and wither with midday heat. If you’re buying them, ask for ones that were harvested that morning and still look fresh, with large, bright petals that are not twisted together at the tips.
Stuffed Squash Blossoms
1/4 cup flour
pinch of salt
4 teaspoons milk
sunflower or other oil for frying
4 ounces mozzarella, chopped
4 ounces fresh cherry tomatoes
2 tablespoons capers and/or chopped Kalamata olives
1 tablespoon green onion tops, thinly sliced
Gently reach into the center of each blossom and pull out the stamen, pinching it between your thumbnail and index finger to break it off near its base; set the flowers aside. Using a fork, mix the flour, eggs, and salt in a bowl until they are smooth. Beat in the milk until a batter forms; set aside.
Mix all filling ingredients in a small bowl. Holding a blossom in one cupped hand, use your other hand to gently fold back the ends of the petals until you can slide a heaping tablespoonful of filling into the center. Remove the spoon and fold the ends of the petals back up over the filling to enclose it. Set the filled flower on its side on a large plate and repeat the process with all remaining flowers.
Heat 1/4 inch of oil in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot, dip a stuffed squash blossom into the batter, allow any excess to run off, and then lay the flower in the pan. Repeat until the pan is full. Fry the squash blossoms for 3–4 minutes, until light gold on the underside, and then flip and fry another 3–4 minutes on the opposite side. Lay a double layer of paper towels on a large plate, and use a spatula to transfer the fried flowers to the plate to drain. Continue cooking off batches until all the blossoms are done, adding and heating more oil as needed. Serve immediately, along with a dipping sauce, such as for Summer Rolls, if desired. Makes 16 blossoms.
Tips & Tricks
- Summer and winter squash blossoms, male and female, are delicious stuffed. Zucchini and yellow summer squash blossoms tend to be smaller than those of pumpkins and other winter squash, so you can pick more and use less batter and filling for each flower.
- Be sure to choose an oil with a high smoking point. I like to shallow-fry my blossoms, but you can use a saucepan or wok to heat up to 2 inches of oil for a deep-fried effect.
- As with Summer Rolls, the fillings for squash blossoms are endless. I love this filling when tiny tomatoes are practically falling off the plants but a goat cheese-and-herb or Asian-themed filling with early blossoms. The key is to chop everything finely enough that it easily slips into the blooms.
- Light Asian dipping sauces (see above) pair surprisingly well this squash blossom filling. Unstuffed squash blossoms can also be fried and served like tempura.
Want help perfecting your technique? As recently featured in The Daily Inter Lake, custom Twice as Tasty workshops are held in your own kitchen, among friends—and with my personal guidance. Click here to learn more.