The Chef's Take: Vegetarian Spring Rolls from Charles Phan

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In 1995, Charles Phan opened The Slanted Door in San Francisco's Mission District and introduced the dining public to the relatively unexplored cuisine of his native Vietnam. The restaurant became an overnight sensation. Since then, Phan has moved his restaurant to the historic Ferry Building, earned a James Beard Foundation Best Chef of California Award, and been inducted to the James Beard Foundation’s list of "Who's Who of Food in America."

In his second cookbook, The Slanted Door: Modern Vietnamese Food (Ten Speed Press, 2014), Phan intersperses iconic recipes such as Seared Scallops with Vietnamese Beurrre Blanc, Wok-Seared Eggplant with Satay Sauce, and Rack of Lamb with Tamarind Sauce, with stories of his life, his restaurant, and of course, its food.

An admitted carnivore, Phan has long believed meat should be treated as a kind of a condiment. "I think meat should be the accent on a dish and not the main carrier," he said. "No one eats a rib eye steak in China or Vietnam."

He often transforms meaty dishes into their more simple vegetarian cousins. Spring rolls, for instance, a popular street food in Vietnam, are usually made with shrimp and pork. But Phan's vegetarian version, on the menu since the restaurant opened in 1995, contains tofu, shiitake mushrooms, and cabbage. "You need the tofu and the cabbage to mimic the flavor profile and texture of the shrimp and pork," he explained. Bundles of cellophane noodles and fistfuls of mint and shredded lettuce fill up the rice paper wrapper. For dipping, traditional fish sauce is a no no, so his peanut sauce gets amped up with added miso.

"The key to every meal is balance," said Phan. "You want to have some vegetables and rice and then just a little meat." Or in this case, none at all.

Cook's Note: When making the spring rolls at home, use a plastic cutting board instead of a wooden one. The rice paper noodles stick to wood and slide off the plastic easily.

Vegetarian Spring Rolls
Adapted from Modern Vietnamese Cooking

Makes 10 rolls; serves 10 to 12

If you love our spring rolls made with pork and shrimp, give this vegetarian version a try. The filling, a mixture of tofu and vegetables with cellophane noodles, is similar to what you'd find in egg rolls. Served with our signature peanut sauce, these are just as good as our original spring rolls.

1 1/2 cups dried cellophane noodles
1 1/2 teaspoons oil
1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 cup shredded carrots
4 celery stalks, cut into matchsticks (about 1 cup)

1/2 cup dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in warm water for 20 minutes, drained and thinly sliced

1/4 cup dried sliced tree ear mushrooms, soaked in warm water for 20 minutes and drained

3 1/2 cups shredded cabbage
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 pinch ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup mung bean sprouts
1 1/2  cups fried tofu, thinly sliced
Twelve 12-inch round sheets
of rice paper
3 cups cooked rice vermicelli noodles
35 to 40 mint leaves

Soak the cellophane noodles in warm water for 20 minutes. Drain the noodles and cut into pieces about 3 inches long.

To make the filling, in a large skillet or saute pan over medium-high heat, warm the oil until shimmering. Add the garlic and cook until light brown. Add the carrots and celery and cook until the vegetables are soft, about 3 minutes. Add the shiitake and tree ear mushrooms and cabbage and cook, stirring, until the cabbage is wilted, about 5 minutes.

Add the salt, pepper, and sugar, and stir until combine. Add the bean sprouts and stir for about 1 to 2 minutes. Add the cellophane noodles, stir for another minute. Add the fried tofu, stirring gently to combine. Transfer the filling to a colander and set aside until the mixture is well drained.

Fill a large bowl with very warm water. Dip one sheet of rice paper halfway into the water and quickly rotate to moisten the entire sheet. Lay the wet rice paper on a flat work surface. Spread about 1/3 cup of the filling over the bottom third of the rice paper. Spread about 1/4 cup of the vermicelli over the filling, and top with a few mint leaves. Fold in the left and right sides of the rice paper, then fold the bottom edge up and over the filling tightly and roll toward the top end to form a tight cylinder. Repeat with the remaining rice paper and filling.

The rolls can be made up to 2 hours in advance. Cover the rolls with a damp towel until ready to serve. Just before serving, cut each roll crosswise into three or four pieces and serve with the peanut sauce.

Photos: Ed Anderson

Andrea Strong is a freelance writer whose work often appears in Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She's probably best known as the creator of The Strong Buzz, her food blog about New York City restaurants. She lives in Brooklyn with her two kids, her husband and her big appetite.

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