Holiday foods are for the holidays; people hardly eat stuffing at everyday dinners. But exceptions do exist, and one of them is spring rolls.
Chinese eat spring rolls in the “Spring Festival” (Lunar New Year); Chinese eat spring rolls for daily breakfasts. They are always homemade – a family’s secret recipe wrapped in a round, silk-thin wrapper bought from a nearby farmer’s market, where a man or woman sits by an old coal stove with one hand tossing back and forth a high-gluten, semi-liquid dough, and then swirling it on the flat cast-iron surface of the stove.
In Ithaca, N.Y., however, making such a traditional spring roll is almost mission-impossible. Last week, I shopped at an Asian grocery store for yellow nira grasses – an essential ingredient in my family recipe – only to find it a name recognized by no one. Other ingredients like bamboo shoots sit sloppily in cans on Wegmans’ shelves, and wrappers are frozen and mass-produced. Pork might be the only fresh ingredient available.
I thawed the wrappers, planning to substitute Chinese cabbage with yellow nira grasses, a giant vegetable. In the old days when the north was cold, public transportation was backward and the people had only a few vegetable options, the northern Chinese would store piles of this vegetable in their basements. They last an entire winter.
I peeled three leaves – sufficient for making 15 rolls – and chopped them diagonally into thin strips. I opened a can of bamboo shoots, turned it upside down and drained it through my hands. Shoots should be no moister than the fresh ones, so I squeezed them again with paper towels. As with the cabbage, I chopped them into strips. Then I moved on to shred the pork.
My dad used to tell me the best part of pork is the shoulder cut: the muscle is adequately exercised with a beautiful dark-red color. In Nanjing, a butcher would cut the pork shoulder the shape my dad wanted and strip it for him; but in Ithaca – well, I bought a 9-lb. shoulder cut, shaped to my desired parts, and then sliced and stripped it myself.
In a small bowl, I marinated shredded pork with soy sauce, rice wine and a teaspoon of cornstarch. “Never add salt when marinating,” my dad used to tell me. “If you want salty flavor, add soy sauce.” Later in life I learned that salt extracts moisture from meat, but doesn’t soy sauce contain salt as well? I don’t have a scientific explanation for it; dishes just taste right with it.
Here is an extra step I didn’t take: put the chopped cabbage in a big Ziploc, add an adequate amount of salt, and zip and shake – vigorously – for at least 20 seconds. Later, set the bag aside, and squeeze the liquid before cooking. This is supposed to draw the fluid out and crisp the cabbage. However, for a simplified version of spring rolls, my perfectionism is deficient.
In my heated non-stick pan, I drizzled some vegetable oil, and poured in the shredded pork. The instant sizzling seemed to be heralding the start of a fight, and I, along with my spatula, was ready to split the tangling contestant. I swirled my spatula around the twisting pork strips; a few seconds later, they were separated. However, the intensity remained, so I dumped in the chopped cabbage and bamboo shoots to calm things down. I tossed the battlefield back and forth, tried my best to mediate the situation with the newcomers. It worked. Three minutes later, I sprinkled salt and pepper, and called it a truce. The filling was done; I plated it to let it chill.
Separating the thawed wrappers is a delicate job; even today I still destroy one or two pieces when peeling them from the stack. This time, however, I paid extra attention – they are the rare animals in the U.S. market – and I didn’t mess up. Fifteen wrappers. Check!
I ran back to the sink, filled water in my silicone cupcake mold. Let the assembling begin – a piece of cake.
I placed a lot of filling at the lower third of my wrapper – right to the point of equilibrium. People used to say I’m a bottomless child; I think it still holds true today. I rolled the wrapper upward once, folded both sides inward, and then continued rolling. At the wrapper’s edge, I tapped some water – it helped to stick the envelope together. I placed the folding edge face down, and my spring roll was complete.
With all my 15 rolls laid tidily on a cutting board, I opened my freezer. The rolls would be semi-frozen there, to form the shapes. Fifteen minutes later, I piled them into another freezer bag.
Now I can eat them whenever I want.