Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Spring Rolls for the Serious Eater

And with this post we begin our first official battle for who will make rolls for the family reunion when our mom leaves the cooking to us...Big Brother or Little Brother...you decide.


Before I go on, I need to address some semantics. Some people argue that what we're making is called a "summer roll" because it's fresher than an egg roll (commonly called a spring roll) and would be something apropos for summer. Does that mean you'd want something fried in the spring? I tend to associate fried with county fair and county fair with summer. Needless to say there needs to not be an English cognate for this dish, and there needs to be some respect for where it came from, i.e. one does not call sashimi "raw fish slivers." From now on, they will be referred to as Goi Cuon (say "goi" like you're asking a question about it and say "cuon" with an upwards inflection).


Today was inaugaration day and aptly so, I decided that the old guard need meet the demands of a more modern palate. Though what Little Brother said was true regarding my never having eaten goi cuon until later in my life, I've come to enjoy their freshness very much. It may be perhaps true however, that because I did not grow up with the traditional taste of goi cuon that I could not appreciate the preservation of tradition as much as he might today. That being said, if this is a competition about being true to one's culture, he wins. My mom actually wins because she most likely helped him.

On my end...I've applied my own philosophies about cooking to the dish, combining elements of both versions of goi cuon presented by Little Brother and then taking it a bit futher.

Crunch. It's missing in his goi cuon. One can say that a crisp shrimp will suffice but it's still not satisifying enough. Jicama is crunchy so long as it's raw. And why put in poached pork if you've sapped away some of its flavor during the cooking process. Having cut down my intake of meat in the past year, I've made a conscious effort to make sure that if I'm going to eat meat, it's going to be well-thought out and play a leading role in my dish. Not only that, everything will be used. The answer?

Pork Crackling Goi Cuon.

The crackling is fairly time consuming but even at a 24 hour wait time and 45 minute bake time it's still worth it in my humble opinion. While waiting for the crackling, you can prepare all the herbs and vermicelli as directed on Little Brother's site, including the jicama. Don't fry the jicama though. I also added some pickled carrot strings made with my Benriner (carrot + vinegar + sugar +water).

I remove the skin off of a 5lb slab of pork belly (stay tuned for what I do with the rest of the belly later on) and cross hatch the skin side. I then make a seasoning salt mixture of sea salt, chinese five spice, sage, and white pepper. I rub the seasoning salt generously into both sides of of the pork skin and then let the skin rest on a bed of paper towels in a sealed container in the fridge for 24 hours. In this time, the salt has drawn out a fair amount of the water from the skin. After patting the skin dry, it's ready to be baked.

Some people follow recipes that call for frying pork skin, however in experiences past I've definitely almost burned an eyeball by dropping a moist skin into a vat of hot oil. Bubbly and life-threatening. Not only that, you end up with a curled piece of skin which is not worth anything more than eating like a Frito.

Enter the technique: Preheat an oven to 400F, prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper and place the pork skin on the paper, skin side up. Place another parchment sheet onto the skin and lay a similar sized baking sheet onto the upper layer of parchment, sandwiching the skin. Then weigh the upper sheet down with something oven-proof--I chose to use a casserole dish filled half way with water. This will ensure that your product lays perfectly flat and can be chopped into strips. Bake for 15-20 minutes and then take out, pour out all the fat into a heat-proof bowl, flip to skin side down, weigh down again, and place back into the oven for another 15-20 minutes. Decant the fat once again and this time leave the skin open to air and do not press with the sheet. By this time, your skin should already be fairly dehydrated and maybe even slightly crisp on the sides. If not, keep pressed and render some more fat out. Bake for another 15 minutes until dry; if you're impatient you can put the skin in the middle rack and turn the broiler up. If you do this however, watch closely because the skin will burn quickly. However, you should end up with a nice bubbly, crunchy pig skin.

And remember how I said I don't like to waste things? Use some of the rendered pig grease to fry your jicama in, with some added salt and white pepper. Some of the grease should have carried some of the seasoning flavors from the crackling as well.

Roll your goi cuon just as in Little Brother's instructions and in this case, you don't even need a sauce because the crackling is flavorful enough. The exotic flavor and freshness of the herbs, moist vermicelli with the sweetness of jicama, combined with the crunch and umami of pork crackling. Enjoy.


  1. Oh, man, you had me at pork crackling. I say you win this round.

  2. you defeated the whole purpose of healthy. -___-
    it's called a spring roll because of all the fresh ingredients you're using. once you add that pork skin in there your spring roll triples in calories.

  3. pork crackling probably has less fat than your chinese pork sausage. with the crackling, you at least render the fat out during the baking process, whereas with sausage you just trap it in.

  4. i like your inventiveness but with my vietnamese food, i'm more of a traditionalist. my vote is for your brother.
    we can still be friends tho right?