Some foods are intricate balancing acts, towering above sauced plate with engineered precision, while others come simply wrapped and ready, like a present for the palate.
A glance up and down a menu in almost any corner of the globe will surely have some form of wrapped food, shining like a beacon of delicious ergonomic ingenuity just waiting to be devoured without want or need of plate and utensil.
Whether it is an overstuffed meal in a tortilla at the local burrito joint, or a swath of seaweed delicately cradling contents of rice, fish and vegetable in a sushi shop, wrapped foods serve as a perfect vehicle of food delivery from hand to mouth.
Tortillas, crepes, dumpling wrappers and others in the wrap game are ubiquitous to the modern eater, featured in the likes of everything from high-end restaurants to tiny street food stalls.
One means of wrapping foods that may be slightly more mysterious and every bit as refreshing is rice paper. No doubt you may have seen it on the table of Thai restaurant in the form of a spring roll, the soft rice paper serving as a light skin encasing noodles, shrimp and other such tasty bits.
What distinguishes rice paper from almost any other wrapper is its translucent skin and soft, cool, almost bouncy exterior. It straddles a line between liquid and solid in both its appearance and application, with a beautifully delicate texture and taste to top it off.
But perhaps one of rice paper’s greatest traits for cooks is this: it’s extremely easy to use and has myriad ways to be employed in cooking.
Rice paper is traditionally made by spreading a mix of water, rice and tapioca starches very thinly over bamboo mats to dry. The crosshatched pattern of the bamboo mats is what gives rice paper its distinct texture and appearance.
Because it is made from rice, it is a naturally gluten free product which adds to its versatility in serving those with gluten allergies or just those who want a lighter vessel with which to carry the filling ingredients.
Rice paper is traditionally produced in Southeastern Asian countries like Thailand and Vietnam, where rice is a staple ingredient and the hot climates call for cooling foods to bring balance to their cuisines. This aspect is what makes rice paper a perfect product to cross over into other cuisines and engaged in a multitude of uses.
While Kansas City will never be mistaken for a tropical locale, the scorching heat of July is a perfect time to employ this wrapper’s unique characteristics to make dishes that have a cool revitalizing effect on our own seasonal summer produce.
These Seared Steak Summer Rolls are just such a dish, putting gorgeous local Swiss chard, vegetables, steak and herbs in the subtle embraces of the rice paper wrap. You can serve them as a small snack on the patio while entertaining friends or as a simple component of a healthy meal for the family. Think of these Summer Rolls as an introduction to an ingredient that will fast become like an old friend in your kitchen.Seared Steak Summer Rolls
The key to rice paper is getting it moist and being delicate when rolling so as not to tear it. This recipe calls for steak, but you can easily use chicken, shrimp, salmon or forgo meat altogether with mushrooms or another vegetable, making sure the size of pieces is ideal for the size of your roll. The steak can be hot or cold, so cook it fresh or it is a great way to us up leftovers.Makes 8 rolls 1 10- to 12-ounce Kansas City strip steak, cooked medium rare, sliced thin 1 bunch Rainbow Swiss chard, stem removed, cut into 8 2-inch-by-4-inch pieces, the rest sliced very thin 1-2 yellow summer squashes, cut into matchstick sized pieces 6 baby or 1-2 large cucumbers, cut into matchstick sized pieces 4 sprigs each, cilantro, mint, basil 8 rice paper rounds Black and white sesame seeds, for garnish
Fill a mixing bowl large enough to fit rice paper rounds with cold water. Briefly dip whole rice paper into water for 10 to 15 seconds. It will become more pliable, but you do not want to let it become completely soft as it will become harder to handle. Let excess water drip off rice paper and set on cutting board with coarser side facing up, letting it sit on the board for another 20 seconds or so until it is soft and pliable. Lay 2 strips of steak in the middle just below halfway point, along with a leaf or two of each herb above it and sprinkle sesame seeds. Place a section of Swiss Chard on top of steak strips, followed by matchsticks of squash and cucumber, then finished with a small mound of the thin sliced chard on top of those. Carefully bring the bottom half of the rice paper over the contents in middle, folding over to enclose them. After first roll over, fold the left and right sides over onto the middle, not unlike how you would roll a burrito. Make sure to keep contents in the middle together and not spilling out, then finish rolling over. The goal is to roll it tightly, but evenly. It takes a bit of practice, but by the time you reach the end of the rolls, you should have it down.
Tyler Fox, personal chef/event caterer who emphasizes 'nose-to-tail' cooking philosophy as well as vegan and local/farm to table foods.