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Recipe: Welcome spring with chili-crab fresh rolls

Kirsten Dixon
Drizzle over a little dipping sauce if you are serving immediately.
Tyrone Potgieter photo
A colorful and springtime chili crab fresh roll platter.
Tyrone Potgieter photo
Just soak the papers briefly in hot water and they turn into stretchable wrappers.
Tyrone Potgieter photo
You can add in other veggies to your creation like avocado and carrots.
Tyrone Potgieter photo

We’ve all had it here in the Far North with root vegetables and potatoes, braised meats and simmered stews. Although there is still snow on the ground for many of us, let’s get this party started and start eating like the springtime it is.

For me, spring begins with anything green (except cabbage), and I can’t think of a brighter way to bring color to the table than a platter filled with herb and seafood-stuffed fresh rolls.

Fresh rolls are stunning when they are done right, meaning that they are filled to capacity with plenty of herbs and greens, a little bit of some kind of vegetable, and in our kitchen, we usually add in seafood. Today I’m making our fresh rolls with recently caught Bering Sea opilio crab.

We always have those thin Vietnamese rice papers on hand in our pantry to make fresh rolls (and other things) with. I buy packages of both the small-sized and large-sized wrappers, but I usually select the smaller bundles of each so I don’t have so many wrappers left over after opening a package. They’ll get dry and cracked quickly once exposed to air.

Bahn Trang, the Vietnamese name for edible rice papers, are easy to find in stores these days and worthwhile having on hand. Although called rice paper, they can be made from starches other than rice. I actually prefer tapioca-based rice paper. They are a bit thinner and perhaps more stretchable than the thicker and more easily torn rice-based paper. The seemingly inedible stiff round disks become stretchy versatile wrappers after being dunked into hot water.

We’ve been talking a lot about chili crab in our kitchen. Chili crab is an outrageously delicious but impossibly messy dish from Singapore made from crabs, chili sauce, lots of garlic, sugar and tomatoes all simmered into a thick sticky stew and served over rice. We love the flavor of chili crab but we weren’t up for an entire sticky-fingered meal of it. We decided we could compromise and combine Singaporean chili crab flavors with a Vietnamese fresh roll using Alaska crabmeat. The result? Our favorite springtime dish so far!

Chili Crab Fresh Rolls

Making an assembly line of fresh roll production can be a great social activity for a group gathered in the kitchen.

Dipping sauce

1/4 cup water
3 teaspoons Asian fish sauce (nam pla)
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice (from about 1 large lime)
4 teaspoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon Asian chili-garlic paste
1 clove garlic, mashed
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

Whisk all of the ingredients together in a medium bowl and set aside.

Fresh rolls

1/2 pound Alaska crab lump meat
1 tablespoon honey
Juice of half a lemon
1 small bunch green onions, diced
4 tablespoons Asian chili-garlic paste
4 ounces Asian rice vermicelli (rice sticks)
Toasted sesame oil
1 package round Vietnamese rice paper wrappers
1 cup fresh mint leaves
1 cup fresh basil
1 cup fresh cilantro
1 cucumber, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch sticks
1 small head green-leaf or Bibb lettuce, cleaned and separated into leaves

Mix the crab, honey, lemon juice, green onion, and chili-garlic paste together in a medium bowl. Set aside.

Bring a medium saucepan filled two-thirds with water to a boil. Drop in the rice vermicelli and cook for about 3 to 5 minutes. Drain and toss in a dash of sesame oil. Set aside.

Place the rice paper wrappers, marinated crabmeat, cooked and seasoned rice noodles, the mint, basil, cilantro, cucumber, green onions, and lettuce into bowls and arrange them onto your countertop in that order.

Place a clean, damp kitchen towel on a work surface. Fill a large bowl with hot water. Working with one rice paper wrapper, completely submerge the wrapper until it is soft and pliable, about 15 seconds. Remove the wrapper from the water and place it onto the towel.

Working quickly, lay some crabmeat in a row just above the center of the wrapper. Layer some of the rice noodles over the crab, then some mint leaves, basil leaves, and some cilantro. Place some of the cucumber sticks and green onion on either side of the noodle pile. Roll one or two pieces of lettuce into a cigar shape and place it on top of the noodle pile.

Fold the bottom half of the rice paper wrapper over the filling. Holding the whole thing firmly in place, fold the sides of the wrapper in.

Then, pressing firmly down onto the roll to hold the folds in place, roll it up tightly from the bottom to the top.

Turn the roll so that the seam faces downward and the row of crab faces upward. Place the completed fresh roll onto a rimmed baking sheet lined with plastic wrap. Cover the roll loosely with plastic wrap. Repeat with the remaining wrappers and fillings. Leave 3/4 inch between each fresh roll on the sheet so they don’t stick together, and replace the water in the pan or dish with hot water as needed. Cut the rolls in half if you have used large wrappers, and serve with the dipping sauce.

Makes 8-16 fresh rolls depending on the size of wrapper you use.

Kirsten Dixon is an award-winning chef who has cooked and lived the past 30 years in the backcountry of Alaska. To learn more about her, visit www.kirstendixon.com.