I’m not generally the type to make friends in transit. I don’t quite go the full sunglasses-and-headphones route, but I usually board the subway or plane with a book and a non-committal smile at the ready for anyone who edges towards small talk.
So it was with little expectation that I surveyed my seatmate on the train this weekend, a small, gray-haired Vietnamese woman with a white bucket hat and her feet tucked under her. We read—me, Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and she a book in Vietnamese—I worked on a few crossword puzzles, and she quietly readjusted her hat and feet. Then, just as we pulled into Los Angeles and an overhead voice made the tragic announcement that corn dogs were no longer available for purchase in the dining car, she turned to me and asked about my cell phone plan.
How the conversation turned from that to grilling vegetables I don’t know, but fifteen minutes later I was gesturing enthusiastically as I tossed imaginary florets of cauliflower in olive oil and slid them into the oven. Olive oil? At 400 degrees? She nodded earnestly and assured me she would try it, confessing she’d been looking for a new way to do vegetables and had never tried roasting them in the oven. In return she shared with me the merits of oxtail, multiple uses for fish sauce, and where to buy spices for a perfect pot of Pho while I frantically scribbled notes on a scrap of paper. As we neared her stop she reached into her bag and pulled out a crusty roll with cucumber, thinly sliced meats, daikon radish and pickled carrots: a homemade Banh Mi. Breaking it in half she offered me the larger portion, and we munched happily while she extracted a thin strand of carrot and told me the method she used to pickle it. As I helped her off the train after a quick hug I was reminded that even friendships that last less than 30 minutes can yield memorable moments–and memorable recipes.
Crunchy Garden Spring Rolls with Pickled Carrots and Peanut Dipping Sauce
These are the easiest–and tastiest–snacks to make, especially if you have lots of veggies on hand. The only tricky part can be finding the rice paper wrappers, but they are widely available at local Asian groceries and some large markets like Whole Foods (the same goes for the slightly more ubiquitous fish sauce and sriracha). Please feel free to play around and add more types of vegetables than I suggest.
For pickled carrots:
2 large carrots
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup honey
Slice carrots into thin strips and set aside in a shallow bowl. Add water, vinegar, and honey to a small saucepan and bring to a boil, then pour over carrots until they are completely submerged. Soak overnight before sealing and storing in your refrigerator.
For spring rolls:
1 packet Vietnamese rice paper wrappers (round or square)
2 carrots, pickled (see above)
Slice cucumber, avocado, and any other veggies you plan to use into thin strips. Tear lettuce leaves in half and cilantro into small sprigs, and arrange all veggies (including pickled carrots) so they are close at hand.
Pour hot (not quite boiling) water into a shallow dish, and dip a sheet of rice paper in the water until soft and pliable. Lay rice paper on a dry surface and arrange lettuce, carrots, avocado, cilantro and other veggies in the center. Roll tightly while tucking in the edges, then cut diagonally in half and serve.
For spicy peanut sauce:
1/4 cup fish sauce
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup peanut butter
sriracha hot sauce
Combine the first four ingredients until smooth. At this point, it’s all about taste: more salty? Add fish sauce. More sweet? More honey. More tangy? Bring out the rice vinegar. Adjust with peanut butter for desired thickness, and finally add sriracha for spice.