Wait, Mouse, did we hear you right? Did you say “tofu”? As in, no pork?
Yep. Tofu. You heard me right.
While the venerable pig is one of my favorite beasts to cook, I followed the recipe I had, and made these spring rolls with tofu. And I have to admit: They were damned good.
(That said, I think they’d be equally amazing if you swapped in slivers of succulent roast pork along with or instead of the tofu.)
Like pad thai, this is another one of those recipes that’s all prep and almost no cooking. It’s also the third and final piece of our Readers’ Choice series, put on in part with the fabulous Cookstr.com.
This recipe comes from Deborah Madison, a chef, cookbook author, teacher, and community activist with deep roots in the sustainable and local food movement.
Madison is also the author of This Can’t Be Tofu!: 75 Recipes to Cook Something You Never Thought You Would—and Love Every Bite. No lie, it’s the only book about tofu that I own. I bought it years ago when I had a bunch of vegetarian friends and I had no idea how to feed them, and it’s just great.
If you’re a huge carnivore like me, this is the tofu cookbook for you. Trust me.
So, what do the spring rolls taste like?
Call it kitchen magic.
These spring rolls are fried, but are remarkably fresh and (dare I say it) even kind of healthy tasting.
The shell has a nice snap and crunch to it and isn’t at all oily. The inside is packed with fresh napa cabbage, pungent scallion, and tender bits of tofu. The filling stays crisp because the spring rolls are only in hot oil for a minute or so—just long enough to brown the wrapper.
They get a deep, earthy flavor from two kinds of mushrooms (dried Shiitakes and fresh, chopped criminis). Cilantro, rice vinegar, garlic, ginger, and ground Szechuan pepper tie the whole bundle together with a ridiculous amount of lively, bright flavor.
All in all, they’re utterly delicious.
So what the heck is Napa cabbage, anyway?
Napa cabbage looks like romaine lettuce on steroids.
Definitely don’t substitute a regular cabbage for the Napa cabbage. The Napa head is much more delicate in flavor and texture. The frilly leaves are thin, crisp, and mild. Honestly? I think it tastes like Cabbage Lettuce, if there were such a thing.
Depending on where you shop, Napa cabbage can also be called hakusai, celery cabbage, wong bok, or Peking cabbage. Choose firm, tight heads and store them in the fridge, tightly wrapped. They’ll only last a few days.
Napa cabbage is good cooked or raw, so it’s the perfect way to get a little extra vitamin A, folic acid, and potassium into your salads and stir fries.
Ingredient notes for spring rolls
You’ll also need a small handful of dried shiitake mushrooms. They’re expensive, but you only need a few. These days, most supermarkets carry them, hanging in some corner of the produce section. They’re sometimes labeled Chinese black mushrooms.
For this recipe, you’ll reconstitute the mushrooms in a little boiling water. The thing to note about shiitakes is that the stem is so tough that it’s basically inedible. Once they’re soft, you’ll want to nip off any stems you see and only chop up the cap.
For the tofu, grab a package of extra firm tofu.
For the largely uninitiated (like me), tofu comes in a bunch of different textures, ranging from soft (good for blending into soups), to silken (which has more of a custard-y texture), to firm and extra firm (for when you want the tofu to hold its shape).
Extra-firm tofu, cut into small dice
This recipe also calls for Szechuan peppercorns. These little guys aren’t actually peppercorns at all. In fact, they come from the prickly ash tree.
They have a mild heat and a wonderful, warm spicy taste that’s just a wee bit lemon-y. If you can’t find them in your market (we found ours in with the pepper grinders at Whole Foods), Penzey’s sells them online.
Ground Szechuan Pepper
And last but not least, you’ll need a package of egg roll wrappers. These thin, square sheets of fresh pasta are usually in the produce section of the supermarket. If you’re lucky enough to have a good Asian market near you, you can find them there, too.
Fifteen is an awful lot of spring rolls
Unless, of course, you’re having a basketball team over for dinner.
Luckily, these spring rolls freeze beautifully. Arrange extra, uncooked spring rolls in a single layer in zip-top freezer bag. Pop them in the freezer.
To cook them, thaw overnight in the fridge, then fry away!
OK! To the kitchen!
Spring Rolls with Tofu and Shiitake Mushrooms
5 cups napa cabbage, sliced (1 small napa cabbage should be more than enough)
Freshly ground black pepper
5 dried shiitake mushrooms
14 oz. extra-firm tofu
4 cups water
2 tsp. roasted peanut oil (I used toasted sesame instead)
1/2 cup chopped scallions
1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, brown, white, or shiitake, chopped (I used crimini)
1 Tbls. minced garlic
2 heaping Tbls. minced ginger
2 tsp. rice wine vinegar
1/2 tsp. ground Szechuan peppercorns
1 Tbls. soy sauce
1/4 cup chopped cilantro, plus cilantro sprigs for garnish
15 egg roll wrappers
2 cups peanut oil, for frying (I used canola)
Makes about 15 spring rolls
Prep the Napa cabbage
Grab your cabbage and whack it in half lengthwise with a big, sharp knife.
Cut each piece in half again.
Leave the stem on. It will hold the cabbage together and make it easier to slice.
Cut the cabbage into thin slices across the leaves.
Stop an inch or two from the end. The cabbage down there will be a little thicker.
You want your pieces to be about this wide:
When you have 5 cups sliced, toss the cabbage into a colander. Sprinkle with salt and leave it in the sink. (This is to get some of the excess moisture out of the cabbage so it stays crunchier when cooked.)
Prep the dried Shiitake mushrooms
Put the dried shiitake mushrooms in a small bowl. Cover with just enough boiling water so that they’re submerged.
Let them sit on the counter for about 15 minutes, until they plump up and get soft.
Fish them out of the water and squeeze the water out of them.
If any of your mushrooms still have their stem, cut it off (it’s too hard and woody to eat).
Slice the rehydrated mushrooms into matchsticks.
Prep the tofu
Grab your tofu. Drain all the liquid out of the package and pat it dry. Dice it into small cubes, like this. (That’s one on the end of my 10-inch butcher’s knife.)
You’ll wind up with a big pile of cubed tofu.
Bring 4 cups of water to boil in a large saute pan or wok. Toss the tofu into the water and cook for 2 minutes.
Fish them out of the water with a skimmer or slotted spoon. Drain them well.
Then toss them into a large bowl or plate lined with paper towels. (You want to remove excess moisture to help keep your filling crisp, not soggy.)
Finish the spring roll filling
Coarsely chop the fresh mushrooms and the scallions.
Heat 2 teaspoons of roasted peanut or toasted sesame oil in a large nonstick pan or wok over high heat. Add the shiitakes, chopped fresh mushrooms, and scallions. Saute for about a minute over high heat.
Transfer the mixture into a large bowl, along with the tofu.
Squeeze the cabbage to release excess moisture. Toss it into the bowl.
Toss in the remaining ingredients (garlic, ginger, rice wine vinegar, Szechuan pepper, soy sauce, cilantro).
Mix to combine well. Give it a taste and adjust the seasoning as you see fit. (Add a little salt, pepper, more garlic, etc.)
And you’re ready to assemble the spring rolls!
How to roll spring rolls
This is like rolling a burrito or swaddling a baby in a blanket.
Fill a shallow bowl with a little cold water. Then carefully peel off one egg roll wrapper from the stack of pasta. (Be gentle, they can rip.)
Put it on the counter facing you, like this:
Use your finger to brush each edge of the wrapper with cold water. (This will help it stick shut.)
Heap about 3 tablespoons of filling in the center.
Fold the bottom point up.
Gently tuck the filling in like this.
Fold one point over to the center.
Then fold the other point over.
Roll it into a bundle (tuck the filling in as you go).
Set your spring roll aside and repeat until you’ve used up your filling. (Chopped cabbage is an imprecise thing to measure, so you may wind up with a little more or less filling than you need for 15 spring rolls.)
I wound up with 16 spring rolls. (17, if you count the one that I totally mauled because I wasn’t paying attention.)
Fry the spring rolls
Heat 2 cups of oil in a wok or large, deep-sided saute pan over high heat. Madison’s recipe calls for peanut oil. Peanut oil has wonderful flavor, but I didn’t have any. I used canola instead and it worked out just fine.
When the oil is so hot that it shimmers, test it.
Carefully (carefully!!) dip one corner of a spring roll into the oil. If rapid bubbles form immediately, it’s hot enough to fry. (If not, heat the oil for another minute or two, then test again.)
When the oil is hot, carefully add the spring rolls to the pan. (Because I wasn’t feeding a basketball team, I fried four, and froze the rest.)
They’ll cook really fast, so don’t walk away from the pan. Everything inside is basically ready to eat, so frying is really only to crisp up the egg roll wrapper.
When they’re brown and bubbly on the bottom, flip them over with tongs.
Cook them for maybe 45 seconds (depending on how hot your oil is) on that side, until the bottoms have a matching brown and bubbly jacket.
Remove them to a paper-towel or brown-bag lined plate.
Slice in half and serve immediately.
These are great plain or dipped into hot mustard. You can also whisk together a quick dipping sauce with a little soy, sesame oil, and a squirt of Sriracha.