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Democracy-for-All Summer Rolls

Have you tried to host a dinner party lately? Long gone is the no-nonsense process of entertaining, when the only thing that mattered was a wholesome square meal consisting of a meat, starch and vegetable. These days, forget about planning a menu without consulting your guests. The world of the privileged has become a who’s who of food allergies, obsessions, abstentions and political campaigns, and a menu assumed to be acceptable fare for all is a serious faux pas.

We are no longer fun-loving eaters grateful for a free meal; we are vegetarians, vegans, lactose-intolerant, gluten-free and raw foodists. We have issues, and we have made going to someone’s house for dinner a real pain in the ass.

Recent kitchen experiments brought about an interesting revelation: the Vietnamese summer roll (aka goi cuon) may be the last remaining dish on Earth that can feed all of God’s children. It’s hard to find someone who will refuse a summer roll, soft as pillows on the outside, crunchy and veggie-licious on the inside. Top it off with a zesty peanut sauce (barring a peanut allergy), and you’ve got democracy on a plate. With a slew of filling possibilities, the spring roll invites everyone to participate, and the results are personal, politically correct and scrumptious.

Democracy-for-All Summer Rolls

Ingredients for 12 rolls (enough for 6 people):

12 rice paper wrappers (with extra, in case they tear)

4 ounces rice vermicelli noodles

Plus any 4 of the following items for filling:

12 medium or large shrimp, peeled and deveined

A mixture of mint leaves, basil and cilantro, about 2 1/2 cups

1/2 red bell pepper, julienned

3 medium carrots, shaved with a vegetable peeler

1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and julienned

1 mango, diced

1/2 head Boston or Bibb lettuce, torn into 2-inch pieces

6 scallions, diced

• Cook rice vermicelli: Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add noodles and cook for about 2 minutes. Drain in colander and rinse with cold water until noodles are thoroughly cooled. Cut with scissors into 2-inch lengths; set aside.

• Cook shrimp: Bring a pot of water to a boil, then add 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Add shrimp and boil for about 90 seconds, until they turn translucent. Remove from heat and drain; rinse under cold water until cool. Slice in half, lengthwise.

• Prepare rest of items for filling and place them in small bowls for roll assembly.

• Soften rice paper wrappers: Dip a wrapper into a pot of warm (not hot) water, using a tong as a guide. Allow wrapper to soften, about 25 seconds. Remove from water and place on damp paper towel or dish towel. Repeat, layering wrappers in between towels.

• Assemble rolls: Remove wrappers one at a time, leaving the rest under the towel layers until ready to use. Place wrapper on a damp towel as a work surface. Using a pastry brush, apply water to moisten.

• Add a small amount of noodles at the bottom edge of wrapper (side closest to you). Roll to the midpoint, tucking in corners. Add shrimp, if using, and roll another quarter-turn. Add herbs and any other filling items. Roll tightly and seal end with your fingertip. Wrap with damp towel until ready to serve.

• Slice rolls in half and serve with a dipping sauce, such as the one below:

Mix together 2 tablespoons creamy, unsweetened peanut butter, 1 tablespoon sesame oil, 2 teaspoons chili paste with garlic, 1 teaspoon sugar. Gradually add water (up to 1/2 cup) until sauce is cake-batter consistency.

Culinary questions? Contact Kim O’Donnel at