Heads turn when you mention restaurants such as Crustacean in Beverly Hills and San Francisco, or An-Qi at South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa. Executive Chef-Owner Helene An’s culinary talents are legendary.
I was thrilled when she consented to share her recipe for Shrimp Rolls.
Chef An, lovingly called “Mama” by her staff, friends, and customers, keeps many of her recipes absolutely secret. She goes to get effort to guard her formulas for dishes such as her Famous Garlic Noodles, Roast Crab and Drunken Crab. She has “secret kitchens” built in all of her restaurants.
“(The secret kitchen) refers to a completely concealed kitchen within the main kitchen, off limits to all employees except the An Family and chefs with over 10 years of employment with the family,” explains her daughter, Elizabeth An. “There’s two sliding doors that goes up and down, where food comes in and out, but no one sees in or out.”
But watch the video! It is worth 100.000 words. Here are some closeup secrets:
“Mama” uses angel-hair rice noodles, not the more traditional rice vermicelli. She says that they have a more delicate flavor and texture, unlike vermicelli, they require gentle steaming.
A lovely assortment of fresh herbs augment her ambrosial Shrimp Rolls.
From left to right: rau ram, purple perilla (tia to or tiet to) and kihn gioi leaves (also called Vietnamese mint)
And, of course, her luscious dipping sauce. Each guest can augment the sauce to suit their own palate. Chili paste and chopped peanuts are options.
Mama’s Shrimp Roll
Yield: 8 shrimp rolls
8 pieces of green leaf lettuce (that have been cut or torn into pieces about 4-by-2-inches
8 purple perilla leaves, also called tia to or tiet to), stems removed, see cook’s notes
8 kihn gioi leaves, also called Vietnamese mint, thick bottom stems removed, see cook’s notes
8 mint leaves
16 small cilantro sprigs
1 cup pickled carrots, see cook’s notes
2 cups cooked, cooled rice noodles, angel-hair rice noodles preferred (cooked by steaming)
1/2 bunch garlic chives or slender dark green stalks of green onions or chives
32 medium-sized chilled shrimp, boiled, shelled and de-veined
8 round rice paper wrappers with 12-inch diameters
9 white lint-free kitchen towels, approximately 13-inch squares, slightly moist, see cook’s notes
For serving: dipping sauce (recipe follows), finely chopped peanuts, chili sauce
Cook’s notes: Fresh Vietnamese herbs are sold in the produce sections of Asian markets. The green variety of purple perilla is shiso, the leaf that often accompanies sushi. Kihn gioi is a bright green color, with a saw-tooth edge. Chef An pickles about 5 to 6 cups very thinly sliced (lengthwise) carrots by sprinkling them with 1/2 cup sugar and 1/4 cup salt and refrigerating them overnight. Then she adds a mixture of 1 cup distilled white vinegar and 6 cups water and lets them sit overnight. The carrot pickles are drained before use in the shrimp rolls.
Chef An uses brand-new Brawny Dine-A-Max towels (food preparation-bar towels).
1. Place lettuce, purple perilla, kihn gioi, mint, cilantro, pickled carrots, rice noodles, garlic chives and shrimp next to work area.
2. Fill a shallow bowl or pie plate with warm water. Working one at a time, soak a rice paper wrapper in water until just barely pliable. Place on slightly moist lint-free kitchen towel and top with another towel. Repeat with remaining rice paper wrappers, stacking them one on another, separated by towels.
3. Flip over stack of wrappers and carefully remove top towel. Place a lettuce leaf 1-inch from bottom edge of the rice paper making sure to leave at least 1 inch on all sides to fold. On top of lettuce place purple perilla leaf, kinh gioi leaf, mint leaf, 2 small cilantro sprigs, some rice noodles, and some pickled carrots. Roll wrapper over contents, tucking the filling in with one hand while you roll with the other. Add one or two chives and 2 to 4 shrimp (depending on their size). Fold over right and left side portions of wrappers and roll up burrito style, keeping contents pushed tightly together. Repeat with remaining wrappers and filling. Rolls are best served immediately but will remain fresh for a couple of hours if they are wrapped tightly in plastic and kept at room temperature. Serve with the bean sauce in small individual dipping bowls.
Dipping sauce: In a medium-size skillet, cook 2 tablespoons minced shallots in 2 tablespoons olive oil on medium-high heat until golden. Off heat, add 1/2 cup bean sauce (available at most Asian markets), 1/2 cup Chardonnay, 1 tablespoon chili paste and 2 tablespoons sugar. Stir over medium-high heat until bubbling, stirring frequently. If too thick, add 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup water to reach a dipping sauce consistency; cook and stir until correct consistency is reached. Cool to room temperature. Serve a bowl of finely chopped peanuts and another bowl of chili sauce for guests to augment their individual dipping sauce to suit their taste.
LADY GAGA – NOODLE FAN: According to friend Lee Healy, Lady Gaga recently partook of Chef Helene’s Famous Garlic Noodles (and a Lychee Martini) at Crustacean Beverly Hills.
“I believe she’s a vegetarian,” Lee says. “Apparently she was there years ago right before she made it and had a pivotal meeting there with a producer. Couldn’t even pay her cab fare to get there. Wanted to come when she had made it and she did. Everyone said she was so nice.”
Mama and Lady.