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Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson serves up the best info and tips on Northwest food, cooking, dining and restaurants.

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April 30, 2008 9:15 AM

Cooking on the cheap (OK, inexpensive) -- and on the fly

Posted by Nancy Leson

In today's NWFood&Wine pages, we discuss ways to eat well on the cheap -- an idea started right here on All You Can Eat. Today, I'll add to that (and hope you will, too), by turning you on to one of my favorite quick-and-easy meals: one that can be put together in less than a half-hour, prep time included and can be prepared with everything from rotisserie chicken, to tofu and vegetables, to the sale-priced flank steak I bought at QFC yesterday, or with leftover whatevers. It's my take on Vietnamese Summer Rolls, a roll-your-own extravaganza of deliciousness:

To my thinking, there are only two "gotta have it" ingredients to make this dish: rice-paper pancakes and sweet chili sauce -- and I always keep these in my cupboards (unlike tortillas, by the way, those pancakes last just about forever). Both are available at every Asian market in Greater Seattle and in the "ethnic foods" aisle of most area supermarkets:

We call that sweet/hot dipping sauce (brand name Mae Ploy) "the Hoi Polloi" in our house, and it's interesting to note the texture of the uncooked banh trang (rice paper), which is indicative of the way the brittle sheet is created. It's made of rice flour, salt and water and dried on mats, which gives it that distinctive crosshatching. To make this a quick-meal, it's a roll-your-own operation, though here at home, I'm always in charge of soaking the pancakes. If you go to a Vietnamese restaurant they'll do the soaking for you, or provide a bowl of hot water so you can turn those brittle disks into pliant wraps tableside. I find it easier -- and faster -- to put a pot of very hot water on the table.

How you fill these rolls is completely up to you. When it comes to the protein involved, in addition to roasted, grilled or rotisseried meats, we've also stuffed them with grilled shrimp or fried fish (they'll fry you one whole at the 99 Ranch supermarket in Edmonds, where I frequently shop), but the beauty of this is that it can suit any budget. Even if you only stuff them with herbs and vegetables (including classic ingredients like julienned carrots, mung bean-sprouts and slender cellophane noodles), they're incredibly fresh tasting, filling and (did I mention this before?) delicious.

Here's what's always on our table:

You're looking at leaf lettuce, basil (leftover from some pesto dish my husband made recently), cilantro, and mint from my garden, cucumbers, and, in those little gelato cups, chopped lime, jalapeno and crushed peanuts. (And no, I didn't spend money on raw peanuts, I just crushed the Planter's Cocktail Peanuts we always have on hand.)

First I dip the pancake (twirling it around as it softens, which takes about 20 seconds, max):

Then, I fill my wrapper with the various ingredients, to suit my taste:

Next, I roll it up, which is easy, because the starch in the pancakes make it really sticky (that's one of the reasons I like to dip it at the table rather than making them up earlier). See how transparent the rice paper is? You can see the vein on the lettuce leaf:

Last time my mother-in-law was in town I made this Vietnamese favorite. "What is that, plastic?" she asked, horrified, before watching me soak a pancake and hook her up with Vietnamese food for the first time in her very long life. And then she took a bite. A year later, she's still talking about "that amazing dinner you made with that plastic stuff" -- seen here in its "plastic" state with today's food-news underneath it:

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Listen to Nancy at 5:30 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. during Morning Edition, at 4:40 p.m. during All Things Considered and again the following Saturday at 8:30 a.m. during Weekend Edition on KPLU 88.5.

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