Done right, crispy Chinese egg rolls are a thing of beauty: shatteringly crispy on the outside with a filling of tender, flavorful cabbage, carrots, and pork. But too often they’re greasy, skimpy on the filling, or bland. Making them at home is a project (and requires fortitude with a deep fryer)—not exactly the type of thing to whip up whenever the mood strikes.
What if, I thought, I could turn the egg roll inside-out and make the filling the salad and the egg roll wrappers the croutons? And what if the salad could be substantial enough to call dinner, satisfy a craving for a good egg roll, and be a breeze to prepare? This led me straight to the grocery store, where I filled up my cart with the ingredients you’d find in a Chinese egg roll. I made one substitution: bacon instead of ground pork for its smoky flavor (and also because I’ve never met a salad with bacon I didn’t like).
Selecting ingredients was easy, but I was less sure about how to prepare them. I chopped up a small head of cabbage and stir-fried half of it with bacon and various seasonings, then tossed in the remaining (raw) cabbage with shredded carrots and cilantro at the end. The flavors were spot on, but the textures were a little muddled; more like a warm side dish than a salad.
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So for take two, I went a simpler route. I thinly sliced the cabbage, slaw-style, and mounded it in a bowl with shredded carrots and slivered green onions. For the dressing, I opted for hot bacon with a twist. While frying the bacon, I added a few whole star anise to the skillet to flavor the rendered fat, and punched up the flavor even more with garlic, ginger, chile sauce, soy sauce, and rice vinegar. I then poured the hot dressing over the vegetables to wilt them. From there, I tossed in cilantro and broke the crispy egg roll wrappers into croutons. Instead of frying the wrappers, I baked them in a hot oven while making the hot bacon dressing; they got nicely crispy, and I could prepare four at once rather than frying them one at a time. Upon the first bite of my finished salad, I knew I had a winner. (That hot bacon dressing is so good, I’ll be wilting other vegetables and greens with it every chance I get.)
It’s exactly the salad I was hoping for: zippy and fresh, with all of the contrasting flavors and textures of a good crispy egg roll. I’ve been eating it for lunches and dinners this winter (and plan to serve it as a side at summer BBQs and gatherings too). Best of all, it takes less time to prepare than waiting for take-out or delivery.