Love in the new year, and learning to make Vietnamese spring rolls

Making Vietnamese spring rolls at home is easier than you might think. With a little practice rice paper, shrimp, pork shoulder, and veggies roll right up and become a delicious snack or side.

By , The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook

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    Homemade Vietnamese spring rolls take the same skills necessary to practice a loving life, patience and practice.
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Choose love.

These two simple words have been on my mind since they popped out at me from a friend’s Facebook post a few weeks ago. She was recapping her past year and she ended her reflection with “When in doubt, choose love.” These words could mean many things to many people, and I’ve been thinking about what it means for me to “choose love.”

2012 was a challenging year personally and love was often in short supply. Not that I wasn’t loved, but rather that I wasn’t a very loving person. I felt so drained I had no love to give. I had to get used to the fact that my husband was 6,720 miles away and 12 and-a-half hours ahead for an entire 12 months. And I worried (and still do) about his safety, every single day. Plus, I had to adjust to solo-parenting a toddler.

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After a three-year hiatus, I worked very hard to develop a book proposal (one that I thought was very sellable and timely) that was quickly shot down. I have yet worked up the nerve to submit it elsewhere. And I’m sure anyone who lives close to their parents can relate to the stress of having them live a stone’s throw away.

Did I mention I’m solo-parenting a toddler? I definitely have a newfound awe and admiration for single parents everywhere! While I admit 2012 wasn’t all that bad – there was a trip to Vietnam to meet my husband, a paperback book launch – it was filled with plenty of angst and stress. I realize now that many of these events and circumstances were beyond my control. Yet I was riddled with unnecessary anxiety and/or reacted negatively to them.

In hindsight, I can come up with any number of, “What if?” scenarios.

What if I kept calm and didn’t raise my voice at Isaac when he wasn’t behaving the way I wanted him to? Then maybe I wouldn’t be wracked with guilt in the thereafter believing I was traumatizing my son and ruining him for life.

What if I listened patiently every time my dad complained about a new ache or pain, or expressed concern that his memory wasn’t as sharp as it used to be (aging has nothing to do with it, of course!). Instead, these could have been happy dad-and-daughter moments spent over a cup of coffee, especially if the topic at hand could be diverted.

If I had chosen love in these circumstances, perhaps I wouldn’t have expended superfluous time and energy getting worked up, upset, frustrated, etc., etc., you know what I mean. Thankfully, it’s never too late. We are just a few steps in the new year but I’ve already savored the power of choosing love.

The other day, the cashier at Target had a face so sullen it rivaled Posh Spice’s – aka Victoria Beckham’s – perpetual pout (am I dating myself with this analogy?). Instead of condemning her off-putting attitude silently in my mind, I complimented her on her gorgeous red top out loud. That coaxed a smile out of both her and me.

When my toddler asks for one more book, yet another sip of water, anything he can think of, to put off going to bed, I take a deep breath, tuck his blanket under his chin and hold him till he falls fast asleep. This phase won’t last forever (I hope, gulp …). I’m off to a good start, don’t you think?

Starting with this new year 2013, whatever the season, whatever the mood, always choose love.

Vietnamese fresh spring rolls (Gỏi Cuốn)
Time: 45 minutes prep
Makes: 4 servings 

I’m going to start a new column about trying dishes I didn’t think I could or would make at home. I’ve been told many times how easy it is to make these fresh rolls but I’ve always been intimidated by the rice paper wrappers. Most sources say to dip the dry rice paper rounds in water until soft but it seems impossible to get just right.

While traveling in Vietnam, I learned two other methods of softening the rice paper: one is to wipe it with a wet, non-terry towel until pliable, and the second, use a spray bottle. The rest is easy. Well, the rolling does takes some practice but you’ll eventually get the hang of it. The following recipe/how-to is based on what I learned at a cooking class I took at the Morning Glory Cooking School in the beautiful town of Hoi An in central Vietnam.

8 sheets rice paper wrappers, plus more in case some break (8 to10 inches across is best)

Red leaf, romaine, or butter lettuce

3 cups fresh herbs: mint, cilantro, Thai (or regular) basil, red perilla, Vietnamese mintrice paddy herb, bean sprouts (any combination of these is fine)

Carrot and daikon pickles

8 ounces small round rice noodles, cooked according to package directions (look for noodles labeled ‘bun,’ not the super thin vermicelli or bean thread noodles. If you have my cookbook, they are pictured as #1 on pg. 15)

8 small slices pork shoulder, cooked as desired (I like to use char siu, store-bought or home made)

12 large cooked shrimp, peeled and halved

12 (3-inch-length) pieces garlic chives

Dipping sauce (recipe below)*

Lay all the ingredients out on the table and let everyone make their own rolls.

Soften the rice paper using your method of choice:
 

1. Dip in a bowl of warm water for about 3-5 seconds (depending on its thickness).

2. Lay on a flat surface and wipe with a wet non-terry towel several times until pliable.

3. Fill a spray bottle with water and spray until pliable.

You want the rice paper to be just soft enough that you can fold it. You will lessen the risk of over-soaking your rice paper wrapper if you use the latter two methods but it is up to you.

Place the wrapper on a work service (a flat plate works fine) and lay a piece of lettuce on the edge closest to you. Grab a handful of herbs and place them on top of the lettuce. Place a handful of noodles on top of the greens. Add some pickles. Arrange two slices of pork above the noodles, followed by 3 slices of shrimp, pink-side down.

Fold the edge closest to you over the ingredients and start rolling, ensuring the roll is snug as you go. When you are about half-way, fold both sides in and arrange three pieces of garlic chives on the right so that they jut out like palm leaves swaying in the wind. Continue rolling until you have a nice tight roll.

If you tear the rice paper, don’t fret, just start over again. And even if your roll isn’t perfect, so what, it’ll still taste good!

Serve with dipping sauce.

*Dipping sauce (Nước mắm chấm)
Makes: 4 servings

2 large cloves garlic, minced

1 to 2 Thai red chilies, or to taste, sliced

3 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons lime juice (from about 1 large lime)

2 tablespoons warm water

Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl and stir until all the sugar has dissolved.

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