Last week, with the temperatures soaring into the upper 40s, I finally embraced the fact our endless winter had reached its inevitable conclusion. As I sat on my porch with my face turned toward the sun thoughts of hearty winter stews, heavy pasta dishes and roasted red meat melted away in favor of lighter spring focused fare. The advent of spring brings with it a bounty of early produce that easily lures folks away from the ooey-gooey goodness synonymous with cold weather foods.
Proper spring dishes focus on fresh clean flavors with vibrant color palates and an array of bold textures. They should be quick to prepare in order to make the most of the lengthening days and warmer temperatures, but that doesn’t mean spring recipes should lack complexity.
Rolling into spring proves to be the ideal time to whip up a batch of fresh Vietnamese spring rolls. My favorite version contains traditional spring roll ingredients like rice noodles and shrimp, but highlights fresh seasonal asparagus, herbal mint leaves and delicate spring arugula. A duo of dipping sauces makes these handheld treats as much fun to eat as they are to make.
Just as early spring snow showers feel like a seasonal false start, don’t be surprised if you experience a few failures on the road to spring roll making success. Contentious cooks will do well to exercise a little patience as they prepare salad rolls. Rice paper wrappers known as banh trang have to take a dip in a warm bath in order to become soft and pliable, but soaking them too long makes them flimsy and temperamental. Once you’ve mastered the technique of soaking and rolling the rice paper, however, building the layers of colorful filling and securing it in the translucent wrappers is an exceptionally satisfying kitchen activity.
Welcome the long awaited change of seasons by serving up a batch of flavorful spring rolls and serving them alongside cool glasses of iced green tea or a sparkling Prosecco.
Fresh Spring Rolls with Asparagus, Shrimp and Mango
(Makes 8-10 rolls)
Feel free to change up the ingredients in this recipe — try adding matchstick cut cucumber, red pepper or carrots to add color and variety. Rolls can be made two hours in advance and held in the refrigerator.
4 ounces dried rice vermicelli*
1/4 cup minced fresh chives
3/4 pound 16/20 count raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 teaspoon lime zest
Salt and pepper
1 pound pencil-sized asparagus, trimmed and cut into 3-inch lengths
1 mango, peeled and thinly sliced
1 small bunch of mint
8-10 fresh basil leaves
A handful of baby arugula leaves
1-12 oz package spring roll wrappers*
1 cup sweet chili sauce*
1/4 cup chopped peanuts
1/2 cup soy sauce
Bring a teakettle filled with water to a boil. Place the vermicelli noodles in a large bowl and cover with the boiling water. Allow the noodles to soak for 5-7 minutes until softened. Transfer to a colander to drain and rinse thoroughly with cold water. Transfer the noodles back to the bowl and toss with the chives. Set aside until ready to assemble the rolls; if the noodles get sticky just toss them with a bit more water.
Bring a medium sauce pot of salted water to a boil. Drop the prepared shrimp into the boiling water; allow the water to return to a boil, cover the pot, remove from heat and allow the shrimp to sit for 5 minutes. Drain rinse in cold water. Toss the cooled shrimp with the lime zest and season with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside until ready to assemble the rolls.
Bring a medium saucepan of salted water to a boil. Drop the trimmed asparagus into the boiling water and cook the asparagus for 3 minutes until just crisp-tender. Shock the asparagus in ice water to halt the cooking process. Set aside until ready to assemble the rolls.
To assemble the rolls, heat a shallow skillet filled with 2 inches of water over medium heat until just hot (you should be able to put your hands in the water). Place a spring roll wrapper in the warm water and allow it to soften. Carefully transfer the wrapper to a cutting board and lay flat.
Scatter a few mint leaves over the wrapper and place one large basil leaf on the wrapper. Cut the shrimp horizontally in half. Place three halves, pink side down in the lower 1/3 of the wrapper. Top the shrimp with a handful of noodles. Place two pieces of asparagus and a couple of slices of mango on top of the noodles. Place a few arugula leaves next to the noodles. Roll the bottom of the wrapper over the filling and bring in the sides like and envelope to encapsulate the filling and roll up. Set aside and repeat.
Mix the chili sauce and the peanuts and transfer to a small bowl. Mix 1 tablespoon of chopped mint leaves with the soy sauce and transfer to a small bowl. Use any leftover mango, shrimp and asparagus as garnish for the spring rolls and serve with the dipping sauces.
*These items are available at Asian markets or in the international aisle of finer grocery stores.