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I'm on a (spring) roll

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Four adults lined both sides of the island in my kitchen on a recent Sunday afternoon. Picking and choosing from an array of brightly colored fresh vegetables to include in roll-ups, we looked like young children involved in a pre-school food project, tasting, laughing and chatting as we worked. Or played.

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Once we realized we weren't stuffing flour tortillas to create behemoth burritos, we began forming perfect spring rolls.

I remember the first time I ate a spring roll. I was dining in a Vietnamese restaurant in St. Paul. I was disappointed when the spring rolls were placed on the table - they weren't the golden deep-fried logs I was used to dipping into sweet and sour sauce at my favorite Chinese restaurant.

Disappointment faded as I took my first bite of a spring roll. I easily bit through the thin, chewy wrapper that was so sheer I could see the colorful fresh vegetables and herbs rolled up inside. Crunchy vegetables bundled into the wrapper brought pleasure to my palate - so fresh and sweet.

My first try at making my own spring rolls many years ago was a frustrating experience. I didn't know much about the round translucent disks that I brought home from the store. At that time, most rice paper sheets were made of only rice flour, salt and water. They were thick and needed quite a bit of time to rehydrate in hot water before using. After soaking in water, they tore very easily.

Now it is easy to find rice paper sheets in grocery stores and Asian markets. There are often several brands and sizes to choose from. I've had good luck with the brand that has a red rose on the package. They are made with rice flour, salt, water and tapioca flour. The addition of tapioca flour allows sheets to be thinner, more pliable and take less time to rehydrate. No more ripping rice sheets as I roll up spring rolls.

Fresh Vegetable Spring Rolls are versatile. They can be made with any of your favorite vegetables and herbs - cucumber, basil, cilantro, any kind of peppers and cabbage are just some of the options. I like brown rice rolled up with the vegetables. Rice vermicelli noodles are a more traditional choice.

Serve the Spring Rolls with your favorite dipping sauce. Peanut Dipping Sauce is my recommendation. Although it looks like caramel, it's not a decadent sauce you can eat from a spoon. It is delicious spooned onto Fresh Vegetable Spring Rolls, though. You may want to make a double batch. It goes fast.

Fresh Vegetable Spring Rolls are a welcome delicate appetizer, a light lunch and a healthful snack.

I can't think of a better way to celebrate spring. Prepare all of the vegetables and herbs you wish to offer. Set out a stack of rice paper rounds with a shallow dish of room temperature water right beside the thin disks. Gather your family and friends together and have fun playing with food, shaping Fresh Vegetable Spring Rolls. It's a wonderful way to enjoy each other, enjoy food and find pleasure in eating together.

Fresh Vegetable Spring Rolls

1 bunch romaine lettuce, leaves separated and ribs removed

2 to 3 carrots, cut into long matchsticks

1 red bell pepper, seeds removed, cut into matchsticks

8 ounces mung bean sprouts

1 bunch fresh mint leaves

2 avocados, ripe but firm, peeled, sliced thin

Cooked brown rice or quinoa, optional

12 round rice papers

Prepare all vegetables, sprouts, mint leaves and avocados and set aside.

Pour lukewarm water into a large shallow dish. A large pie plate works well. One at a time, soak rice sheets in warm water to soften. It will take just 20 to 30 seconds.

Lay a rehydrated rice sheet on a clean kitchen-towel covered work surface. Working quickly, place a lettuce leaf at the edge nearest to you, leaving about 1 inch to fold over. Place a mixture of the carrots, peppers, sprouts, mint leaves and avocado on top. Add rice or quinoa, if desired.

Fold the edge nearest to you over the filling, tuck in the sides, and roll up tightly.

Place filled rolls on a plate and cover with plastic wrap so they don't dry out. Serve with Peanut Dipping Sauce or dipping sauce of your choice. Makes 12 spring rolls.

Peanut Dipping Sauce

1/4 cup creamy peanut butter

3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

2 teaspoons tamari or soy sauce

1 tablespoon grated ginger, or to taste

2 tablespoons honey

Mix all ingredients in a small bowl until smooth and creamy.

Tips from the cook

--Once the package of rice papers is opened, store it in a zip-top plastic bag in the cupboard where the papers will last for several years. I speak from experience.

--Cooked shrimp is a nice addition to these Spring Rolls.

--Heat up the Peanut Dipping Sauce with a bit of chili paste or sriracha.

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