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Some Like it Crispy, Some Like it Fresh

Whether you are looking for fried spring rolls or fresh salad rolls, these specialties will be a hit at your Thanksgiving table.

Go to any Vietnamese restaurant and you are sure to see one appetizer prominently featured on the menu, cha gio.

Cha gio, or Vietnamese spring rolls, are similar in size to Chinese egg rolls, but taste nothing alike. Wrapped in thin rice paper and then fried for a crispy exterior, spring rolls feature an aromatic filling of pork, crab, onions, scallions, mushrooms, garlic and fish sauce.

They are not your traditional holiday fare, but done right, I can guarantee you and your guests will be thanking you for making them.

My best word of advice for inexperienced cooks who still want to make something for the holidays but want an alternative to turkey: give the good old ham a try. Making a ham is nearly fool-proof, and an easy recipe can be found here.

Back to spring rolls.

If you have a lot of family members coming for the holidays, and they all get along, this could be a fun recipe to make together. The other bonus is, assembling the rolls and then frying them becomes that much faster when there are a few hands helping. One work crew can be in charge of rolling the spring rolls while someone else (adults only, please) fries them.

Don't be too worried if someone tries to squeeze too much filling into one roll and ends up breaking the rice paper, just grab another wrapper, and start again (just remember to buy extra packages!) And don't worry if they come out uneven -- sometimes it's more interesting to have mama bear, papa bear and baby bear sized spring rolls. Plus, they'll still taste good in the end.

One note on cooking for a large crew, consider doubling the recipe. Once you commit to making the recipe, it might be worth it to make a large batch.

If you don't have help, and you are tackling this recipe on your own for the first time, plan for about a couple of hours of work from start to finish.

While labor intensive, the taste is well worth it — the combination of pork, crab, garlic and onions surrounded by crispy paper thin rice paper for that crunch makes me salivate just thinking about it.

The fried rolls are typically eaten accompanied by fresh lettuce and dipped into a carrot fish sauce on the side. Fish sauce is the main ingredient in the dipping sauce, which you love — me — or you are so paranoid about not spilling any on your clothes because the flavor is so strong, that you skip it altogether.

While the purists out there would write me off as a nut if I were to suggest skipping the fish sauce, but that's what I would do — if I didn't like it. Use salt to season the filling appropriately, rather than fish sauce, and you might not need any dipping sauce.

So you've read this far and you are one of those people who hates to eat fried food because it's not healthy. What's available for people like you?

The answer may be goi cuon, or Vietnamese salad rolls.

These salad rolls are made of shrimp, lettuce, mint, cilantro, pork and rice noodles. For this dish, the sauce is essential. Luckily for all of those fish-sauce haters out there, the dipping sauce consists of peanut butter, minced ginger and an optional sweet hoisin sauce. Yes, I know – the traditional recipe does call for fish sauce but my experience has been it's not necessary, so it's OK to skip it.

While less labor intensive than the crispy rolls, prepping for these rolls – including cooking the shrimp and pork, and slicing the vegetables – still takes time, so I would still budget about a couple of hours from start to finish.

So now, you're ready to start but you don't know where to buy ingredients, such as fish sauce, rice paper, dried auricularia mushrooms and rice sticks? You're in luck.

We've compiled a partial list of stores in the state that would carry these ingredients. But this list is by no means comprehensive, so if you know of a good one that is missing, let everyone know in the comments.

  • Cho Mien Nam, 130 Wood Ave., Bridgeport
  • A Dong, 160 Shield St., West Hartford
  • Atlantic Market, 135 Main St., Danbury
  • TSB Asian Food, 290 White St., Danbury

So without further words, here is a recipe link to an old New York Times version of cha gio and Emeril Lagasse's version of goi cuon.

OK, I admit it, in looking around for good recipes, I wasn't quite satisfied with what I found. So included as .pdf files to this article is my version of those two recipes.

If you try it, let me know how it works out for you. Good luck, and remember to enjoy yourself and eat well.

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