Sunday, September 5, 2010

Make me a Banh Mi

If you have never had a Banh Mi (pronounced "bawn me"), you are missing out on one of the most flavorful, comforting sandwiches around. Never even heard of a Banh Mi? The word literally refers to the Vietnamese baguette made with wheat and rice flour. But it is more commonly known as the traditional Vietnamese sandwich served on the baguette, popular as street food in Vietnam and in Vietnamese immigrant communities all over the world.

But the sandwich has it's roots in France, as well, where the French eat a sandwich of pate and lettuces on baguette. Much Vietnamese food has a French influence due to the French colonization that began in the 19th century and lasted until the Japanese took control during World War II (but left the French administrators). It wasn't until the 1954 that Vietnam would begin to escape French rule, and by then their cuisine was inflected with many French elements. I hate to breeze through the details, but this isn't a history blog. I do suggest you read more here or here if you are interested in learning more.

The Banh Mi starts with the Baguette, which in Vietnam is made with both rice and wheat flour. If you have a good Asian market nearby, you may be able to find this kind of bread; if not, just use a softer baguette from the grocery store. I love the crunchy crust of a traditional French baguette, but for a loaded sandwich it's not the best choice. Next are the pate, pork, pickled carrots and radishes, cilantro and jalapenos. There are probably a thousand versions, so this is really just a starting point.

We've made Banh Mi with roasted pork, pulled pork, and pork meatballs. The meatballs were our favorite. Not only were they delicious and easy to eat, they were also by far the easiest to make. A win-win situation if I ever saw one! The meatballs here are so flavorful that if you have any leftover, or if you make extra, they would make a great meal with a cool soba noodle salad tossed with any extra vegetables and pickling liquid.

I aspire to someday make pate from scratch, but for now, I just buy some from a gourmet grocer, farmers' market stand, or deli. The professionals do a wonderful job, so pick something that they recommend. You want to taste the creaminess but not have any flavors that completely overpower the dish. We used a pork peppercorn pate, and it had a crust of peppercorns that was delicious smeared on bread, but that we were careful to avoid on the sandwiches as it was a pretty strong flavor.

Last, but certainly not least, are the vegetables. I like a quick pickle with a good amount of sweetness to counter the salty pork and rich pate. The fish sauce adds a savory note and complexity, while the rice vinegar balances with acidity. Sliced jalapenos bring heat to the finish, while cilantro brings the dish together. Many versions call for mayonnaise, or remoulade style dressing, but I like it with just a little extra siracha sauce for the kick of flavor; it's heat is more up front, so it doesn't add to the fire of the jalapenos. And it has a nice vinegary sweetness that punches with flavor.

Once you have the ingredients ready, it's a simple matter of assembling the sandwich. Smear the pate over the bread, and top with the meatballs and all of the veggies. Voila!

My favorite part about this dish is that it is full of exotic flavors, but in the end, is just a really great sandwich, which is one of the ultimate comfort foods.

Banh Mi Sandwich
If you're not a big fan of spicy foods, simply remove the seeds from the jalapeno slices, or omit them altogether.

1/2 pound ground pork
1/2 pound ground lamb
1 egg
1/4 cup Panko (Japanese Breadcrumbs)
1/4 cup diced onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon Siracha
1 Tablespoon Parlsey, chopped
1 Tablespoon Basil, chopped
1 Tablespoon Thai Basil, chopped
1 teaspoon Toasted Sesame Oil
I Tablespoon Olive Oil
pinch of salt and pepper

Pickled Vegetables:
1 carrot, cut into matchstick pieces
1 cucumber, cut in half and sliced into ribbons
3 radishes, sliced thin
3/4 cup unseasoned rice vinegar
1 1/2 Tablespoons sugar
1 Tablespoon Fish Sauce

French Bread or Baguette
1 Jalapeno, sliced
4 ounces Pate

Preheat the oven 350 degrees.

Mix all ingredients for the Pickled Vegetables in a bowl and toss to coat. Refrigerate for at least one hour and up to overnight.

Put all ingredients for meatballs in a bowl. Using your hands, wearing rubber gloves if so desired, massage the ingredients together. Do not overmix, but make sure everything is incorporated. Portion into small balls, roughly an inch or inch and a half around.

Heat the Olive Oil in a pan over medium high heat. Working in batches, sear the meatballs on all sides, about 1-2 minutes per side. Transfer to a baking dish. Repeat with remaining meatballs. In the oven, cook the meatballs for 10-12 minutes, or until they are no longer pink on the inside.

Meanwhile, slice the baguette into 4 5 inch portions (or 4 or 6 inch, depending on the size of your bread and how hungry you are). Slice each portion in half length wise, and toast until lightly golden. Spread with an ounce of pate on the bottom side of bread. Cut the meatballs in half, then position on the bread. Top with a quarter of the pickled veggies, a few slices of jalapeno, and cilantro to taste. Serve with extra Siracha if desired. Place the top piece of bread on the sandwich, then slice in half if desired, or just serve as is. Enjoy!