Sunday, August 9, 2009
If you had to choose the cuisine of just one country to eat for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Me? Vietnam. Hands down, no contest. The reasons for this are many, and include things like summer rolls stuffed with shrimp, a well-made fish sauce, green papaya salad, pickled carrot, lemongrass, and the meaty essence of Pho broth. It’s about the way I feel after I eat Vietnamese cuisine, and the fact that when I don’t feel well Vietnamese food makes me feel better. It’s the balance of sweet, sour, salt, and spice in a bowl of chilled rice noodles, with fresh vegetables, and grilled meat. It’s the way they use fresh mint, basil, and cilantro so liberally, and so well. And it’s the fact that Vietnamese food is revered as one of the healthiest of cuisines, using things like fresh citrus juice, herbs, vinegar, and fish sauce for flavor, rather than lots of fat or dairy. I echo the words of Tony Bourdain (if I humbly may) in saying that, “I’m in love. I am absolutely over-the-top gonzo for this country.”
When I was in culinary school in SF, if we ever had the chance to leave school for lunch, this is what we would eat:
Vietnamese Banh Mi. Pickled carrot, liver paté, sliced pork (usually), cucumber, cilantro, and fiery jalapeño coins tucked into a crackly mayonnaise-smeared baguette. Certainly not the lightest of Vietnamese specialties but boy is it good. There was a place a couple blocks over from the old California Culinary building on Polk St., a dingy little hole in the wall in the heart of the Tenderloin (pretty much the worst part of town), where an old Vietnamese couple made and sold Banh Mi for five bucks a piece. I don’t think the place had a name, but it wasn’t very hard to find; just look for a handful of culinary students in hounds tooth checked pants and chef’s whites, standing on the sidewalk eating baguette sandwiches, smoking cigarettes, and drinking guava nectar from a can.
I suppose in a way we were applying our education. See we learned in school about how the presence of French colonists in Vietnam showed up in their food. Baguettes? Mayonnaise? Paté? All French. Pickled carrot? Cilantro? Fresh jalapeño? All Vietnamese. So Banh Mi is a shining example of the fusion of these two cuisines.
I live a long way from the Tenderloin now, so when I get a hankering for Banh Mi I have to make it myself. Once you’ve got all the toppings, it’s actually pretty simple, and totally worth it. Taste for yourself. Here’s the recipe:
Vietnamese Steak Sandwich or Banh Mi (serves 4)
Pork is more traditional than steak here, but I like to grill up a bunch of flank for dinner one night, and use the leftovers for this sandwich the next. You can also use marinated and grilled pork loin, deli ham, chicken, or even bologna (might be pretty rich with the paté). Although the paté is optional, I highly recommend using it. It adds an irreplaceable base note to the overall flavor. This makes a great picnic sandwich.
1 long baguette, sliced lengthwise through the middle
1 lb. marinated and grilled flank steak, thinly sliced (recipe below)
½ cup mayonnaise (I used light)
½ to 1 teaspoon Chili-garlic sauce, Sriracha, or hot sauce
3 ounces liver paté (pork, duck, goose, whatever) optional
1 – 5 inch section cucumber, very thinly sliced
2 cups pickled carrot (recipe below)
1 ½ cup fresh cilantro leaves, washed, dried, and loosely packed
1 jalapeño, sliced thinly into coins
1. Combine the mayonnaise and Chili-garlic, Sriracha, or hot sauce in a small bowl, and smear both sides of the sliced baguette.
2. Thinly slice the paté and layer it evenly along the top half of the bread. On the bottom half of baguette, layer the sliced flank steak, followed by the cucumber, pickled carrot, and cilantro. Finally, add the jalapeño coins to taste—they add a LOT of heat.
3. With a serrated bread knife cut the sandwich into four portions and serve. If wrapped and refrigerated sandwich will keep for up to 1 day.
Marinated Flank Steak
Use up to 2 lbs. of meat in this marinade. I grilled this up the night before and used half the meat on a Thai Beef Salad, saving the rest for Banh Mi. The pineapple juice is important because it will really help tenderize an otherwise tough cut of meat. Lightly score flank steak in a cross-hatch pattern before grilling to prevent the meat from “curling”. Let the meat rest 5 to 10 minutes after removing from grill, and always slice across the grain when serving.
6 ounces pineapple juice
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 lime, zest and juice
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Pinch chili flakes
2 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
Combine all ingredients and add meat. Marinate 4 to 6 hours before grilling over medium high heat, 4 to 6 minutes per side.
Quick Pickled Carrots (makes 2 cups)
Used in chilled rice noodle bowls, in summer rolls, on salads, or in sandwiches, these are a staple of the Vietnamese kitchen. Make double if you like and keep them in the fridge for up to 5 days.
1 ½ cups water
½ cup rice vinegar
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups grated carrots
Combine first four ingredients and stir until salt and sugar are dissolved. Add grated carrot and let sit at least 15 minutes or up to 5 days (refrigerated). Drain before serving.