Bánh Mì from Scratch
My relationship with the venerable Vietnamese sandwich started well before I knew its name, when Emeril Lagasse (a man who I am not ashamed to admit inspired me to cook in a big way) featured a recipe for “Vietnamese-style Poor Boys” on one of his many Food Network shows. Emeril was taking a bit of liberty with his nomenclature, but I recognized a good thing when I saw it and made this sandwich several times over the years. My other bánh mì breakthrough was when I began working as a cook at Blackbird Café in Minneapolis, which features a pretty excellent version on its menu. Nothing like making a sandwich a hundred times to come to appreciate its nuances.
So there are my two big influences in banh mi-making: a creole TV chef and a South Minneapolis neighborhood restaurant. I’ve never been to Vietnam. But, great food knows no borders—earlier this week I set out to make my banh mi from scratch.
As with any sandwich this popular and widespread, or any sandwich at all for that matter, there is no exact consensus on what ingredients go in it. But from my experience eating the sandwiches, I knew what I wanted: liver pâté, roast and pulled pork, pickled carrots and daikon, sliced cucumber, cilantro, jalapeño and mayo all on a baguette-style roll.
Just as every house needs a foundation, every great sandwich needs to be built from a strong, tasty base; the first thing to tackle was the bread. Because it works very well for me, I used my standard sourdough bread recipe, which consists of mostly white flour with a little wheat flour thrown in and is hydrated to about 68%. This produces a nicely airy crumb while not being so wet as to be unworkable. After the initial rise I cut off 8 0z pieces and shaped them into rough bâtards. After a rest, a slash and 20 minutes on a 450° baking stone, I had respectable rolls on which to build my sandwich.
Although some restaurants omit it, in my mind liver pâté is essential to a great bánh mì—something about its rich fattiness and that funky liver flavor. Ever since finding an old copy of Terrines, Pâtés and Galantines in an antique store in Red Wing, MN I have been thoroughly immersed in the world of potted meats. Since it was going to be a spread for my sandwich, I needed to make a smooth pâté, rather than my usual chunky, rustic terrines. A food processor made this really easy: chunks of lamb liver, chunks of pork fat, spices are pureed in a matter of seconds. (Not really a process for the squeamish, you’re basically making liquid meat). If I were really anal retentive (ok, more anal retentive) I would have passed the resulting puree through a drum sieve to make sure it was perfectly smooth. To cook the pâté, without overcooking it, I utilized a double boiler. I cooked the ruby mixture until it had become more beige and granular and looked done. Pâté!
With the pâté resting in the refrigerator developing its wonderful flavors, it was time to tackle what is in some ways the star of the show: the pork. The question of the preparation of the pork is another area where pretty much everybody differs, but I fell back to experience. For one thing, I know that I prefer tender pulled pork to pork cooked more quickly. Many of the bánh mì I have tried seem to use some kind of hoisin barbecue sauce, but I just rubbed the meat with salt, pepper and chinese five-spice. The warm, sweet spices are already somewhat present in the pâté and complement the heat of jalapeños.
Since the chunks of pork form a craggy, uneven layer, for a level sandwich you need something to build up while filling the cracks. This is where I like to bring in the pickled carrots. Since there was daikon at the farmers’ market, I used that as well (apparently this is traditional), shredding both.
I fell in love with making quick pickles at Blackbird. It’s as easy as taking a vegetable, cutting it into small pieces (or shredding), tossing it with a hot pepper, a garlic clove, whole peppercorns, coriander seed, and/or whatever other pickling spices call to you, and pouring boiling vinegar, water, salt and sugar over it all, then letting it sit in the refrigerator over night. I put a lot of sugar in to make a sweet pickle, since pork loves sweet things.
With a solid level built up by my pickled roots, I was ready to stack on the fresh vegetables. This was the only part of the process that felt like cheating since I didn’t have to do anything except for clean and cut the vegetables—it felt like it would have been more “from scratch” to have grown them myself. But since I won’t be growing hot peppers in my northern-exposed apartment windows anytime soon, store vegetables would have to do. It’s not like I raised the pig.
Thick slices of cucumber are essential to cool your tongue from the punishment meted out by thin slices of jalapeño. If you are one of those unfortunate individuals to have been cursed by God with a distaste for cilantro,that’s too bad, because the best bánh mìs pile it on, both the fragrant leaves and the crunchy stems.
With the sandwich elements perfectly balanced structurally, there remained only to add the finishing touch to top it all off and bind it all together: mayonnaise.
Mayonnaise can be put together from scratch really easily and can taste a bit richer and have a silkier texture than the heavily processed stuff from the jar (but honestly, if it weren’t for the ‘from-scratch’ gimmick behind this post, I probably would have whipped out the Hellmann’s). It’s just a matter of whisking an egg yolk with some lemon juice, salt, pepper and sugar and then slowly whisking in olive oil until you have mayonnaise.
And so, applying the top piece of bread, I had the scratch bánh mì: built from the ground up, each element custom designed to my exacting specifications. Was it worth it? Well besides the fact that it was more like fun than work to build each element of the sandwich, the sandwich itself was very good; I wouldn’t to call it “the ultimate bánh mì” because I have yet to meet a bánh mì I didn’t like. With pork, pâté, cool cucumbers, jalapeños, fragrant cilantro, sweet pickled carrots and rich mayonnaise on good bread you can’t go wrong. So while I instinctively bristle at all the hype, there is scarcely a sandwich that deserves it more than the bánh mì.