If pork belly is the cut craze of the moment, then I nominate Vietnamese banh mi
sandwiches as its most appetizing summer application. I’ve been hearing about pork belly all over the food world lately: 23% of the chefs polled in this month’s Food & Wine magazine thought of it as the ingredient more home cooks should try. And in the New York Times, Frank Bruni drools all over it, along with other fatty cuts of “fat, glorious fat.” It is fun to revel in fat once in a while, no doubt, but especially now that it’s bathing suit season, let’s not forget that balance and moderation are everything. With its refreshing ratio of fresh veggies to meat and satisfyingly crisp bite, the banh mi sandwich seemed the way to go. Come to think of it, I’d nominate them as just about the best summer application for any type of pork, meat or tofu — and that’s just what I made this weekend to serve a living room full of lady friends.
Anyone who has tried this popular Vietnamese street food and quintessential colonialism-induced fusion food cannot get enough of them. I enjoyed them many times in Boston’s Chinatown during college (for $1 at one sandwich shop at the time!) but had nearly forgotten about them until my friend Karol asked me to try making them. And so I did. But I also realized how great sandwiches are for entertaining a group of people with varying food preferences (without ostracizing some guests like throwing on a frozen veggie burger instead of having a vegetarian entree). The proteins can vary, but the rest of the sandwich makings remain the same. And who doesn’t like having options?
the three food groups: sliced fried tofu cubes
sliced roast pork
marinated and grilled chicken
For this assortment, I went with a somewhat traditional roast pork sandwich, one with grilled chicken marinated in some spices, and one with fried tofu slices. Regular firm tofu would have been fine, I suppose, but the puffy, contrasting texture of fried tofu seems more suited to sandwich stuffing. For the roast pork, I loosely adapted a garlic-brined pork banh mi recipe from Food & Wine. Since I roasted the pork the day before the party, though, I ended up slicing the roast and then heating up the slices in a pan for a minute or two, dabbing a bit of extra seasoning on them while I was at it. Other meat varieties might call for a pork pate or crushed Vietnamese meatballs (or seasoned ground pork); these would probably have been much faster to prepare, although sandwiches like these are typically devised to use up whatever meats are on hand. (And in an ironic twist, I’m left with a lot of leftover roast pork after making these sandwiches.)
the drink special was a quickly improvised lychee martini: 1 part vodka, 2 parts lychee syrup (from a can of lychees) and a twist of lime
All this talk about meat for a ladylike luncheon!
Banh Mi Sandwiches Three Ways
(makes 3 baguette-length sandwiches, for 8-10 servings)
for the pork:
1 lb pork belly
2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 serrano chili, roughly chopped
2 Tb light brown sugar
1 Tb salt
for the chicken:
1 lb boneless chicken breasts or thighs
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp white pepper
1 tsp ginger, finely minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
juice of 1 lime
1 Tb vegetable oil
about 4 oz fried tofu, sliced
3 sandwich-style baguettes
about 1/2 lb daikon radish, julienned
2 medium carrots, julienned
2 Tb vinegar
1 Tb sugar
1 tsp salt
2-3 scallions, sliced thinly on a bias
about 1/4 cup mayonnaise
2-3 jalapeno or other hot peppers, sliced
1 bunch fresh cilantro, stems trimmed
Marinate the pork belly one day ahead: combine brown sugar and salt with about half a cup of warm water and stir until dissolved. Add garlic, serrano pepper and pork and fill container with cold water until the pork is submerged. Marinate at least overnight, preferably one full day ahead of roasting. When ready to roast, preheat oven at 350 degrees. Roast pork in a roasting pan with lid on for about half an hour. Remove, and continue cooking until the pork has reached an internal temperature of 165 degrees at its thickest point, about another half hour. Let sit for 15 minutes before slicing.
Marinate the chicken an hour before cooking. Rub with spices, ginger, garlic and lime juice, cover, and refrigerate. When ready to cook, heat up a skillet with some oil. Brown the chicken on each side until cooked. Place chicken onto a cutting board and let cool a bit before slicing into strips.When the carrots have been julienned, place into a bowl with vinegar, salt and sugar. Fill with cold water to submerge the carrots. Refrigerate while you chop and prepare the rest of the ingredients.
To put the sandwiches together, coat the inside of each sandwich baguette with mayonnaise. Add chicken in one sandwich, pork in another, and sliced tofu in the other. Top with radishes, (semi-pickled) carrots, scallions, cilantro, and jalapenos, if desired. Cut into single-serving size sandwiches. Serve hot sauce on the side if desired.
(for 8-10 servings)
3 baguettes (at $1.50/each): $4.50
1 lb pork belly: $3.49
1 lb boneless chicken thighs: $2.99
1 4-oz package fried tofu (from a Chinese grocery store): $1.25
1/2 lb daikon radish: $0.50
2 carrots: $1.00
3 scallions: $0.35
1 bunch cilantro: $1.00
2 jalapenos: $0.30
4 garlic cloves: $0.10
1 lime: $0.20
salt, sugar, peppers, ginger, oil: $0.10
Five brownie points: Again, it’s a terrific role reversal of a sandwich that the crisp, fresh veggies are so much a highlight, on a par with the meat (think a BLT). You won’t be skimping on your daily intake of fat (unless you chose really lean chicken and light mayonnaise), but you should get plenty of fresh nutrition in each bite.