Thursday, June 4, 2009

Crispy and creamy and crusty

I don't mind a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant. You know, the kind with metallic tables and chairs with plastic seats that stick to the back of your legs in the summer. Where the ethnicity of the patrons gives a clear indication of the authenticity of the food. Where the floor is sticky but the ingredients are fresh and the waiter is nice not because he wants a good tip but because he's NICE.

There was a restaurant in St. Paul which my old group at Northwest, that hummus loving group, enjoyed going to. It was called Saigon, and was authentically Vietnamese, serving big, comforting bowls of pho. But I went there for the sandwiches. Sandwiches don't sound Vietnamese, but they have them as a result of French colonialism in South East Asia. They call them Banh Mi, which sounds more Vietnamese, and they're made like this.

Take a good baguette, or some kind of crusty French bread. Slather it with paté and mayo. Add some carrots (I made strips with a peeler) and sliced jalapeño peppers both pickled in rice vinegar. Top with some fresh cucumber slices. And make some peppery pork (recipe below) to slice up on the sandwich.

It wasn't a sandwich that sounded good to me the first time I was told I had to order it. The pho sounded good, lots of fat noodles and meat swimming in broth. But paté and mayo? Pickled vegetables? More pork on top? I was unsure.

But I've always been willing to try new foods. Not that I would eat dog or most insects, but in the realm of normal foods, I will try just about anything. Sometimes this leads to disgusting flavors I will never ever forget (e.g. gefilte fish, durian), but often it leads to amazing new flavor combinations. Wasabi blended in soy sauce. Candied ginger. Avocado white bean soup. Goat cheese with honey.

Why should these things not go together? Just because it hasn't become commonplace doesn't mean it can't be good. After all, the first time someone came up with a recipe for, say, lasagna, it may have gone like this:

Cook: Maybe I should mix up some meat and tomatoes and cheese.
Spouse: Why would you do that?
Cook: That's all I have left in the house. Oh and this flour that I can mix with water and egg to make dough. I'll just put the meat mixture between layers of dough.
Spouse: That sounds gross.
Cook: I'll put more cheese on top. Then it'll be good.
Spouse: You can't make me eat that.

And yet lasagna is much loved. How do we get from there to here unless I try something new?

It turns out that I loved the sandwiches, and not just because they were $2 each. And not just because my expectations were low. I loved how the ingredients from different cultures worked together and complemented each other. There were fresh crispy vegetables and creamy spread and crusty bread. Crispy and creamy and crusty, all in one package. I always ordered two, ate 1 1/2 and took the last half home to enjoy later. I miss that restaurant in St. Paul but I've heard about a good place in Chicago with Banh Mi. Until I get there, I found I can make Banh Mi at home.

Black Pepper Pork Banh Mi Recipe

1 pound of pork chops, shoulder or loin. Sliced thinly

2 cloves crushed garlic

2 table spoons of fish sauce

2 teaspoons sugar

1-2 tablespoons fresh ground black pepper. If you like the spice and flavor, add more!

2 tablespoons of finely chopped shallots or onion

1/4 cup vegetable or grapeseed oil

1 teaspoon of sesame seed oil

1. Mix all marinade ingredients (except for pork) in a plastic bag. Let all ingredients dissolve in oil, then add slices of pork. Allow everything to marinade for at least 1 hour.

2. Heat up frying pan, lay slices of pork, one layer at a time. When one side is cooked, flip to other side to finish cooking.

3. Assemble pork in your sandwich with condiments.

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