Thursday, 20 May 2010

banh mi to fawn over

Back in November, when my sister and her friend Jane had been staying at the house for several weeks, I found a recipe for beef sandwiches. It looked interesting enough - some asian flavors, mixed with the simplicity and ubiquity of ground beef.

And though I have never been a fan of raw meat (especially ground beef) I thought I would throw squeamishness to the wind and go for it. I did have a family of five to feed, after all - a situation that allows for little hesitation when you have taken on the responsibility of answering the never-ending question "What's for dinner?"

I remember I was particularly grumpy the evening I decided to make the sandwiches, responding to conversations and questions with annoyed grunts, and most likely chopping in an overly vigorous fashion. I don't know why I chose to make Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwiches on a winter evening, with too many people crowding the kitchen and too many frustrating thoughts running through my mind, but there I was, shaping patties (a first), pickling carrots, and toasting thick, beautiful, baguettes.

When the meat was cooked (haphazardly, I must admit) and the sauces spread and the veggies ready, I plunked it all on the counter and instructed everyone to eat, now. The evening would not end pleasantly if my suffering over this ground meat episode ended in people eating cold sandwiches.

Poor Jane and Laila obeyed. Mom laughed. I snarled. (I think Dad had made a graceful exit at this point). We were all eating, quietly, pursuing our own thoughts, when Jane began to moan.

"Oh my god," she said.

A pause for more chewing.

"Oh my god!" she squealed.

Another pause.

And then in a lower voice, "Oh. My. God."

Laila was giggling. Jane pointed the most serious expression that had yet to grace her face in the past three weeks in my direction and said "I have never felt this way for a sandwich."

I couldn't help but crack a smile. Sauce was smeared on her face, juices dripped down Laila's hands, carrots fell out of Mom's bun. More moaning from Jane.

And then, we were all laughing. Perhaps it was the curry powder that I had overseasoned the patties with. Or the slightly wilted but still potent cilantro that I had tucked between the spicy mayonaise and the beef patty. Or the incredibly mess that everyone was making.

Whatever it was, hysteria soon ensued.

Twice, I attempted a reenaction.

The second time taught me that the sandwich will not cure any grumpy mood. Specifically, SB's grumpy roomate who had no affinity for curry, and proceeded to open all the windows of the apartment (on a rainy evening), and light vanilla candles in every room (an awful touch). Also, plenty of cilantro is absolutely essential. (Who knew that Whole Foods could actually run out of something!)

The third, that well cooked beef is not the aim with this sandwich, accidentally or not. In fact, a crispy exterior should be sacrificed if it means a well done interior, and the doneness factor should be monitored closely, or else everything will turn out a bit too...chewy. Medium rare is key.

In sum, this version of banh mi is outstanding, whether grumpy or not. A beef patty seasoned with potent curry powder, sandwiched between a crispy baguette slicked with spicy and garlicky mayonaisse, topped (the beef, not the bread) with quick-pickled carrots, briny jalapenos, and cilantro: deeevine. (Moan).

Also, for beef novices like myself, it's quite simple and relatively hard to mess up (if you don't let yourself be distracted by YouTube videos of 10 year old boys singing Lady Gaga songs just a minute too long, resulting in over cooked meat).

Finally, I wish, for your sake, that in making this recipe you manage to track down someone as appreciative as Jane. It really works wonders for beef confidence and bad moods.

note: this photo showcases false bread: use a wide baguette, not something like this imposter!

Banh Mi Burgers
adapted from Food & Wine
serves 4

3 carrots, shredded
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 cup mayonnaise (or a mixture of mayo and thick, plain yogurt)
2 tbsp (or more) sriracha
3 tsp tomato paste
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 pounds ground beef
2 tsp (or more) curry powder
2 tbsp vegetable oil
one baguette, cut into 6 inch segments and split in half
pickled jalapenos, sliced
cilantro sprigs

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Toss the carrots, rice vinegar, and sugar together and set aside.

2. Whish the mayonnaise with sriracha, tomato paste, garlic, and salt and pepper, and set aside.

3. Form four patties, about 6 inches long and 1 inch thick. Season each with curry powder, salt and pepper. Heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet, and cook the patties over medium heat, 4-6 minutes on each side.

4. Meanwhile, toast the baguette pieces in the oven until golden. Drain the carrots. Smear the both sides of the bread with plenty of the spicy garlic sauce, then top one side with carrots, cilantro, and jalapenos to taste. Slide the finished patties onto the second side of bread, and serve (immediately!).

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