Wednesday, October 10, 2012


This recipe (from Bon Appetit via Dinner With Julie) had been sitting in my Delicious bookmarks for nearly a year, intimidating me. I love banh mi and stalk the Phamish truck (now sadly on hiatus or possibly defunct, I guess?) to get them whenever possible, but making them at home seemed like a huge undertaking. Also, I am secretly afraid of fish sauce. But finally, the hot September weather wore me down until the cool crunchiness of cucumbers, cilantro, and pickled carrots seemed like the only palatable foods in the world.

I’ll cut right to the chase and say I liked these sandwiches but didn’t love them. I used a new brand of mayo (Trader Joe’s ) and it imparted an off taste; I should really have made my own, but that seemed like overkill for an already-complex meal. And if time were no object, I really should have tracked down some rice-flour baguettes for optimal texture; mine, ordinary French bread from Whole Foods, were far too tough and chewy. Most tragically, I didn’t enjoy the texture of the pickled vegetables that I had so been looking forward to. Following the Epicurious directions, I coarsely grated them, and they just ended up kind of sad and soggy. It looks like most banh mi recipes call for julienning them, which is labor intensive but would indeed be better. In my mind, what I had actually been craving was crisp, paper-thin slices, so I might try that in the future. I also used ordinary radishes because I couldn’t find a daikon, which I suspect didn’t help matters.

However, despite the dreaded fish sauce (which smells like holy hell but really, as everyone promises, doesn’t taste specifically fishy in the finished dish, just nicely savory), the meatballs were fantastic, the stars of the whole show. I had never seen a meatball recipe that calls for cornstarch before—I’m guessing it’s replacing egg as a binding agent—but it really gave them a unique, firm, uniform texture that was ideal for a sandwich, where you don’t want your meatballs crumbling and falling apart whenever you take a bite. I’m just not sure I really like meatballs on a sandwich; it all seemed too overwhelming to me somehow. (Maybe I should have tried this in the winter, when heartier foods are more appealing.) I’m intrigued by Julie’s comment that “there must be salad potential here”; the meatballs on or next to a mixed-green salad with cucumber, cilantro, the pickled vegetables, and some sort of Asian-esque vinaigrette would be more my speed, I think. I could also see these as skewers or sliders. Meanwhile, I’d like to try making banh mi with some sort of lemongrass chicken instead.

I didn’t make many changes here, except that I followed Julie’s lead in adding thinly sliced cucumbers, which was an excellent decision. And since many Epicurious commenters complained that the recipe was too sweet, I halved the sugar in the pickled vegetables and thought it was still plenty.

Hot chili mayo:
⅔ cup mayonnaise
2 green onions, finely chopped
1 tablespoon hot chili sauce (such as sriracha)

1 pound ground pork
¼ cup finely chopped fresh basil
4 garlic cloves, minced
3 green onions, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon hot chili sauce (such as sriracha)
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

2 cups julienned carrots
2 cups julienned peeled daikon (Japanese white radish)
¼ cup unseasoned rice vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
1 tablespoon sesame oil or vegetable oil
4 10-inch-long individual baguettes or four 10-inch-long pieces baguette (cut from 2 baguettes)
1 jalapeño pepper, thinly sliced
1 or 2 Persian cucumbers, sliced into ribbons with a vegetable peeler
Large fresh cilantro sprigs to taste

1. To make the hot chili mayo, stir all the ingredients in a small bowl. Season with salt to taste. (Can be made 1 day ahead; cover and chill until ready to use.)

2. Make the meatballs, gently mix all the ingredients in a large bowl. Using moistened hands and scant tablespoonful for each, roll meat mixture into 1-inch meatballs. (Can be made 1 day ahead; cover and chill until ready to use.)

3. Toss the carrots, daikon, rice vinegar, 2 tablespoons sugar, and 1 teaspoon salt in a medium bowl. Let stand at room temperature for 1 hour, tossing occasionally.

4. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add meatballs; sauté until brown and cooked through, turning often and lowering heat if browning too quickly, about 15 minutes.

5. Cut each baguette or baguette piece horizontally in half. Pull out enough bread from each bread half to leave a ½-inch-thick shell. Spread hot chili mayo over each bread shell. Arrange jalapeños, then cilantro, in bottom halves. Fill each with ¼ of meatballs. Drain pickled vegetables; place atop meatballs. Press on baguette tops.

Serves: 4
Time: 1½ hours
Leftover potential: OK, if all sandwich components are stored separately.

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