Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Banh Mi

I love bahn mi -- the Vietnamese "salad sandwich". There's so much good stuff going on in there: pickled carrots and daikon, cucumbers, pork (or chicken or tofu or pate or whatever), basil, cilantro... But my kids are not quite up for the whole she-bang in one bite. So, on the advice of my friend Jamie, I turned it into a mothership meal. (Thanks, Jamie!)

It's a great summery dinner, and a twist on those cold cut spreads, where you get to make your own sandwich. (which I LOVED as a kid, despite the fact that I associate them for some reason with both church and funerals. )

If you pickle the vegetables and marinate the pork early in the day, then the actual dinner set up is easy: Roast or grill the meat, slice it thin, and lay out all the fixings. My son loves the the sweet and salty pickled carrots, and the last time I made this, they both tried cucumbers (a new one, even though they love dill pickles. KIDS!)

P1ckled Vegetables:
1 daikon radish, grated
3 carrots, grated or finely julienned
1/2 cup rice vinegar
1 tablespoon brown sugar or sucanat
1 tablespoon salt
Water to cover

2 fresh jalapeños, thinly sliced
1/2 sweet onion, sliced thinly
Handful each of fresh cilantro and basil
1 long cucumber
Watercress or other salad green
1 tablespoon fish sauce
4 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 French baguette, multi-grain if possible (much preferable in our tests to the doughy ciabatta that's pictured above)

1 lb pork tenderloin
1/4 cup brown sugar or sucanat
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 cloves minced garlic

1. Preheat oven to 350°F (or heat grill, if using). Heat a skillet with a tablespoon of oil, and brown tenderloin. Place in oven and roast for 10-15 minutes on each side, depending on its size (check often).

2. To pickle vegetables: Stir together vinegar, sugar, and salt, and heat. Let it cool, then toss with shredded vegetables (each in a separate bowl). Taste and add salt if necessary. Set aside for at least 15 minutes and up to 12 or so hours.

3. Meanwhile, heat baguette on rack in oven until crusty, about 5 minutes. Cut off and discard round ends, then split baguette.

4. Drain pickled vegetables.

5. Mix together mayonnaise and fish sauce, and spread on cut sides of bread. Arrange pork, pickled veggies, watercress and herbs on table. Offer each diner some bread, and help yourselves to the sandwich you want!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Bean Thread Salad

When I was in my 20's I worked in a Spanish tapas restaurant in Philadelphia. It was this clatteringly loud, trendy restaurant with the Gypsy Kings on endless loop. Please god, may I never have to hear another minute of the Gypsy Kings as long as I live.

Despite the musical torture, I learned a lot about Spanish food in that year, and about the beauty of cheap rustic ingredients. But forget the paella and the chickpeas-chorizo stew (and the rice pudding and the avocado salad and steamed greens with garlic and the many other dishes I first encounterd there which I continue to make to this day) -- one of the best dishes I discovered at Pamplona was at the staff holiday party, and it was made by one of the line cooks, who was Cambodian.

It was this enormous bowl of clear noodles. There were grilled shrimp, and an assortment of cold, crisp vegetables like sliced celery, and slivers of red peppers and scallions. There was chopped cilantro, an herb I was still just discovering and falling in love with.

But the noodles were the most amazing part. They were delicate and slippery, and had this bizarre flavor combination -- sour and salty and sweet and ... just amazing. I had never tasted anything like it. I kept trying to get the recipe from the cook, but the language barrier got in the way.

I tried to make the noodles on my own, but it wasn't until I discovered fish sauce that I was able to come up with a reasonable fascimile. By now, recipes for this classic salad from southeast Asia are easy to come by. My twist on it is to present it as a Mothership meal. Most kids like plain noodles, and they also tend to like vegetables cut into skinny, easy-to-manage shapes. You can use vegetables you know they'll like, such as carrots or red pepper or celery. If you have a cilantro-hater in the family, as I do (my husband, who has given it his best shot, has resorted to calling cilantro "evil soap-weed"), you can keep the dish of chopped cilantro on the side.

Everyone else can mix together as desired.

Bean Thread Salad
* 1 lb medium shrimp, cleaned and shelled (or 2 chicken breasts, cut into cubes; or a cup of extra-firm tofu, cubed)
* 1 tsp fish sauce
* 1 tsp lime juice
* 1 tsp palm sugar or raw sugar

* Noodles and Dressing
* 1/3 cup lime juice (about 2 to 3 limes)
* 1/3 cup palm sugar or raw sugar
* 1/3 cup fish sauce
* Bean thread noodles, cooked according to package directions, rinsed and drained
* 1 Tbsp. oil

* Vegetables
* Tiny chili peppers, chopped
* Carrots, red peppers, celery and scallions, cut into thin 2-inch slivers


1. Marinate the shrimp (or chicken or tofu) in the marinade for about 15 minutes.
2. Mix the lime juice, sugar and fish sauce. Toss with the noodles.
3. Grill the shrimp on high heat, or heat the oil in a medium frying pan over high heat, and sauté. (Sauté the chicken or tofu, if using.)
4. Set the table: lay out, in separate bowls or plates, the noodles, the shrimp (or chicken or tofu), and the vegetables. Allow each diner to assemble his or her own dish.

Spicing It Up: To make a spicy condiment for parents, mix finely chopped chili peppers with equal parts fish sauce and lime juice. Grown-ups can spoon a small amount into their noodle wraps. Stored in a jar in the refrigerator, this spicy condiment will keep for months, and will mellow as it ages.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

School Night Sesame Noodles

When I was little my mom had this magical marinade: soy sauce, lemon juice, and vegetable oil. She used it as a salad dressing, and especially to make a wilted cucumber salad.

But she also used it as a chicken and meat and seafood marinade. Basically, if you put anything into this mixture, it tastes good.

When my sister and I got into high school and college we started altering our mom's magical marinade. For salad dressing, we changed to olive oil, of course, instead of that yellow jug of corn oil. For marinades, we added chopped garlic and ginger, and eventually, sesame oil, and something sweet like honey or mirin.

By now the magical marinade has a place of honor in my kitchen. I still use it all the time, and I come across versions of it in cookbooks everywhere. Basically, it's three things: salty, sweet, acidic. Soy sauce, mirin, rice vinegar. Soy sauce, maple syrup, lemon. Salt, honey, cider vinegar. It's a perfect flavor balance. Then you add whatever extras you want, like ginger and garlic.

So when I was going to make sesame noodles with chicken, the easiest thing to do was to slice the chicken breasts into large slivers, marinate them in the magical marinade and broil them quickly on each side while I made the noodles.

This is a perfect mothership meal: the noodles are the base, with chicken, scallions, cucumbers, red peppers, broccoli, what-have-you, as the satellites. Put it all out on the table, and let everyone eat. If your kids like the sesame noodles, they're great in lunches, too.

Sesame Noodles

1/4 cups peanut butter
* 2 Tbs. sesame oil
* 2 Tbs. soy sauce
* 1 Tbs. rice vinegar
* 1 Tbs. honey
* 1 tsp. ginger, grated
* 1 clove garlic, minced
* 1 package thin noodles, cooked according to package directions

* 2 scallions, chopped finely
* 1 cucumber, peeled, seeds scooped out, and chopped
* Other vegetables as desired: snow peas, small broccoli florets, thinly sliced red peppers, etc.


1. Mix the first seven ingredients in a small pot over low heat until smooth.
2. Add to the cooked noodles, and toss gently and thoroughly.
3. Serve cold, warm, or at room temperature, with garnish on the side.

Quick Broiled Chicken Breasts
Two chicken breasts. Slice into fat slivers.
Mix with Magical Marinade of my youth: equal parts soy sauce, mirin and rice vinegar, and some minced ginger and garlic. Marinate for at least 20 minutes. Broil on both sides until done.