Banh Mi-tballs

Food blog April 2015-0634When it comes to creating music, it seems to me there are two basic schools. One begins with the melody, considering sound, instrumentation, rhythm, process. Words and story – if there is one – get added to fit the beat and the harmonics and the feel. The other starts with the words: weaving a story, shouting a chorus, infusing rhyme and connotation and syllabic play. Filtering in notes and melodies that fit the narrative.

Guess which one I favor.

Food blog April 2015-0599I have the same issue with food. Seriously, when it comes to creating a recipe, I should probably start with the fundamentals: ingredients. Taste. Familiarity. Procedure and execution and fitting flavors together.

More often than not, though, the singer-songwriter I’ve never been pops to the forefront and I’m instead thinking of names and paragraphs and ways of representing the food I haven’t even made yet.

Food blog April 2015-0600That’s what happened with this experiment. In fact, this is in many ways the inspiration for the whole meatball project. Not because I’ve had a dish just like it that needed to be recreated. Not because I’m obsessed with or particularly fond of meatballs. No. Because I thought the name “banh mi-tball” was too good to pass up.

Food blog April 2015-0603As I noted previously, there is a lot of controversy surrounding the authenticity and exactness of such a sandwich. Ratios of meat to vegetable, the types of vegetables, the texture and flour types in the bread, form the bases of entries on numerous discussion forums that range from curious to intensely heated. Names are called. Gluten is flung.

Food blog April 2015-0604Here’s the thing, though. Now that I’m invested, I just wanted to make a sandwich good enough to be called banh mi-tball. I mean, you can’t back up a heart-wrenching narrative woven in clever rhyme with a tinny little toy guitar and an out-of-tune keyboard. But by the same token, I don’t think you have to be Jimi Hendricks or Eric Clapton to support the story in a satisfying way.

Food blog April 2015-0606What I’m trying to say here, is that I’m not all that interested in authenticity. I didn’t seek out every banh mi shop in Los Angeles and sample and compare and pester their chefs for trade secrets. Even when I’m not losing my mind grading papers during the semester, I don’t have that kind of time or motivation. The point was, I decided, to strive not for exactness or tradition, but to craft a damn good sandwich. So that’s what I’m going for.

Bread, vegetables (pickled and non), meat, spread. These are the necessary components. There should be a crisp crust, there should be a representation of sourness, spiciness, and umami, there should be a vegetal crunch. For this incarnation, I added strips of fresh Persian cucumbers to my pickles, along with sprigs of cilantro and wedges of lime. I spread my slightly-less-than-crisp “baguettes” with a curiously beautiful coral-hued spread of mayonnaise, sriracha, fish sauce, and lime juice, and I stood back and let my fellow sandwich-diners have their way with the pan full of meatballs on the stove.

Food blog April 2015-0611Since banh mi sandwiches so often feature pork, a pork meatball was the way to go. It would need to echo some of the flavors found in the sandwich itself, which means this is one of those recipes with a tablespoon of this and a teaspoon of that and an ingredient list long enough that you might at first be put off. You shouldn’t be, though. Like so many good Asian recipes, especially sauces, every single individual component has a part to play, and none are particularly exotic. Ginger and garlic for their aromatic spice. Jalapeños and cilantro for freshness and heat. A few tendrils of pickled onion  and a squeeze of lime for sourness. Soy sauce and brown sugar to balance that sourness. Fish sauce and red miso paste for that earthy umami funk. Capitalizing on my previous meatball experiments, a pinch of baking powder for lightness and an egg to bind everything together.

Food blog April 2015-0612Despite the lengthy ingredient list, the actual production of the meatballs is easy. Remembering my satisfying results with Swedish meatballs, I dumped everything in the food processor and let it whir. Pâté is a frequent protein option for banh mi sandwiches, so the smooth, bouncy texture I knew I could achieve with mechanized mixing seemed to fit the bill. After a mix, a quick roll with moistened hands, and a shallow fry in vegetable and sesame oil, all that remains is a twenty minute simmer in flavorful liquid. I opted for chicken broth with a bit of miso paste and a bit of brown sugar swirled in, which resulted in a poaching liquid so tasty I debated serving small bowls of it on the side.

Food blog April 2015-0625Once you have all the components, sandwich construction is easy. Because people tend to like crafting their own, this actually makes remarkably good party food. Just lay out your pickles, your vegetables, your bread, set down a jar of spread and a bowl of meatballs and watch your guests go to town. Load up your own baguette with enough fillings to stretch the corners of your mouth as you attempt that first bite. Then hide the leftovers. Because you’re going to want this again, and you might not want to share it.
Food blog April 2015-0628

Banh Mi-tballs
Makes 22-24 tablespoon-sized meatballs
For the meatballs:
2 cloves garlic, skins removed
2 teaspoons grated ginger
1-2 tablespoons jalapeño slices
¼ cup cilantro
1 pound ground pork
1 tablespoon red miso paste
½ tablespoon soy sauce
½ tablespoon fish sauce
½ tablespoon brown sugar
½ tablespoon lime juice
¼ teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped pickled onions
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 egg
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon sesame oil
For the sauce:
1-2 cups low sodium chicken broth
1 tablespoon red miso paste
1 teaspoon brown sugar

 

  • Add the garlic, ginger, jalapeños, and cilantro to the bowl of a food processor and pulse until almost paste-like. This will ensure easier integration and no large chunks of garlic.
  • Add the pork and all other meatball ingredients through the 1 egg (that is, everything except the vegetable and sesame oil), then clamp on the lid and pulse to combine until the vegetable bits are well integrated and the pork itself is smooth and slightly gluey in texture.
  • Working with moistened hands to avoid too much stickiness, roll the mixture into tablespoon sized balls. When all are rolled, heat the vegetable oil and sesame oil in a large skillet over medium heat until the oil shimmers, then carefully add the meatballs in a single layer.
  • Fry over medium heat until browned on all sides; 5-8 minutes. Remove to a clean plate.
  • In the skillet, whisk together the chicken broth, the 1 tablespoon of red miso, and the 1 teaspoon of brown sugar, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Carefully place the meatballs into the simmering broth, again in a single layer, cover, and reduce heat to medium-low.
  • Simmer meatballs for ten minutes, then flip each one over and simmer for 10 minutes more. Serve hot, warm, or room temperature on a sandwich with pickles, vegetables, and spread (recipe follows).

 

Sriracha and lime mayonnaise
makes a generous ⅓ cup; enough for about 4 sandwiches
⅓ cup mayonnaise
zest of one lime
1 teaspoon lime juice
½ tablespoon sriracha or to taste
1 teaspoon fish sauce (go easy; it’s strong)

 

  • Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and mix well to combine.
  • To assemble the sandwiches, split baguettes lengthwise, spread generously with sriracha and lime mayonnaise, then layer on meatballs, pickled vegetables of your choice, cucumber, sliced jalapeños, cilantro sprigs, and if desired, a squeeze of lime juice.

Rain check

Friends, a funny thing happens when you come down with a nasty stomach bug during Week 14 of your 16 week school semester.

Actually, a couple of funny things happen.

One, you freak out. Understandable. How will you POSSIBLY catch back up with all the grading and the lesson planning and the lecture writing and the reading and the conferencing you were supposed to be doing?

Two, you think about the food you planned to gush over and you… well, you don’t want to gush. At least not for a few days. Because ew.

So I’m begging a week’s delay. That means no official April meatball post, but I’ve got’em, and they were delicious, and I’ll have them for you a short week from now.

Hope all is well in your world.

Rice Rolls

Food blog April 2015-0598As I revealed last week, my trio of vegetable pickles are just one part of a larger project: a meatball banh mi. These rice rolls are part two. Banh mi, in Vietnamese, really refers not to the wonderful sandwich layered with pate or pork or tofu and stacked with vegetables, pickles, and spice, but to bread itself. Colonization brought the French baguette to Vietnam, and the blending of flavors is a much nicer postcolonial remnant than such occupations frequently bring.

Food blog April 2015-0567Food blog April 2015-0570Though the culinary melding is quite harmonious, banh mi bread brings with it a great deal of internet controversy. Though most shops that sell the popular sandwich buy their baguettes from Vietnamese bakeries rather than making them in-house, crazy people people like me who want to re-craft the “genuine article” share their complaints, secrets, and professed revelations all over forums and comment threads, arguing over proportions and procedure and shape, and at some point, the argument usually involves discussion of flour type, gluten development, and protein content.

Food blog April 2015-0572Food blog April 2015-0574Food blog April 2015-0580The main debate when it comes to banh mi bread is the texture and composition. Though I’ve had these sandwiches on bread ranging from baguette or french roll to essentially a toasted hot dog bun, the ideal is a crisp, thin crust with a soft interior. The phrase “shatteringly crisp” is used with reverence. The internal structure should be light and soft and more delicate than the spongy chew of ciabatta. Rice flour is supposed to be the answer. Because it does not contain gluten, it will not result in the formation of the chewy texture a well-kneaded baguette can produce. However, food writer Andrea Nguyen, who knows a thing or two about Vietnamese food, asserts (assertively, even!) that rice flour is not a necessity, and in fact may even hinder the lightness and delicacy of the bread interior. However, without access to her cookbook or the combination of vital wheat gluten and vitamin C tablets she makes use of, I stuck with my usual method: a combination of promising-looking recipes plus my own instinct. Despite the to-rice-or-not-to-rice controversy, I decided to use a small percentage of rice flour. After all, I had some. Why not give it a shot.

Food blog April 2015-0581I also decided, veering far from tradition, to add some rye flour to the mix. According to Simply a Food Blog, a little bit of rye flour adds a compelling flavor and some additional sugars to the dough for the yeasts to gobble up. I like the gentle toastiness of rye flour, so I incorporated some of that as well.

Food blog April 2015-0586Food blog April 2015-0588In addition to the Simply a Food Blog suggestion, I also used Rice and Wheat and A Bread A Day in my recipe creation, and ended up with an ingredient list and procedure that created something much closer to a sausage roll or a bun than a crisp crusted baguette.

Food blog April 2015-0589Yes, I’ll admit, these are not the banh mi wrappers of your dreams (well, at least not if you are bivouacked in the “shatteringly crisp” camp). Though these rolls have a thin crust, it is just enough for the teeth to play with, not a staggering crunch you can hear across the table. At first I was perturbed by this, but it only took splitting one open, still warm and fluffy from the oven, and slicking the interior with butter to show me that while this might not be a traditional Vietnamese baguette, it is a delicious piece of bread. Though I filled ours with the meatballs I’ll show you next week, it would be more than welcome at any summer grilling event, whether your intended fillings are kielbasa or veggie dogs.

Food blog April 2015-0590As I thought more about this issue of inexactness, I decided I didn’t care. After all, this is my sandwich. A thin crust that shatters upon impact is fine, but my version keeps the roof of your mouth unscraped and your placemat a lot less crumb-scattered. As Joe Pastry pointed out just recently, tender bread is a boon for a sandwich. Mine offers a pleasant depth of flavor from the addition of the rye flour, and its soft, fluffy interior is exactly the kind of squashy that I favor in a sandwich. Besides (I compellingly convinced myself), the crisp crunch of the vegetables stacked up between the halves of the roll provide sufficient textural contrast. Why not, then, surround them with something a bit on the softer side?

Food blog April 2015-0594These rolls are best just cooled from the oven. They are okay on the second day, but I highly recommend toasting them for consumption on any day following the one they were made.
Food blog April 2015-0596

Banh Mi Rice Rolls
Makes 8
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
2 cups (16 ounces) lukewarm water
1 cup rice flour (about 5 ounces)
½ cup rye flour (about 2.5 ounces)
2 teaspoons salt
3-4 cups all-purpose flour (we don’t want the extra chewiness of bread flour)
2 tablespoons soft butter
  • Combine the yeast and sugar with the water and stir, then let sit for 5-10 minutes until it is bubbly and smells like warm bread.
  • In the bowl of your stand mixer, combine the rice flour, rye flour, butter, and water and yeast mixture with the paddle attachment. It will be very, very wet – basically a liquid. Let it sit for 10-20 minutes – rice flour needs extra time to absorb water. It will seem a bit floppier when you return.
  • After 10-20 minutes resting time, add 2½ cups of the all-purpose flour and all of the salt, then mix with the dough hook attachment on medium speed to form a soft but not overly sticky dough. After about 5 minutes, the dough will start to gather into a ball and stretch to slap the sides of the bowl as it whizzes around. If the dough is not coming together after about 5 minutes, add an additional ¼ cup of flour as needed. I ended up with a little more than 3 cups of all-purpose flour in the mix. Knead on medium speed until the dough is smooth and elastic, a total of 7-10 minutes.
  • Oil the bowl and turn the dough ball over to lubricate on all sides, then cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled; 45-60 minutes. In my warm home office, it only took 45 minutes.
  • Turn the risen dough out onto a board dusted with rice flour and cut into 8 equal pieces. Roll each into a ball, flatten into a disc with the heel of your hand, then let rest 5-10 minutes.
  • Roll each flattened piece of dough into an oval about 8 inches long by 6 inches wide. Working from the long side, roll up each oval into a cylinder of about 8 inches long (the dough will want to stretch – try to keep it at the 8 inch mark). Pinch the exposed edge into the side of the cylinder to create a seam.
  • Place each dough cylinder seam-side down on a parchment lined baking sheet. (If you don’t mind the buns touching, all 8 will fit on the same sheet. If you want them to remain separate, don’t put more than 4 on the same baking sheet). Cover lightly with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel and let rise 30-45 minutes until puffy. To determine whether they’ve risen enough, poke gently; the depression made by your finger should recover about halfway – if the depression disappears completely, it has not risen long enough.
  • While the dough is rising, preheat the oven to 450F with a baking stone inside for even heating. Prepare a spray bottle full of water to spritz the loaves.
  • When risen, slash the loaves at a 45 degree angle (or angle of your choosing; mine are clearly not 45) with a razor blade or serrated knife, then spray lightly with water and quickly place into the preheated oven. Bake for 2 minutes, then spray loaves again lightly with water. Bake 3 minutes more, then spray lightly again.
  • Reduce the oven temperature to 400F and bake an additional 10-15 minutes, or until loaves register 200-210F inside.
  • Let cool at least 10 minutes before splitting, spreading, or just going in for a big bite.

Vegetable pickles, three kinds

Food Blog April 2015-0565Not long ago, I finished Cooked, Michael Pollan’s latest, in which he seeks to elucidate the magic of our kitchens. He looks at the transformative power of each of the four elements when applied to ingredients, and works to understand the connections we draw from and through what we eat as it ceases to be raw materials and becomes food. I couldn’t put it down. I tore through it like a fluffy bedtime novel, as my friend S. probably knew I would when she sent me a copy.

Food Blog April 2015-0548In a number of ways, Pollan’s investigation reminded me of my own scholarly work a few years ago when I was a graduate student. Though I was focused on medieval literature, I was intensely interested in what we could learn about human – and not-so-human – beings by examining the literary depictions of how and what they ate. Dietary habits, I thought, along with sexual practices, might be what determines humanness within this field of literature. Too much, too little, or too weird, and your food habits moved you outside what we think of as human, and into something else.

Food Blog April 2015-0546Unsurprisingly, as anyone who has researched food and its cultural impacts deeply knows, this led me to anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and The Raw and the Cooked, the first volume of his elaborate, complex exploration of human myth and culture. Without getting too academic, I’ll just say that Levi-Strauss thinks a great deal of the development of culture happens as – and as a result of – foodstuffs transforming from raw to cooked. His analogy equates the wild to the raw, and the civilized to the cooked.

Food Blog April 2015-0549Pollan pulls on and plays with this idea, considering that if indeed cooked food represents culture or civilization, then there must be something about the cooking process itself that is civilizing and bridging. The four elements he examines are aligned with four types of cooking methods: fire explores the tradition of barbecue; water looks at stews and braising; air relates his adventures in the magic/science of bread baking; and earth digs into fermentation, the weird, marginally repulsive transformation of fresh food into pickles, or beer, or cheese – food that is prized and yet impacted by earth and death and rot.

Food Blog April 2015-0552This, too, reminded me of my own work (and don’t worry, we’re getting to the recipe part here soon), particularly an article I ran across as I was working on the Chaucer chapter of my dissertation. Subtitled “The Raw, the Cooked, and the Rotten,” the article took on Levi-Strauss’s nature/culture formulation and added a step to accommodate one of the characters in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. If raw food is wild and cooked food is civilized, what happens when that cooked food goes bad? This seemed to equate to my idea of people who had exceeded the limits of humanness through their eating habits, turning food into waste.

Food Blog April 2015-0557But I was looking at food habits from a perspective of too little as well as too much. What about superhuman beings who survived without eating, or whose bodies remained impenetrable, and un-penetrated, by the eventual corruption of food? I hypothesized making this triangle a square: adding preservation as a fourth corner. Suspended in limbo by sealing oneself against the external corruption consumption and digestion can bring, you remain preserved. This is not humanly possible, but it is not considered with disgust in medieval literature. Rather, such individuals hang closer to the divine than to the monstrous or subhuman.

Food Blog April 2015-0551Though this is not quite the four-some Pollan presents, I think fermentation and preservation have some similarities. In being preserved by their “cooking” process, fermented foods and preserved foods are mysterious blends of human and natural magic. Jams and jellies, preserved by being cooked with sugar, are the sweet side of this equation. Pollan opts to explore sauerkraut and cheese and beer. Today, I’m taking on pickles: simple raw, sliced vegetables transformed, “cooked,” and held in briny limbo by vinegar, sometimes sugar, and salt.

Food Blog April 2015-0559When N. and I got serious, we started using pickles as a metaphor for our relationship. In most refrigerators, there is a jar of pickles shoved way in the back, often on the top shelf, getting in the way of the orange juice and the milk and the mayonnaise. When you finally pull that jar out and peer inside, it’s almost never full. There are one or two pickles in there, floating around in the dill-and-peppercorn-laced brine, warty and sour and beautiful. The ubiquity of that pickle jar became our metaphor. As long as there were pickles in our fridge, we would be okay.

Food Blog April 2015-0560As with most Americans, I would wager, the pickles I was accustomed to when I was younger were always cucumber based, and usually dill (though I am a fiend for bread and butter pickles). I had no real sense that other sorts of vegetables could be pickled (aside from beets, thanks to my Nana) until I started frequenting the McMenamins pubs, an Oregon and Southern Washington chain of sorts featuring decent beer, good burgers, and remarkably slow service. Our little graduate crew went often – there were three different locations in the city of Eugene alone. Their hummus platter, ever present on the appetizer menu, came with a variety of vegetables along with triangles of pita, and often the spears of green bean and carrot, and the occasional nub of cauliflower, were pickled. Of course I had little thought of doing this myself until, chasing after an elusive potato salad that included pickled green beans, I started noticing how expensive these various vegetable pickles were in the grocery store. Recreating that potato salad required pickled green beans, dammit, and as a poor graduate student I was both unable and morally opposed to spending $7.99 on a slender little jar.

Food Blog April 2015-0561Fortunately, vegetable pickles are easy and fall within even a humanities graduate student’s budget. Vinegar, sugar, and a healthy shower of salt, heated to a simmer to dissolve the crystals. Jam as many vegetables as you can into a jar, shove in some flavoring agents: bay leaf, mustard seeds, dill, fennel, and pour on the vinegar. Cap, relocate to the fridge, and remember them a few days later when they’ve had a chance to sour up.

Food Blog April 2015-0562Vegetable pickles seem entirely suitable for the season. Fresh, young vegetables are great for pickling, especially while they are still small in size, so the vinegar can penetrate faster. Slender carrots, or plump radishes, or the tiny lanterns of young peppers, are a sign of spring that is often gone too fast. Pickles, though, hold that spring forever, jarred and capped and safe on the top shelf lurking behind the orange juice. Though they are not unaltered – the raw crispness is indeed transformed – in that way too they are like a spring gone by, or perhaps the memories of that spring that remain. It’s not that perfect, warm day anymore, but you remember its brightness – you need only uncap the jar and fish out a crisp briny souvenir.

Food blog April 2015-0616I’ve done three types of pickle here: onion, carrot, and radish. Each is seasoned with a different combination of spices, and because I like to be fancy, I’ve used a different variety of vinegar. The radishes, I must admit, are my favorite. To play on their peppery flavor, I’ve added mustard seeds and a dried chili, but teased them as well with a heaping helping of sugar for the sweet-hot kick.

Food blog April 2015-0634While these are lovely in salads, as part of a cheese or hummus plate, or just bright and sour on a fork, they are dynamite on a sandwich. And as the above photo suggests, it is on a sandwich that they found their sprightly home for us. Specifically, on a banh mi sandwich, that fresh, crisp Vietnamese invention. Even more specifically, on the idea that spawned my whole 2015 project: a banh mi-tball. There are essentially three components to this sandwich. These pickles are the first. Next week we’ll look at the bread (the true banh mi), and in the third and final installment, pork meatballs awash in aromatics, simmered in a miso-spiked broth I wanted to drink all on its own.

But for the moment, let’s just revel in the transformative magic of pickles. You’ll need the week for them to get good and sour before you can properly enjoy the sandwich anyway.
Food blog April 2015-0619

Refrigerator Vegetable Pickles
My jars held 6 ounces (¾ cup), so these measurements are keyed to that.
Carrots:
carrot ribbons from 1 carrot to fill jar (use a vegetable peeler to create long strips)
⅔ cup white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons celery seed
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
Sweet/hot Radishes:
thinly sliced radishes to fill jar
1 small dried chili pepper
scant ⅔ cup rice wine vinegar (unseasoned)
2 teaspoons salt
4 tablespoons sugar (¼ cup)
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
Onions:
thinly sliced red onion to fill jar
1 bay leaf
⅔ cup cider vinegar
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon fennel seed
  • For each: fill a heat-safe, lidded jar with vegetable slices (add chili or bay leaf, in the radish or onion case, respectively).
  • In a small pot, combine vinegar, salt, sugar, and other spices. Heat over medium-high, stirring occasionally, until liquid reaches a rolling boil and salt and sugar have completely dissolved.
  • Carefully, pour vinegar mixture over vegetables in jar until full. Gently push vegetables into liquid if needed – they will want to float.
  • Close jars tightly and refrigerate until vegetables are pickled to your liking – at least 2-3 days.