Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Mixed Plate: That's Good Sandwich!

Is there nothing more perfect than a sandwich? Soft or crispy bread, a favorite combination of ingredients stacked within like edible playing cards. Served hot or cold, sliced or left whole for your jaw to wrestle with. The possibilities are endless and the cuisine styles can originate from all over the globe, and lately, my obsession has been with the Vietnamese banh mi.

Banh Mi from Wild Ginger - perfect summer food - Photo by Wasabi Prime
I can't remember the first banh mi I ever tried, it was likely here in the Pacific Northwest when I first started eating pho, but I can recall the wonderful combination of flavors, textures and temperatures coming together in a sandwich -- I never realized could be so marvelously complex! I was hooked. This traditional sandwich born of French colonialism in Indochina is the perfect marriage of a beautifully crisp and buttery baguette, loaded up with Asian flavors like different cuts of seasoned pork, fresh herbs like cilantro, and the sharp zing of pickled vegetables, all coming together in a heady dressing of fish sauce. There are variations, of course, but the basic flavor and temperature elements are there: hot/cold, sweet/savory, fresh/preserved. It's something that's best enjoyed freshly-made, or the bread gets soggy or stale, and you lose the sizzle of the freshly cooked meat contrasting with the chill of the vegetables. It's the perfect summer food, which I'm surprised hasn't hit the Cool List for trendy seasonal things to make outside of burgers and ribs -- get on this Food Cool Hunters, why aren't you trending this to the hungry masses already "so over" spiral-cut hot dogs??


Sandwich sampling, with pork chicken and tofu - Photos by Wasabi Prime
 I had a chance to indulge my banh mi craving when Wild Ginger started making them for their online ordering menu -- I was on the move in downtown Bellevue one sunny afternoon and decided to pick up lunch for myself and the Mister. I tried several of their banh mi offerings -- they make a pork, chicken and tofu version. The seasonings are similar with the pork and chicken, with lemongrass and ginger, and they come with a very strong fish sauce-forward dressing, so don't plan on any close-quarter meetings or whispering sweet nothings into a special someone's ear. The dressing is something you can add as much or as little of, but I didn't mind its flavor intensity so I used the whole container on the sandwiches and let it mellow for a bit, just to let it soak into everything. The Mister was eating the same thing, so we could be equally fishy. I appreciated the dressing on the tofu version, since the flavor is much more subtle -- their tofu was lightly marinated and the bread had an herb/wasabi mayonnaise on it that was refreshing, but fish sauce always adds that unctuous, earthy flavor. I love any excuse to eat bread, and the baguette had that sturdy crisp outer shell, and a soft, spongey interior to soak up all the sandwich flavors. Chicken and tofu were tasty, but go for the traditional meat of choice, pork, the Magical Animal. They season it nicely and it's got a tender, flavorful bite, and with the summer weather, it tastes even better when you're eating it outside.

At-home variation of banh mi with a Korean kick - Photo by Wasabi Prime
Getting my banh mi fix made me think back to my Sandwich Love History. I was used to the typical peanut butter on Wonder Bread (crusts cut off, of course) of my youth, and then leveling-up to an Italian style grinder or hoagie from Giuliano's, this family-run bakery and delicatessen in Gardena, near where I grew up, in Torrance, California. They've been around since the 50s and it was my first introduction to a big ol' Italian-style sandwich, full of different meats, cheeses,  peppers, the works, on their own bread, which just sopped up all the seasonings from the pickling brine and their house made dressing that they would add onto the sandwich. If I had to think of the first sandwich that changed the way I thought about a particular food, it would be the Giuliano "Torpedo" Italian sub sandwich, hands-down -- from their hoagie teachings, I learned to understand that sandwiches could be complex and flavorful. I've since added the banh mi to my Sandwich Love History, along with other cultural goodies like the Cuban sandwich, various tortas and the muffaletta, all signs that I was never destined for bologna and cheese.

Which brings me to the real meat of this post: making an inspired sandwich at home. I wanted to do a Korean-style sandwich, using cooked pork marinated in ko-chu-jang (spicy pepper paste), some pesto lime mayo to keep things cool, and a heaping portion of kimchee to bring both heat and pickled chill to the sandwich party. What to call it? A Kimchee-wich? A Kim Jong Ill-in' Hoagie? I don't know, that's still in progress.  Everything was piled between a soft sandwich roll -- it had to be soft, as I knew this beast would be stacked high with ingredients and a crispy bread would have just been a mess to eat, likely breaking apart upon first bite, or worse, scraping up the roof of your mouth like an errant tortilla chip. I think the construction of a properly balanced sandwich must be done like an architect designing a building -- strong base flavors, a combination of texture and temperature for interest, but always with the notion of structural integrity in mind. There's nothing worse than a sandwich coming apart like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and your shirt has a full serving of lunch all over it. Failsauce.

Sandwich with a side of... spicy peanut curry? Why not - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Don't ask why I paired my Korean-inspired sandwich with a Thai spicy peanut curry. I knew the sandwich would look lonely on the plate, all by itself, I didn't have chips, and the curry was for the rest of the week's lunches. This post caught me on a Kitchen Experiment day, I admit it. In a better-equipped situation, some spicy jalapeno potato chips from Tim's Cascade would have been the ideal snack side. Fries are too starchy, unless they were maybe shoestring-cut sweet potato fries. A cucumber salad would have been perfect. But this was a Sandwich Lab moment, testing a new combination of flavors and ingredients for potential future barbecues. I think making this sandwich for a large group would be perfect, grilling up some marinated pork tenderloin, slicing thin and layering it with kimchee over a pesto mayo-slathered bread. I get this cartoon image in my head of a ridiculously long loaf of bread, piled high with sandwich fixings, like something Dagwood would make and Blondie would inexplicably shrug off in a 1950's anti-depressant haze. I think this version of a Korean barbecue sandwich would be a little less disturbing than that and much more delicious, don't you think? Carry on, Summer!

Coming soon, to a barbecue near you - Photos by Wasabi Prime

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