We love border-crossing cooking. When ingredients and techniques travel across boundaries and cultures, food gets interesting. Vietnamese cuisine is a perfect example. Not only does it share herbs and spices with its Asian neighbors, but it borrows from its culinary past as a French colony.
A family favorite here at Blue Kitchen is Marion’s Vietnamese Beef Stew. The slow cooked, meaty, multi-spiced dish is served with a French baguette instead of rice and eaten with forks and spoons, not chopsticks. Similarly, bánh mì — in the West, delicious, usually meaty Vietnamese sandwiches — are served on baguettes. In Vietnam, the term bánh mì actually means bread or, more specifically, French bread.
Bánh mì — the sandwich — comes in many forms. The most popular is made with roast pork, but beef, chicken, tofu, and other varieties are generally available in the sandwich shops that have sprung up in cities across the United States. It is virtually always served with pickled carrots and daikon, a mild white radish popular in the cuisines of Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam and India. It’s often served with sliced peppers too, jalapeño being a readily available choice, and topped with cilantro sprigs.
We first sampled bánh mì meatloaf served as the classic sandwich at The Butcher & Larder, our favorite Chicago butcher shop. Made with their own ground pork (and perhaps beef—I don’t remember), it was delicious. About halfway through, though, we stopped eating it as a sandwich, opening it up and concentrating on the meat and toppings with the occasional bite of bread. And that gave me the idea to dispense with the sandwich altogether and create a mash-up of the Vietnamese favorite and the ultimate American comfort food: bánh meatloaf.
Serves 4 to 6
For the pickled carrots and daikon—makes about 2 cups:
Make this at least three hours ahead of making the meatloaf to let the vegetables marinate. Will keep for up to three weeks in the fridge. See Kitchen Notes for a couple of thoughts on ways to use the jalapeño pepper.
1/2 cup warm water
4 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup rice vinegar (or distilled vinegar)
1 cup carrot matchsticks (or julienned or coarsely grated—see Kitchen Notes)
1 cup daikon matchsticks (see Kitchen Notes)
scant 1/2 cup thin slices of jalapeño pepper (optional—see Kitchen Notes)
Add sugar and salt to warm water and stir to dissolve. Stir in vinegar. Set aside and let cool while you prepare carrots, daikon and jalapeño pepper. Combine in bowl with vinegar mix. Set aside to let vegetables marinate at room temperature, stirring occasionally, for at least 3 hours. For longer than 3 hours, refrigerate.
For the meatloaf:
1 pound ground pork
1 pound ground beef (see Kitchen Notes)
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil
3 scallions, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fish sauce (see Kitchen Notes)
1 tablespoon hot sauce (such as Sriracha)
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
6 tablespoons bread crumbs (I used panko)
A quick note: don’t overwork the meatloaf mix—it will become mealy. To help achieve this, only roughly mix the pork and beef together before adding the rest of the ingredients. Mix the basil, scallions and garlic in a small bowl beforehand; do the same with the pepper, salt, sugar and five-spice powder; this will minimize mixing once they’re added to the meat.
Also, I skipped the loaf pan and baked the meatloaf mixture in a hand formed loaf shape on a flat surface. This allowed it to brown on the sides as well as the top and gave it a pleasing loaf shape. Marion has used this technique in the past; I learned my version of it from Ben Bettinger, executive chef at Portland Penny Diner.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Wrap the top of a wire rack with aluminum foil and set it over a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet. With a paring knife, poke slits into the foil on the rack.
Using wet hands, quickly work pork and beef together in a large bowl. Add remaining ingredients and, using your hands, work everything together until just combined.
Form meatloaf into an oblong loaf and transfer to foil-wrapped rack. Bake in the oven until an instant read thermometer inserted in the center registers 150 – 160 degrees F, about 1 to 1-1/4 hours, rotating once halfway through. Remove from oven, tent with foil and let it rest for five minutes.
Slice crosswise and plate, topping with pickled carrots and daikon and sprigs of cilantro. Serve with slices of a crusty baguette (see Kitchen Notes).
Preparing carrots and daikon. It’s easy (if time consuming) to hand slice them into matchsticks — a good knife skills exercise too. You can also use a mandolin or coarsely grate them.
About that daikon. You can find it in Asian markets. They’re often huge, far more than you’ll need. But if you’re lucky you can find smaller sizes. If you can’t find daikon, you can substitute jicama (if you can find that) or white radishes. Or you can skip the daikon altogether and double the carrots. But do try to find it — its spicy crunch is delicious.
Jalapeño options. If you’re totally heat averse, one option is to skip it, or completely remove the heat-bearing seeds and ribs. Adding the jalapeño slices to the vinegar mix will share their heat with the carrots and daikon, but I like what the vinegar does to the pepper slices, making them seem a little less raw. Another option is to put them in a separate small bowl and drizzle some of the vinegar on them. Then, when you’re ready to serve, pass the pepper slices at the table, letting those who like spicy foods add them to their plates.
Beefy choices. The ground pork I got for this recipe was nicely marbled with fat, so I went with less fatty sirloin for the beef. If the pork looks lean, choose chuck for the beef.
Fish sauce, such as nam pla or nuoc nam, is a staple in many Southeast Asian cuisines. It imparts a wonderful umami flavor to dishes. You can find in in Asian markets and many supermarkets. If you can’t find it — or if any of your diners have seafood allergies — try using soy sauce and a squeeze of lime juice.
Have a sandwich. If you opt for actual bánh mì sandwiches, try to track down Vietnamese baguettes. The crust is thinner. And tear out some of the bread inside the crust to accommodate the filling. If you go the sandwich route, be sure to add a little mayo—you could use the sriracha mayonnaise from this recipe for a little extra kick.