I was making dinner one night last week. Lucy kept coming in and out of the kitchen, opening the fridge door, getting stuff, closing the door, going in her bedroom. Very secretive. Then, she asked me for a whisk. Then, a bowl. Then, more rummaging through the fridge and then, a long period of quiet behind closed doors in her room.
At first, it was great because I was trying to get dinner ready and she was engrossed in doing whatever she was doing. But then I got this image in my head that she might be finger painting the walls with egg yolks or taking a bath in tomato sauce, since these are all scenarios that could easily happen (have happened)in my house.
So, I opened her door and found her cross legged on the floor of her room with a bowl, a whisk, a teaspoon, a bag of sugar and a carton of heavy cream. She was making home-made whipped cream. She was whipping it by hand. Jesus.
I was so freaked out that my five year old knew how to make whipped cream by herself - how old was I the first time I did that? - that I hopped on Twitter and started tweeting about it. And for a brief half hour, Lucy was a food star, a prodigy among 900 or so food-obsessed Tweeters. And then, I helped her whip the last of it and we ate whipped cream. On the floor. Before dinner. Rebels, all of us, with our sugary-cream faces.
I think this goes to prove - they are watching us. And where food is concerned, Lucy knows that whipped cream comes from cream and not from a can. This is good. But getting the gumption to do it, to make whipped cream itself, well, that comes from inside her. That is a part of her I love dearly. It is uniquely her. Tenacious to the end.
But this is why I've been cooking things like this Vietnamese Pork Belly Banh Mi, that I'm about to show you...
I didn't have lots of hope that Lucy and Edie would sit down at the table and snarf down this sandwich. They looked at it as if I had served them poop. But they ate noodles with some of the braising liquid poured over it and little, un-obtrusive, nearly invisible flecks of pork belly.
More importantly, they saw me cooking it. They saw the pork belly in its various stages of being. They went to the butcher shop to help me buy it. They were interested in its existence and doing parts of the cooking with me. They know a few of the spices I used to make it, even though eating it wasn't on their agenda. Just by being around different flavors and food, I'm hoping they got the message, subtly without the lecture and all that elitist food pontificating.
That said, I spend my life around people who cook and love food and do it well. It's easy for us to eschew processed food and look down on people who feed their kids at McDonald's four times a week and think that Cheetos are a healthy snack. It's a problem for sure, but the reasons behind these habits are complex, ingrained and difficult to fix. This New York Times article "The Obesity-Hunger Paradox" is a reminder that people who are hungry (food insecure, is the new term) are right down the block from us. And this, if you haven't read it before, is my brush last summer with hungry kids on the playground down the street from our apartment.
It's important that we stretch ourselves and make beautiful, over-flowing Pork Belly Banh Mi sandwiches, and teach our kids how to cook from scratch and ask for sushi over Big Macs. It's also important that we keep showing up at public schools and teaching kids to make bread and pasta and the like. I know it makes a difference, that's why I do it.
But it's also important to remember that there are bigger food issues than building $1.6 million school garden programs and just asking people to "cook real food". There are kids who just don't get enough to eat. Plain and simple. They are hungry, actually hungry. And they live right next door. And down the road. And that's really what needs to change.
How do you like this messy sandwich? I could barely hold it together while shooting it. David said all my sandwiches require forks and knives. I think he might be right.
If I had to do this one again I would try it with little buns. Little bites of pork belly and pickled carrots and daikon, some greens and peppers in a tiny-ish bun. Something that could circulate on a tray at a party or sit on the buffet, something you could stand and eat with a napkin while discussing the latest novel you read. These were sloppy bad boys, made with ciabatta and meant for family and people who won't mind that spicy mayo dribbles down your chin - never mind these for a romantic dinner - but they still were very nice. They were also big enough to satisfy any linebacker on the NFL.
I tried a couple of recipes. I prefer the braise with more spices than the first one I tried, so I improvised on the spot and built this on a couple of people's recipes and what I happened to have on hand at the house in the country.
Banh Mi is a great make-ahead dish. You can do almost everything days in advance and just re-heat and serve it at the last minute. If you make all the components in advance, getting everything out to the table is a 20 minute job.
A couple notes - definitely braise the pork belly a day or two before you need it for the dish. It's one of those dishes that tastes better when it's been hanging around awhile in the fridge. You should also make the pickled carrots and daikon at the same time and store in the fridge until you are ready to serve. If you can't find daikon, just pickle the carrots and call it a day. Oh and when you finish, save the braising liquid. This flavorful, fatty broth adds flavor to soups and stews. I put small quantities in quart-size zip lock bags, so I can use a little at a time with different dishes.
Vietnamese Pork Belly Banh Mi
Feeds about 6 people
1 large leek
2 tablespoons of olive oil
3 pounds pork belly
4-5 cloves of garlic, peeled and left whole
A good hunk of ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
1 1/2 cups xiao shing wine
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup soy sauce
A pinch of peppercorns, whole
Water or stock, if you need it
Pickled Carrot & Daikon
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into matchsticks
1 pound daikon radishes, peeled and cut into matchsticks
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons plus 1/2 cup sugar
1 1/4 cups distilled white or rice vinegar
Chipotle Aioli (or Spicy Mayo)
1 tablespoon of mashed up chipotle peppers in adobo sauce from a can. (You can also use a half tablespoon of Sambal Olek, if you don't have chipotles)
1 cup mayo
A little minced cilantro
A squeeze or two from a lemon
Preparing & Making the Banh Mi
Bread (I used ciabatta, but use whatever roll or bread you like.)
Pickled Carrot & Daikon
Greens (your choice here, I used spinach because that's what I had on hand)
Rings of Peppers
Rings of Onions
a round or two of tomatoes
Slice the leek into rounds and saute over medium heat in a heavy bottom sauce pan until soft, about 5 minutes. When they are clear, remove them from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.
Meanwhile, cut the pork belly into lardons (1 inch by 1/2 inch by 1/2 inch). After you've removed the leeks, place the lardons in the pan and cook over high heat, until each side is slightly crisp and golden brown and the fat is mostly rendered, about 10 minutes. Watch that they don't turn black. You want them brown, slightly crunchy and caramelized, but not burnt. You may have to do this in batches, depending on the size of your pan.
When the lardons are done and you have them all back in the pan. Add the leeks back in. Add the garlic, ginger, wine, brown sugar, soy sauce and peppercorns. If that doesn't cover the pork, add a little water or stock. Raise the heat to boil and then turn it down to a low simmer. Cover the pot and simmer for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, until the pork is fork-tender.
Put the pot in the fridge for a day or two. You should also make the pickled carrots and daikon now and have those ready ahead of time.
Pickled Carrots and Daikon
(from the New York Times)
Place carrot and daikon in a bowl and sprinkle with salt and 2 teaspoons sugar. Knead vegetables for about 3 minutes, expelling water from them (this will keep them crisp). Stop kneading when vegetables have lost about 1/4 of their volume. Drain in a colander and rinse under cold running water, then press gently to expel extra water. Return vegetables to bowl, or transfer to a glass container for longer storage.
In a bowl, combine 1/2 cup sugar, the vinegar and 1 cup lukewarm water, and stir to dissolve sugar. Pour over vegetables. Let marinate at least 1 hour before eating, or refrigerate for up to 4 weeks. Remove vegetables from liquid before using in banh mi.
Make your Aioli
Mash up or puree the chipotle either by hand or in a little processor. Combine the chipotle purée and mayonnaise in a small bowl. Add cilantro and lemon and salt to taste. Cover with plastic wrap and store in the fridge until needed. You can make this a day or two ahead.
Preparing & Serving Banh Mi
Right before you are serving, warm up the pork on the stove top. Take out your carrots and daikon and drain the liquid from them. They don't have to be bone dry, but they shouldn't slop up the sandwich.
Spread aioli on the rolls of your choice. Pile on the warm pork belly. Add your pickled carrot & daikon, greens, peppers, onions, tomatoes, chopped cilantro, whatever you like.
You can make these sandwiches for your guests and serve them piled up on a huge tray or put all the ingredients out in small dishes and have folks make their own. Either way, you'll have very little left.