Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Vegan Bánh Mì

I suppose most would say it's not very romantic to make sandwiches for Valentine's Day... but what if you both really like sandwiches? And what if you make the baguettes for your sandwiches from scratch? And what if the recipe comes from trendy hip vegan chef Tal Ronnen's new Conscious Cook? Not convinced? Well, all right, I admit it's not super showy... but a weekend in Maine, a warm fire, some Nerd Games, and cooking is basically ideal for us... YMMV.

Regardless of how you feel about going out versus home cooking on Valentine's Day, these sandwiches turned out really well, and are totally worth making for any vegan/vegetarian. While Ronnen doesn't call his sandwich a "Bánh Mì", that's what it reminds me of, so that's what I'm going to call it. It consists of what I guess you could call braised tofu with a big ole' slice of cucumber, Asian slaw, chili oil, cilantro/coriander, and vegan "mayonnaise" all on a split demi baguette. We were able to find all the ingredients, even in Maine, but I could see how daikon (for the Asian slaw) might not be everywhere... jicama is likely the best substitute, though I wonder about clustering problems (i.e. what are the odds your store carries jicama and not daikon? Wouldn't they likely have neither?).


But before we get to the ingredient list for the sandwiches, there is the question of bread. Now, there is certainly no need to make your own demi baguettes... and I admit it's slightly strange to take a really easy 25 minute recipe and stretch it into a several hour effort spread over two days... admittedly, that's how I roll in general... but I did want to highlight how easy it is to make these baguettes. "Easy" and "baguette" are not words generally used together, and this stems from two things: commercial steam injection ovens the home cook can't access, and the difficulty in shaping a baguette. Steam injection is what gives your local bakery's baguette its crisp, shatteringly good crust... but thanks to people like Peter Reinhart, home cooks have made pretty big strides in that area. With a a baking stone, a preheated water pan, and a squirt bottle, a regular oven can apparently get close enough to produce the best baguettes in DC. So while you may never get close to that perfect baguette you had in Paris, you still have the ability to challenge any of the mediocre offerings you'd find at the supermarket... if not the best bakery in town. Plus: you made it yourself, which is not a small thing in my opinion.

On the other hand, shaping a classic French baguette is really hard. It takes a lot of practice, and is quite possibly, one of those things you can't learn from a book. I wouldn't know, as all I've learned to date is: I can't. Not yet, anyway. Point being, we're not talking about a traditional French baguette here, we're talking about a demi baguette... which involves virtually no shaping. This is just the Pain a l'Ancienne recipe from Reinhart that I've blogged once before, so I see no need to get into the nitty gritty of it... it's an easy recipe to get a hold of... but I think it's worthwhile to note how fool proof it is, even for those with little bread making experience.


It's hard for me to say how naive you can truly be to execute Pain a l'Ancienne, since Anna worked in a bakery, and this was a joint baking venture where I've always acceded to her lead... but honestly, I think the biggest margin for error is in kneading, but if you do it by hand it's hard not to feel the gluten happen. Just knead it until it feels different, and then knead it a minute or two longer just to be sure. It's almost impossible to over knead by hand, which is one of the many reasons why I like to do it manually.

So what was I saying about some sort of vegan sandwich? Oh yeah!

Here are the ingredients, assuming you are making 4 sandwiches:

Braised Tofu:
  • 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp white pepper
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 tsp sweet paprika
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 14 oz extra firm tofu, cut into 1/4 inch slabs

Asian Slaw:
  • 2 tbsp agave nectar
  • 1/4 cup rice vinegar
  • 1/2 julienned carrot
  • 1/2 cup julienned daikon radish
  • 1/2 cup water

For sandwich:
  • 4 French demi-baguettes, split
  • 4 tbsp vegan mayonnaise
  • 4 tbsp chile oil
  • 4 fresh cilantro sprigs
  • 1/2 English cucumber, cut lengthwise into 4 slices
The weirdest thing about this recipe is that he seems to think that you can cut 14 oz/1 lb of tofu into 8 1/4 inch slabs. This is clearly not the case if you've ever seen a block of tofu and know how slim a 1/4 inch is. The thickness works well, so conceivably you could just slice off 8 pieces and reserve the rest for another use... but we just cut up the entire block. We also didn't see the logic of using just a single sprig of cilantro per sandwich, since they're mostly stem, and thus broke the tops off of several. Note that half of one Pain a L'Ancienne is equivalent to a proper demi-baguette in this recipe.

To braise the tofu, whisk all the other ingredients together in a small bowl and then pour it into a 9x13. Place the tofu in a single layer in the dish, then turn over to coat. Bake in a 375 degree oven for 20 minutes, turning the tofu pieces over halfway through cooking.

While that's going on, mix the Asian slaw ingredients together in a bowl.

Then, once the tofu is out, cover half of each demi baguette with a tablespoon each of mayonnaise and chile oil. Cilantro next, topped with a slice of cucumber. Place two pieces of tofu on top of all of that, and top it off with a couple of spoonfuls of Asian slaw. Cut each sandwich in half and serve.

Voilà.