Other people’s recipes: Andrea Nguyen’s Star Anise and Lemongrass Sloppy Joe Bánh Mi

The Amazon recommender system really thinks I like cookbooks, perhaps with good reason. Pretty much every new cookbook published shows up on my recommendations, and as a result I own far too many cookbooks. Some of them are thick, weighty tomes filled with recipes — others are thick, weighty tomes filled with artful food photography and styling that make you wish they were filled with recipes. But there’s a substantial market now for thin, single-subject cookbooks that aren’t about making home cooks feel inadequate, and I buy some of those, too, just because they look interesting. There’s been something of a bánh mi craze of late, and Andrea Nguyen’s The Banh Mi Handbook: Recipes for Crazy-Delicious Vietnamese Sandwiches (Ten Speed Press, 2014) has shown up at exactly the right time. I’ve never been to Vietnam (although my father is a veteran of the war) and I’ve actually never had even the American version of this Franco-Viet specialty, but this book looked interesting so I gave it a try.

The book contains recipes for all of the components of the traditional bánh mi: bread, spreads, proteinaceous fillings, pickles, and so on, along with hints on substitutions you can make for some of the more esoteric ingredients (like Maggi seasoning). For each of the fillings, Nguyen gives service suggestions, and of course there are plenty of photographs of luscious-looking, expertly-styled sandwiches.

Not being quite ready to dip my feet in whole-heartedly to the bánh mi trend, I figured that her “Star Anise and Lemongrass Sloppy Joe” bánh mi (p. 97) would be a good starting place. The filling uses Vietnamese flavors but in a familiar American-style sandwich, giving me the opportunity to try bánh mi out without a big investment in time making spreads, pâté, vegetable pickles, and so on. Nguyen was inspired by the “Sloppy Bao” at the Manhattan Vietnamese eatery Baoguette, and combined that idea with a classic Franco-Viet beef stew with tomatoes, star anise, and lemongrass, bo kho. Here is how it went for me:

Mise en place
We start, of course, with the mise en place; this display includes most of the ingredients for the sandwich (other than the bread itself) as well as the filling proper. I made one substitution: the recipe calls for a large red fresh chile, but there were none in the produce department at my local Whole Foods; Nguyen suggests substituting some dried red pepper flakes, seen here in the small (reused) bottle with the chicken on top. The Maggi seasoning I was able to find at my local Taiwanese market — the version sold here is made in China, although it’s a Nestlé product; the version sold in Europe is made in Germany with a slightly different formula.

Chopped aromatics to be minced
If you saw the first picture and thought, “that’s an awful lot of shallots”: yes it is. But that’s part of the French colonial influence that is still felt in Vietnamese cooking. Although the recipe contains many flavors native to southeast Asia, including star anise, five-spice powder (itself full of star anise), lemongrass, and ginger, it also includes four whole shallots (totaling 3½ oz or 115 g after trimming), not to mention a whole grated carrot. All of the aromatics except the carrot are roughly chopped and then minced further in the food processor.

Minced aromatics
After quite a few pulses in the Cuisinart, the aromatics have all been broken down to a uniform size and are ready to be cooked.

Aromatics cooking
In a sauté pan on the stovetop, the chopped aromatics are cooked in some vegetable oil (the recipe says canola, but there’s no particular requirement for it — I used sunflower oil because it was what I had, but even olive oil would probably work). This isn’t a mirepoix, since it’s not made with celery or carrot (the carrot is added later), but it could reasonably be called a sofrito.

Ground beef cooking in pan with aromatics
Once the aromatics are cooked — which doesn’t take long, only a couple of minutes — the ground beef is added to the sauté pan, smushed together with the aromatics, and browned over high heat.

After adding carrot, tomato, bay, and star anise
Now comes the grated carrot, along with 15½ oz of canned whole tomatoes which were puréed in the food processor after mincing the aromatics. In addition, two star anise pods, a bay leaf, some brown sugar, salt, and 1½ tablespoons of fish sauce round out the flavor profile. The whole mixture is cooked under cover for a quarter of an hour, then uncovered to reduce for another quarter hour.

Fully cooked sloppy joe filling
After the filling has fully cooked, Nguyen says to let it rest for another quarter hour. While it was resting, I went ahead and fished out the star anise pods and the bay leaf — nobody wants either of those things in the middle of their sandwich!

French roll with Maggi seasoning (left), sriracha aioli (right)
To actually make this into a bánh mi requires a few additional ingredients, which are actually pretty flexible — Nguyen gives a “master recipe” of the “one from column A” flavor. Rather than the traditional baguette, I used a French sandwich roll from Iggy’s (which I believe are made with the same dough as they use for their baguettes anyway), which I crisped up in the oven before slicing it in half. On the bottom half of the roll (at left), I sprinkled some Maggi seasoning; on the top, I spread some sriracha aioli (not, in this case, made to Nguyen’s recipe — there’s one in the book — but just mixing a tablespoon of regular aioli and a teaspoon of sriracha, both of which I already had in the fridge). I also used the V-slicer to cut some thin slices of cucumber and chopped up some cilantro to use as vegetable toppings, not having any Vietnamese-style vegetable pickles to use (again, Nguyen has a bunch of recipes in the book, I just wasn’t prepared to try making any just yet).

Bánh mi ready for service
The recipe made 33 ounces (about 935 g) of filling, so each “Vietnamese sloppy joe” bánh mi should have about 5½ oz (155 g) to get the recommended 6 servings. Obviously, if you’re adding a lot of extras to your sandwich, you may want to reduce this somewhat. (In her “master recipe”, Nguyen suggests about 3 oz (85 g) of meat per sandwich, but this one is obviously an unusual case.)

Dinner plate with sloppy joe bánh mi
I can report that the sandwich was quite tasty. It’s an interesting flavor profile, noticeably different from the standard cumin-flavored sloppy joe (essentially just chili con carne on a bun) that was a school-cafeteria staple in my youth. Using the chewy French roll makes it a bit of a challenge to bite into without causing all of the filling to come squirting out the other side, but hey, that’s a part of the fun. The sliced cucumber adds a nice crunch, but I’m not sure whether I would have noticed the absence of Maggi seasoning had I not found a store that sold it. (I’m not really sure on the quantity anyway — the spout on my bottle really only allows for Tabasco-style drips.)

Nutrition

Since there’s such a wide variety of ways to make a bánh mi, the following tabulation is for the meat filling only. As I made the sandwich, the toll overall came to about 650 kcal — pretty reasonable for a single meal whether lunch or dinner. You could also serve the filling as a stew — call it “Vietnamese chili” perhaps — in which case the serving size would probably be two or three times what is shown here.

Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 5½ oz (155 g)
Servings per recipe: 6
Amount per serving
Calories 286 Calories from fat 162
% Daily Value
Total Fat 18g 28%
 Saturated Fat 6g 31%
Trans Fat 0g
Cholesterol 58mg 19%
Sodium 732mg 31%
Potassium 87mg 2%
Total Carbohydrate 10g 3%
 Dietary fiber 2g 7%
 Sugars 5g
Proteins 20g 41%
Vitamin A 106%
Vitamin C 18%
Calcium 3%
Iron 13%
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