For me, summertime means summer food. It means cooking and eating outside. Most of all, it means eating lighter, more healthful foods that won’t contribute to my heat-induced sluggishness.
To that end, I wanted to make a lighter version of the popular Vietnamese street food (and one of my all-time favorite sandwiches) known as “banh mi.” The culinary product of the French colonization of Vietnam, a traditional banh mi starts with a crusty baguette slathered with aioli and gets layers of Asian flavors from fresh cilantro, pickled vegetables and chiles. Proteins may include roasted or grilled meats, pork pâté or meatballs.
While the bread is typically what makes or breaks a banh mi, it doesn’t bring much to the flavor party, so why not skip it altogether and turn this tasty sandwich into a hearty dinner salad? A bed of crisp romaine and sliced fresh cucumbers were a good start, but I still needed a dressing that captured the creamy, tangy, spicy flavors of a banh mi, a tasty protein topping and my pickled vegetables.
I figured the pickles would translate well from sandwich to salad unaltered, so I made a brine in which to soak some matchstick-cut pieces of carrot and daikon radish, along with some sliced jalapeños. I thought the brine would also be a good start for the base of my dressing, as it already had the sweet, salty and spicy flavors I was seeking.
The dressing was a bit of a balancing act. I wanted mayonnaise, as it is traditional on the sandwich, but I wanted the final product to have plenty of zip, too. Fish sauce added a savory, umami note; lime juice cut the saltiness of the fish sauce; a little sugar took the harsh edge off the lime; and a squirt of sriracha sauce gave everything a bright, spicy kick.
For my meat, I chose pork loin, which could be grilled quickly and sliced to top my salad (though beef, chicken, shrimp, tofu or mushrooms would all make good stand-ins).
For the marinade, I used more fish sauce for Vietnamese flavor, sugar for added caramelization on the grill, and lemongrass and chiles for some zing.
Finally, I topped the salad with fresh cilantro and chopped scallions, to make my sandwich-to-salad transformation complete. You can serve this salad with a sliced baguette on the side, to bring the origin of the dish full circle. But this crisp, refreshing salad is so substantial, you won’t even miss the carbs.
Garrett Miller is a freelance writer, food blogger and graduate of Los Altos High School and UC Santa Cruz. For more of his comfort-food recipes, visit noodletherapy.wordpress.com.
Banh Mi Salad with Grilled Lemongrass Pork
• 1 pound pork loin, sliced into 1/2-inch-thick medallions
• 1/4 cup sugar
• 1/4 cup fish sauce
• 1 stalk lemongrass, finely chopped
• 3 garlic cloves, minced
• 1 large shallot, minced
• 1 Thai or serrano chile, minced
• Black pepper, freshly ground
Place pork in container. In small bowl, whisk together remaining ingredients and pour over pork. Let marinate for at least 1 hour, overnight if possible. Sear in cast-iron skillet 3-4 minutes on each side or grill.
• 1/2 pound carrots, matchstick pieces
• 1 bunch red radishes, sliced or 1/2 pound daikon radish, matchstick pieces
• 1 cup warm water
• 1/4 cup distilled white vinegar
• 2 tablespoons sugar
• 2 teaspoons salt
• 1 Thai or serrano chile, sliced
Combine water, vinegar, sugar, salt and Thai chile in small bowl or, preferably, sealable glass jar. Stir until sugar and salt are dissolved. Add carrots and radishes and let sit for at least 1 hour. Leftover pickles will keep for at least a week in the refrigerator.
• 3 tablespoons reserved vinegar mixture
• 3 tablespoons fish sauce
• Juice of 1 lime
• 2 teaspoons sugar
• 3 tablespoons light mayonnaise
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 1 tablespoon sriracha
• Salt and pepper, to taste
Whisk together dressing ingredients until smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings with more lime juice, sugar or sriracha, as needed.
• 1 head romaine, roughly chopped
• 1/2 English cucumber, sliced
• 1/2 bunch scallions, chopped
• 1/2 bunch cilantro leaves
Toss ingredients in large bowl with as much dressing as desired. Top with pickled vegetables and sliced pork.