The mayor says the snow in March was unexpected. The snow in March was unexpected. Let me just write that one more time to see how it looks. The snow. In March. Was. Unexpected. It was unexpected??? That’s like saying Vladimir Putin is one chilled out, cooperative dude who had like, the best Olympics ever with no stray dogs and lots of hot water and curtains in all the hotel rooms. Bless him, I don’t know what Dennis O’Keefe is on, but I would like a truck load of it dumped on my doorstep next winter, along with the metric shit-ton of snow that usually falls. IN MARCH.
I’m sick of writing about comfort food. I’m sick of eating comfort food. Ok, that’ll never be true, but it would be lovely to take off my snowsuit and put on a pair of flip-flops. It would be lovely to ease up on the dumplings and maybe sit outside on the back step in bare feet and have a beer. The Wednesday before Easter was so bittersweet, with its sunshine and heat and everyone sitting outside drinking coffee. And then it turned into February again. One of my favourite spring pastimes in St. John’s is to see how many people refuse to go back into winter mode after that one day of hope. It was -6 on Good Friday and I saw people with no hats on having picnics. I was horrified by all the children I saw on bicycles with unmittened hands, their parents behind them eating ice cream cones. April in this city makes people legitimately crazy.
Spring in St. John’s is glorious or completely shitty, and I like to make food that makes me feel hopeful. Shoulder season food. I want hard and comfy carbs but I want a burst of something fresh that will get me through that last snowstorm. You know, in July. How much of a surprise would that be? Not a very big one this year. I saw The Day After Tomorrow, I know how this shit works. If an abandoned Russian freighter ship floated past my house with Jake Gyllenhaal fighting off a pack of wolves I’d barely look up from my bowl of dumplings.
Banh mi was what I thought of a few weeks ago during that huge snowstorm we had to usher in April. You know, the one where Sheila hid her March brush for a while and then took out her April sledgehammer, that one. The one that made the whole city throw its collective hands in the air and give up. The one where people started donning crampons and ice picks to walk around downtown. There is no better time to play the “Let’s Eat Something That Makes Us Forget Where We Live” game than April in St. John’s. Well, any month that falls between October and May qualifies, really. But it seems like this year in particular, April is the month we need comfort food the most. Personally, I’m still on the soups, stews and curries, and I might be until July to get the cold of this winter out of my bones. And that’s why banh mi – a Vietnamese baguette sandwich – is so perfect for “spring” in Newfoundland. It’s meaty, it’s bread, but it tastes like a vacation. Like eating outdoors at a cafe somewhere warm and sticky.
Weirdly, I ate just as much bread as I did rice when I travelled around southeast Asia. The French were in that neck of the woods for a long time, and while food in places like Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia is still fiercely traditional, they’ve sort of made French baguettes their own. And if I may be so bold…they may even be a little better. Smaller, a little fluffier, crispy but not crunchy. I ate them every morning for breakfast with butter and jam, or with eggs. One time I was sitting in the back of a pick-up truck/taxi in Laos and bought one from a woman selling them to the passengers. It was filled with a mystery pâté and I was terrified of getting dysentery, but more terrified of looking like an asshole in front of the locals. I ate it, I survived, and it was delicious. You will never, ever eat better bread anywhere.
Banh mi are filled with whatever’s on the go. Mostly meat, sometimes eggs, but the ones we see over this way are usually filled with meatballs or satay, and topped with things like pickled carrots, cucumber, coriander, chillies, and daikon – a kind of pickled radish. On storm day I had everything but the daikon, and knowing that was something I couldn’t pop around the corner to get at Needs, I figured I had enough of the other ingredients to get by. I was in the mood to make my own bread and had a recipe for Mexican bolillos that I was wanting to try. Bolillos are mini-baguettes so hey hey I thought, perfect.
Don’t be scared by the homemade baguettes, the “homemade” sausage, the pickled carrots. Everything here is easy to make and will be completely worth it in the end. As far as Vietnamese flavours go, these recipes are pretty basic and not necessarily one hundred percent authentic. But the sausages and baguettes freeze like a dream and the pickled carrots take two minutes to make, so think about it. You can have banh mi supplies on hand all the time. Suitable for any season, and maybe if you’re lucky you might be able to eat one outside in a month or three.
3 1/4 to 4 cups all-purpose flour
1 pkg active dry yeast
1 tbsp sugar
3/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups warm water (120° to 130°F)
1 egg white
1 tbsp milk or water
(I activated my yeast first in 1/4 cup warm water and a tsp of sugar. Proceeded as normal with recipe but reduced the 1 tbsp sugar to 1 tsp.)
In a large bowl combine 1 1/2 cups of the flour, the yeast, sugar, and salt. Add the warm water and beat with an electric mixer on low to medium speed for 30 seconds, scraping sides of the bowl. Beat on high for 3 minutes. Using a wooden spoon, stir in as much of the remaining flour as you can. Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface. Knead in enough of the remaining flour to make a moderately stiff dough that is smooth and elastic (6 to 8 minutes total). Shape dough into a ball. Place in a lightly greased bowl, turning once to grease surface of dough. Cover and let rise in a warm place until double in size (about 1 hour).
Punch down dough; turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide dough into six portions and shape each portion into a 6-inch-long loaf. Pull and twist ends slightly. Lightly grease 2 baking sheets; sprinkle with cornmeal. Transfer dough portions to baking sheets. Use a sharp knife to make a 1/4-inch-deep cut lengthwise downy the centre of each roll. In a small bowl combine egg white and milk. Brush some of the egg white mixture over tops and sides of dough portions. Cover and let rise until nearly double in size (20 to 45 minutes).
Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375°F. Bake rolls for 15 minutes. Brush again with some of the egg white mixture. Bake about 10 minutes more or until golden brown. Remove rolls from baking sheets. Cool on wire racks. Makes 6 rolls.
(From Better Homes and Gardens Mexican issue, March 2014)
450g ground pork
2 tsp fennel seeds
1 1/2 tsp garlic powder
1 1/2 tsp brown sugar
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/4 chili flakes (optional)
Pound your fennel seeds with a mortar and pestle or zing to a powder in a spice grinder. Stir all ingredients in a bowl. Divide into 2 portions. Roll each portion into a log about 7 inches long. Wrap tightly with wax or parchment paper, followed by some cling wrap. Twist the ends and secure with twist ties. Freeze at least 2 hours or up to 3 months. To use, remove from freezer and let stand for 20 minutes. Use a serrated knife and cut into 1/4 inch rounds. Pan-fry in 1 tsp of olive oil in a non-stick frying pan over medium heat, a few minutes on each side until the rounds are golden crispy and cooked through.
Stir 2 cups shredded carrots with 3 tbsp rice vinegar, 1 tbsp vegetable oil, 1 tbsp sesame oil, 1 tsp sugar, and 1 clove of minced garlic. Season to taste with salt.
(Both recipes from the Chatelaine Special Edition Magazine: Dinner in 30)
To serve the banh mi, spread the buns with mayonnaise (and Sriracha sauce for an extra kick if you like). Top with sausage rounds, pickled carrot, sliced cucumber and chopped coriander. Serve with a wedge of lime.
My bolillos were hilarious and way too pointy, but were perfectly crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. And also, huge. A half one of these would have been fine for a meal, but it was stormy and I was feeling entitled. I bet bolillos are perfect for pulled pork sandwiches too. And let me tell you something about these sausage things, they will change your life. Imagine a pile of them in the freezer, ready for subs, pasta, breakfast rounds. So many spice combination possibilities, and ground turkey or chicken might be nice too if you’re in the mood to lighten things up a little. Just be sure not to thaw the sausages too much and cut them as soon as they have a bit of give. That way, they’ll keep their shape nicely in the pan. You’ll need more meat if you plan on using all six buns; one sausage roll fried into rounds filled two buns perfectly. I’d suggest making extra sausage meat to keep in the freezer, and extra buns too. Once you realize how easy these are to make, you’ll want the ingredients on hand so you can eat them all week like I did.
See, now you’re prepared for another few weeks of misery until flip-flop season begins. Or you’ll have something to feed the Russian ship-wolves during that snowstorm in July. Whichever comes first.