On a recent trip to the Twin Cities, I was driving east on University Avenue in St. Paul when I came upon a huge sign marking the Trung Nam French Bakery. Though I was taken aback by this seemingly odd combination of Vietnamese and French, my car mate was not surprised at all.
She explained Vietnamese cuisine has a French influence that is due to the French colonization of Vietnam, which began in the 16th century and ended in the middle of the 20th century.
I had to stop. This building that looked like an old fast-food restaurant housed a bakery case lined with Trung Nam's house-made croissants. As I munched away on flakey croissants, one filled with a sweet almond mixture, another filled with apricots and, yes, another full of coconut flakes, I noticed a sign advertising their special pork sandwich on a house-made baguette. I gathered it was definitely not your same old sandwich.
I told the owner's son who was behind the counter that I'd be back for lunch. And I was.
Pork paté, slices of seasoned pork, pickled carrots, cucumbers, jalapeno slices and fresh cilantro all sandwiched between crunchy baguette halves slathered with mayo - that was the lunch I went back for. Each bite reaffirmed my desire to try to re-create this unique and delicious blend of flavors.
My recipe for Vietnamese-Style Pork Sandwich leaves out the pork paté, but no matter. This sandwich is full of fresh flavor. Much of the preparation can be done ahead. Lean pork tenderloin marinates in a mixture that I often use for steak. Just throw all the ingredients into your blender and give it a whirl. The marinade is done.
I used my mandolin to cut thin strips of carrots and cucumber that I soaked in a vinegar mixture to give them a pickled flavor. If you don't have a mandolin, just use a sharp chef's knife to cut matchsticks.
After a short time in the oven, the pork will be ready to slice. Layer all the ingredients onto a cut baguette and cut it into serving-sized sandwiches.
No one will be able to pass up this sandwich.
Vietnamese-Style Pork Sandwich
1 pork tenderloin (1 pound) trimmed of fat and silver skin
1/4 cup soy sauce
8 tablespoons (1/2 cup) sugar, divided
2 tablespoons apple cider, sake or dry sherry
2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons chopped onion
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 cup chopped apple
2 carrots, julienned or cut into matchsticks
1 cucumber, peeled, seeds removed, julienned or cut into matchsticks
1 cup rice vinegar
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 jalapeno, seeds removed, cut into thin strips
1/2 of a red onion, sliced thin
Fresh cilantro, rinsed and dried
1 long baguette
Mayonnaise for spreading on sandwich
Place pork tenderloin in a large zip-top plastic bag. Put soy sauce, 2 tablespoons of the sugar, cider, garlic, chopped onion, black pepper, ginger and apple in a blender or food processor and process until smooth. Pour this marinade over the pork in the bag. Seal and place in shallow dish. Refrigerate for at least three hours or overnight.
Bring a saucepan of water to a boil. Plunge the carrot sticks into the boiling water and leave them there for 30 seconds. Remove them from the boiling water and plunge into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Drain and set aside.
In a small saucepan, combine rice vinegar, remaining 6 tablespoons sugar, lime juice and salt. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat and set aside.
Place carrots and cucumber in separate bowls or jars. Pour vinegar mixture over carrots and cucumbers. When liquid is cool, cover tightly and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Carrots and cucumbers can be stored like this for several days.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Heat a heavy, oven-safe skillet over medium-high. Coat the pan with a little olive oil. Remove tenderloin from marinade and place in hot skillet. Brown the pork on each side. Tent loosely with aluminum foil and place in oven for about 25 minutes or until internal temperature reaches 150 degrees. Remove from oven and let rest, covered, for 10 minutes. Pork will continue to cook and will reach recommended temperature for safe eating of 160 degrees.
Cut baguette in half lengthwise. Spread mayonnaise on both cut sides. Slice pork tenderloin into thin rounds. Lay pork along one half of baguette. Top with pickled carrots and cucumbers that have been drained and patted dry with paper towel, jalapeno, red onion and cilantro. Place the other half of bread on top. Cut the baguette into 4 pieces. If that's too big for the appetites you're serving, just cut them smaller. Makes at least 4 sandwiches.
Tips from the cook
--Silver skin is a thin shiny membrane that runs along the surface of the tenderloin. Slip a sharp paring knife underneath it and cut one end free. Grasp that end tightly and lift up, scraping the silver skin with the knife to separate it from the meat. Repeat until all silver skin is removed.
--Remaining pickled carrots and cucumbers can be kept in the vinegar mixture in the refrigerator for several days.
--Rice vinegar is smooth and mild. I usually find it in the Asian food area of the grocery store. Check the ingredient list. Some rice vinegars are already seasoned with sugar and salt. I use the natural, unseasoned variety.