Mushroom pâté is key to this vegan banh mi
At first glance, the banh mi would seem to be an ideal sandwich to adapt for a plant-based diet.
That’s because, in the photo-ready version of the symbolic sandwich of Vietnam, you see an individual loaf of Vietnamese baguette overflowing with leafy cilantro, a tangle of carrot and daikon radish pickles, generous slices of cucumber, and as many rings of jalapeño as fit your tolerance and personality. You know there’s something under all that, but it seems like that could be switched out as a cosmetic change, right?
Sort of. Classically, that base layer is playing the definitive role in the sandwich, and it’s probably pork. If you go to a banh mi shop, it will almost always have a vegetarian version, most likely with tofu, in the spot where the pork would otherwise be. And that’s fine.
So you can have that sandwich, and it might be terrific. But if you have history with the classic banh mi, it might seem like something is missing. Because something is.
The one thing that can be a challenge to translate without using an animal product is the pâté spread on the bread. By the time you see the sandwich, that pâté is probably thoroughly obscured by everything on top of it, but its presence is abundantly clear as soon as you take a bite — a grounding element of earthiness and funk that gives that garden of bright freshness on top something to cut through.
And a banh mi is just not the same without it. Some shops even note on the menu that the vegetarian versions don’t have pâté on them. It’s like a warning.
I’m not really in a position to solve many of the world’s problems, but I felt like this was one I could take a crack at.
I was reminded of a night several years ago when my very favorite vegetarian, Kristen, was visiting and we had a dinner party. I decided to include a cheese plate, but wanted it to look like a charcuterie board. How exactly I managed that is mostly lost to history except for one thing: I made a whipped butter with sauteed mushrooms that I processed until smooth. I called it shiitake pâté and we spread it on crostini, topped with pickles and cheese. It was earthy, bordering on ethereal. I had flavored it with classic pâté ingredients, thyme and brandy, but I immediately knew that the base could be taken in a lot of directions.
And suddenly, I knew how to make the vegetarian banh mi that I wanted to eat.
For the bulk of this sandwich, I changed nothing from the classic: Those toppings achieved classic status because they’re perfect. To replace the meat, I simply sauteed some oyster mushrooms, though any other — portobello, cremini, shiitake — would work. As would seared tofu.
To make the pâté, I sauteed some cremini — again, any mushroom would work — with shallot, then buzzed it in the food processor with fermented beans and powdered dry shiitakes to up the umami factor (I can’t get enough mushrooms and love adding mushroom powder to things, but you can skip that if you want). The beans I had on hand were black and came in a jar with chile oil, but any fermented bean product will work. If you go to an Asian market, you’ll probably find a shelf full of different varieties. Just close your eyes and pick one: It will work and be delicious. The fermented beans bring a version of the trademark funk of the original liver-based pâté.
That just leaves the bread, and while I am generally a fan of soft sub rolls, this is a place for a sturdy, crusty roll. If you can get your hands on traditional Vietnamese baguettes, you’re living a good life and should do that. If not, just go to the supermarket or your favorite bakery and get a good French baguette.
Warmed up briefly in the oven, the bread provided the crunch and exterior structure the sandwich needs and the interior softness I like. It worked great.
If you want to make extra pâté, you can use it on other kinds of sandwich, or on crackers with cheese and pickles, or even toss it in warm pasta or rice.
But I’m probably just going to make more banh mi.
Mushroom Banh Mi
Total time: 30 minutes
A definitive element of a traditional banh mi is the liver-y pâté, and vegetarian versions of the classic Vietnamese sandwich often go without any alternative. Here, sauteed mushrooms are reduced to a paste with funky fermented beans to create a plant-based counterpart that may be even more interesting than the original. There are many varieties of fermented bean products available, using black, soy and broad (doubanjiang) beans. Some are whole beans, others come in the form of paste. Some are packed in chili oil. Any will work here. A widely available brand is Lao Gan Ma.
The choice of bread is critical: You’ll need something with an assertive crustiness to offset the softness of the mushrooms and pâté. This was tested with a standard supermarket French baguette that was 22 inches long and weighed 10 ounces. If you’d like to warm the bread, you might need to cut it in half to fit in the oven.
Storage: The quick pickles and mushroom pâté can be refrigerated in separate airtight containers, for up to 4 days.
Where to buy: Dried shiitake mushrooms and fermented beans or pastes can be found at Asian markets and online.
Make ahead: The quick pickles and the pâté can be made up to 4 days ahead and refrigerated, separately, in airtight containers.
For the quick pickles
1 cup water, divided
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 teaspoons fine salt
1 cup rice vinegar
6 ounces carrot, cut into thin matchsticks or coarsely grated
6 ounces daikon radish, cut into thin matchsticks or coarsely grated
For the pâté
1/2 ounce dried shiitake mushrooms (optional)
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
8 ounces cremini mushrooms, sliced
1 medium shallot (2 ounces), minced (may substitute [1/2] cup minced red onion)
2 tablespoons fermented beans, bean paste or beans in chile oil
4 tablespoons unsalted butter (dairy or vegan), divided
For the sandwich
1 tablespoon neutral oil, such as canola or grapeseed
1 pound large mushrooms, preferably oyster, trimmed and broken into large pieces
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 baguette, warmed, if desired (may substitute 4 crusty sub rolls)
1 large cucumber, sliced
Leaves from 1 bunch fresh cilantro
1 jalapeño, thinly sliced
Make the pickles: In a small saucepan over high heat, bring 1/2 cup of the water to a boil (or heat it in the microwave on HIGH for about 2 minutes), then add the sugar and salt, and stir to dissolve. Remove from the heat and add the remaining 1/2 cup water and the vinegar. Toss the carrot and daikon in the brine and let sit for at least 20 minutes and use right away, or transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate until needed.
Make the pâté: If using the dried shiitakes, in a coffee/spice grinder, process the mushrooms until they form a powder, 30 seconds to 1 minute. If any large pieces of mushrooms remain after 1 minute, discard them. You should get about 2 tablespoons of powder.
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat the sesame oil until it shimmers. Add the cremini mushrooms and shallot and saute, stirring regularly, until the mushrooms soften and brown, give up their liquid and it evaporates, about 10 minutes. Transfer the cremini mushrooms to the bowl of a food processor, add the shiitake powder, if using, and fermented beans and process until the mushrooms break down into a smooth paste. With the motor running, add the butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, letting it incorporate before adding more. Use right away, or refrigerate in an airtight container until needed. You should get about 1-1/4 cups.
Make the sandwich: In the same skillet you used for cremini mushrooms, over medium-high heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the mushroom pieces, season with the salt and pepper, and cook until they release their liquid, it evaporates and they begin to brown on the bottom, about 8 minutes. (If you have something heavy, such as a small cast-iron skillet, use it to press the mushrooms to get a better sear.) Stir and brown the other side, an additional 5 minutes.
Cut the baguette across the equator, leaving one of the long sides intact and open the bread like a sub roll (alternately, use the smaller sub rolls). Spread the pâté, warm or chilled, along the bottom half of the bread, then follow with the sauteed mushrooms. Top with the cucumber slices, quick pickles, cilantro leaves and jalapeño slices. Cut the baguette across into 4 pieces and serve. (Or assemble 4 individual subs on smaller rolls, dividing the ingredients evenly, and serve.)
From staff writer Jim Webster.