Banh Mi Thit Nuong (Vietnamese sandwich with grilled lemongrass pork)

Ever since Food Network aired “The Great Food Truck Race” with Tyler Florence, we’ve been inspired to start up our own food truck business.  Unfortunately, Fresno doesn’t have much of a market for food trucks just yet.  And we also don’t have the money to purchase a pimped out food truck.  So the dream will have to wait.  However, we were fixated with the banh mis that the Nom Nom truck made, and had absolutely no idea where to get them in Fresno.  Luckily, as foodie fate would have it, a Vietnamese restaurant opened up close by not too long after the show was nearing the finale.

We were torn between beef pho and banh mi sandwich… so we ordered both and decided to share!  It was the perfect compromise.  We salivated in anticipation of our food.  It felt like 30 minutes had passed before our food came out, but in actuality, it was only about five minutes.  Oh, but it felt like forever.  We were in nom nom heaven when we had our first bite of the lemongrass chicken banh mi.  Ironically, I grew up hating banh mis.  I tried it a few times while growing up and I think it was the taste of cilantro and carrots that grossed me out.  Well, our taste buds certainly change as we mature.  I love cilantro now, but can only tolerate carrots in certain forms – stewed or pickled, just not raw.  I digress.

We were in the mood for some banh mi so it gave me the perfect reason to fire up the grill in the middle of December!  The weather has been mild around here.  Apparently, it’s La Nina season and she’s here to stay for a while.  I was out grilling in my scrub pants and t-shirt, which is really unusual for December weather in Fresno.  But it was perfect grilling weather.  Sunny, but not hot.  Cool, but not freezing.  Again, I digress.  There is just something dreamy about the smell of grilled meat, especially grilled lemongrass pork.  Yum.  We dressed up our french bread with a thin spread of mayo, pickled carrots and daikon, cucumbers, cilantro, sliced jalapenos, and of course, the creme de la creme, the grilled pork.  We ate, we nommed, we conquered.

Banh Mi Thit Nuong (from Ravenous Couple)

1.5 pounds pork butt or shoulder, thinly sliced just under 1/4 inch or so
1/4 cup minced Lemongrass (xa bam)
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoons ground pepper
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 shallots, minced
3 tablespoons sesame oil
1 tablespoons thick soy sauce
2 loaf of french bread or 6 demi baguettes
1 cucumber, sliced thin
1/2 bunch cilantro
Jalapeno, thinly sliced (optional)
Pickled carrots/daikon
Mayonnaise
Pate (optional)

For the marinade, combine the lemongrass, shallots, garlic, sugar, fish sauce, pepper, dark soy sauce, and sesame oil in a large mixing bowl.  Add the pork, mix well, and marinate for at least a few hours or over night (the longer the better!).

Grill the lemongrass pork until golden brown and slightly charred on each side.

Spread a thin layer of mayo and pate on the baguette, and add the pork and condiments.  And nom away!

Maple Bacon Caramel

Being a first-generation Chinese-American, we never grew up celebrating the western Holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Our one big holiday of the year was, I’m sure you guessed, Chinese New Year (aka, Lunar New Year).  I can remember only one time in my 31 years where we had a Christmas tree with lots of presents, and that was when my brother and I were 1 and 3 years old, respectively.  From then on, not celebrating Holidays became the norm.  And that was okay for us.  Sure, there was a little bit of envy when my school friends would go on and on about the many gifts that awaited them under their big Christmas tree.  But it only made me look forward to Chinese New Year even more for the endless amounts of dumpling and red envelopes filled with money.  So take that!  However, the one thing that I did look forward to during Christmas was the 24 hour rerun of “A Christmas Story” on Christmas day.

Four years ago, my partner wanted to make mini banana bread loaves to pass out to her friends and coworkers for the Holidays.  She asked if I wanted to some to pass out, but I was shook my head and declined.  In fact, I didn’t understand why she would even go through all that much work.  I think I even suggested getting Holiday bags and stuffing it with Hershey’s kisses to save her some time, money, and energy.  But she only snickered at my recommendation.

The following year, before Christmas, I caught an episode on the Food Network of Ina Garten making her “fleur de sel caramels.”  I couldn’t find a good excuse to make them as a just-because-kind-of-treat, so when time came for my partner to make her Holiday treats, I found the perfect opportunity to make them!  She made chocolate-dipped biscotti, and I made salted caramels for the gift bags.  At that point, I wanted to make the salted caramels not for the gift bags, but because I merely just wanted to try them.  The salted caramels were well received that year, and so, it has become our Holiday gift bag traditions.  So why did I change my mind?  I’ve taken lots of pride in my salted caramels.  In fact, we get requests for them throughout the year, and we would make them if it didn’t take so much time to make and wrap each individual caramel.

Well, this year, I wanted to do something a little different.  Something outside-of-the-box that people won’t expect to find.  I wanted to play up on our savory & sweet treats.  While I was perusing the TasteSpotting website a few months ago, I found a recipe for bacon caramels.  I heart anything that involves pig parts, so I made sure to bookmark this website.

My Sunday was spent as if I were working in a hand-made candy factory.  I felt like Charlie from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, standing over the boiling mixture of sugar, cream, and butter to ensure it doesn’t pass the firm-ball stage.  My partner helped wrap some of the candy, and referred to herself as my “oompa loompa.”  I digress.  I spent about 10 hours making and wrapping two types of caramels for our holiday treats gift bags for friends, family, and coworkers.  They turned out perfectly, and I am super excited to pass them out!

These caramels remind me of a few different things… the maple bacon bar from VooDoo Donuts in Portland, OR, and bacon dipped in maple syrup and eaten with a bite of pancake.  I love bacon.

Maple Bacon Caramels (adapted from Not Without Salt)

12 strips of bacon
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 cup corn syrup
1/2 cup butter
1 cup heavy cream, divided
1/4 cup maple syrup

Bacon fried to a crisp. The amount is up to you. I used 8 strips of thick-cut bacon.  However, next time, I would definitely like to use more as there were some caramels that had little to no bacon at all.  Besides is there ever a time when there’s too much bacon?!

Reserve 1/2 cup of the heavy cream. Combine all the other ingredients in a medium sauce pan. Stir to combine. Set on medium high heat. Stir occasionally and cook until 240. The candy is now at soft-ball stage. Remove from the stove and carefully stir in the remaining 1/2 cup cream. Place back on the heat and continue to cook to 248* (firm-ball stage, which is the desired state for making caramels). Immediately remove from heat and stir in a portion of the crispy bacon. Pour the caramel into a buttered or oiled pan… I used a 9×13 jelly roll pan.  Scatter the remaining bacon on top.  Place the pan into the refrigerator to set for about 60 minutes.  Remove from refrigerator and cut into pieces, and enjoy!

Cooking tip: buy a candy thermometer!  I’m sure most of you will know to do this.  I didn’t when I first starting making caramels a few years ago.  I was using this little dinky thermometer to only went up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, so I had to wait for it to go all the way around to reach 48 degrees Fahrenheit to equal 248 degrees F.  I finally invested in a candy thermometer (hence, the picture) this year and it has made ALL the difference!  I think this year’s caramels are my best yet :)

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