When Vietnamese Sandwiches and Italian Bread Salads Combine: Banh Mi Panzanella

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A shopping disaster lead to serendipitous results. Morgan Eisenberg

Part of being a good cook is being able to bust out a delicious Plan B when Plan A turns into a disaster. Take, for example, my recent plans to serve homemade banh mi to guests. I went on a lengthy shopping trip to pick up all the ingredients, only to get home and realize the bread I'd bought was stale. That was a big problem, because good banh mi requires bread that's light and fluffy in the center and a crust that's thin and crisp. After a brief session of panicked cursing, I said to myself, Morgan, pull yourself together and figure this out. And that's when I remembered: When life gives you stale bread, make bread salad! Just like that, Banh Mi Panzanella was born.

Panzanella is a Tuscan salad that ingeniously uses up stale bread by tossing it with tomatoes, basil, onions, olive oil, and vinegar until it has softened in all those juices. All I needed to do was swap out those traditional Italian ingredients with ones used in banh mi—namely pickled vegetables like carrots and daikon; fresh ones like cucumbers, jalapeño, and cilantro; and then the protein, in this case firm tofu marinated with lemongrass and fish sauce (I could have gone with the more classic banh mi filling of pâté that I'd bought, but I was afraid it wouldn't incorporate well).

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I also needed moist components that would soak into the bread, like olive oil and vinegar do in the original panzanella. I decided to whip up a hoisin-based sauce spiked with honey, rice vinegar, and sesame oil, and then a chili-mayo that I loosen with rice vinegar that I can drizzle it on top.

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For the tofu, I start by pressing it with paper towels to remove some of its moisture. Then I marinate it for about 30 minutes in a mixture of soy sauce, minced fresh lemongrass, honey, and fish sauce. Once marinated, I pat it dry and sear it in a skillet until crispy. The fish sauce makes this a non-vegetarian dish, but you can check out Kenji's vegan tofu banh mi recipe for animal-free marinade ideas.

To pickle the carrot and daikon, I cook up a simple brine made with rice vinegar, water, sugar, and salt, then pour it while still hot over the vegetables. They're ready in about 30 minutes.

I should point out that you don't actually need stale bread to make this. In fact, while panzanella is designed to use up bread that's too hard to eat any other way, it can be made with fresh bread by cubing it and then toasting in a low 300°F oven until almost totally dry and firm, which takes about 20 minutes. I'd go as far as to say I prefer panzanella even more when the bread is toasted, since it has a slightly more complex flavor.

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To serve it, I toss the pickles, bread, and tofu together with my hoisin-honey sauce and plenty of fresh cucumber, jalapeños, and cilantro. Then I pile it on a plate and drizzle the chili mayo on top.

This is a Plan B that's going on my rotation of A-List recipes.

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