When cookbook authors do book talks, we can’t just read from our works. (You really don’t want me to read my recipes aloud unless I take on a truly sarcastic tone.) There’s usually food involved, a light nibble to allow people to sample the contents of the cookbook. For last night’s banh mi launch party at Omnivore Books, we threw a party. We expected around 75 people and a crowd of about 100 people showed up.
I’m not restaurant chef with a staff who can make sandwiches on the spot. Banh mi don’t taste good if they’ve been sitting around for too long. Given that, my strategy for feeding folks was to offer a banh mi bar – a self-serve buffet in which guests got to sample a bunch of different things from the book. I cooked from my book, just as you would.
At the event, I make a little intro to explain and encourage guests to tinker with various combinations of condiments, pickles, and fillings. It’s interactive that way and frankly, less work for the cook! The resulting spread is pictured above, minus a platter of pressed Maggi tofu. (Sorry the photo isn’t terrific; I was in a rush as some people arrived about an hour early for the shindig.)
People had tons of fun and the food was gobbled up in about 45 minutes, someone commented on Facebook. While I was creating the menu and making the food, I noted a few tips to share with you, just in case you decide to host a banh mi party of your own. Yes, I'm an enabler...
Think about your guests — Any vegetarians or vegans ? People who love heat or are super sensitive?
Bread – Forget finding rolls or cutting baguette. It’s too much carb intake and people can’t taste different things. Go with a banh mi crostini concept (page 10 of the book). I baked little toast points, which I’ll post a recipe and tips for in a couple of days. [7/17/14 update: The banh mi crostini recipe.]
Condiments – Offer more than one mayonnaise or fat, such as butter or avocado. For the book party, I went with the sriracha aioli, cilantro maggi and umami mayo (I had Red Boat salt on hand). Purchased mayonnaise is fine too, if you’re short on time. If there are vegans, make the eggless mayonnaise in either plain or flavored form. Pair the mayonnaise with your guests’s taste preferences and chosen fillings. To move things along, set each mayo out in a couple of containers so there’s less bottleneck at the buffet. Mayonnaises another sauces in The Banh Mi Handbook can be made days in advance. When making multiple batches of the same mayo, I didn’t wash the processor between batches.
As for the Maggi Seasoning Sauce, it went barely touched because there was such crowd. I had the European and Chinese varieties out for people to see them. With a smaller group, you should have no problem with getting people to use it.
Spreads and other fillings – Have a pate or two because they’re easy to make in advance. I made the gateway chicken liver pate and edamame pate. Great colors and options for the liver-inclined and vegetarians.
Because of the large crowd at the launch party, I needed to cover the bases. Vegetarians had the baked Maggi tofu to go along with the edamame pate. Pork lovers got the Chinese barbecue (char siu) pork. Spice seekers had the option of the Sri Lankan black chicken.
Note that when scaling up recipes, cooking times will vary. My general rule is that when I double something, I can cook it in a pan that’s twice the size stated in the recipe. For example, with the chicken, I cooked double batches in large pots but then finished single batches in large skillets. This allowed for consistent flavors.
Pickles – Offer two or more. I made four because unripe, green tomatoes are in season. To show the versatility of banh mi pickles, I made a batch of the snow pea and lemongrass and the green tomato variation. Pickles can be eaten almost as a vegetable side. One woman took a bunch of the citrusy red cabbage pickle thinking it was coleslaw. Explain things to your guests and hope they’ll tune in.
Usually I’d cut the sticks of daikon and carrot pickle small so that they could be put atop the banh mi crostini with ease. Late Saturday night, I realized that they could be sliced as half moons so they’d sit flat on the banh mi crostini that people constructed. Sandwiches are built and how things are layered and hold together partially depends on the shape of the ingredients.
Cucumber – Again, shape matters in sandwich construction. For the banh mi bar, halve the cucumber lengthwise and remove the seeds before cutting half moons. Not too thin because you don’t want them to go limp as they sit. I cut those the day of the event.
Cilantro – Length matters with banh mi. Wash and chop or snap off short lengths. I like to keep a couple of leaves on each segment. For crostini, keep the pieces around 2 inches (6 cm) long. Use the extra cilantro stems for the Thai grilled turmeric chicken.
Chiles – Because of the size of the crostini, halve the chile and cut thin half-rounds. Otherwise, guests may get quite a surprise.
How much to make? It depends on the size of your crostini. What I would do is a trial run to estimate how much people would pile on one piece of bread. Some people may assemble little banh mi crostini while others may just take bits of each thing and eat it with the bread. The former will use less of the fillings than the former. The later will not use as much mayo as the former.
Set out a couple of stations so there’s less banh mi bar bottleneck. People can attack from different directions or rooms. Demo one or set aside a sample for guests to get a sense of what they can create.
Then sit back and let the banh mi party begin.
Note that I used the recipes in The Banh Mi Handbook for this event. They simply got scaled up.
If you have tips to share or questions to ask, here's your chance.