Thursday, July 14, 2011

Happy July! Enjoy a little Niçoise street food - Steamed Tempeh Pan Bagnat

Is it un-American to make anything except American food on the fourth of July? Setting aside, of course, the debate about whether there is any truly American food except corn with, like, walnuts and apple and maple syrup (undoubtedly all stuffed in to a pumpkin), trying to tease out what foods have spent enough time evolving in the New World to be considered American is a fruitless (ha) effort. Entire cities make my point for me - New York's beloved bagels or cannoli , beignets and cafe au lait in New Orleans, New Mexican posole. More than that, I think trying to figure out what is and isn't American is kind of missing the point of America in general.

All that to say, I made French food on the fourth of July. Don't come after me.

It's not a political statement, I just really want to make socca, and I thought it would be the perfect food to make as a snack while grilling out with my family. And if I'm making socca, I might as well go full Niçoise and do a pan bagnat sandwich as well. With rosé. Obviously.

I'll leave the socca for another time, because it didn't turn out exactly like I wanted, or anything at all like I wanted. That may be my fault, because I ran out of time to make it on the day I made the batter, so it sat around for...a bit. It is supposed to rest for a while, but only a couple hours - even overnight - not four days. Needless to say, by the time I got around to making it, it had gotten a little ferment-y. At the time, I thought, well, they let injera batter ferment in the Ethiopian heat, and this has been in the fridge, so surely it's fine. I'll take another pass at socca, but I'm beginning to suspect that I just don't like chickpea flour that much. A friend recently suggested that it's better fried, so I may do a breading with it soon, but for now I'm taking a hiatus.

While the socca was underwhelming, my steamed-tempeh pan bagnat was a spectacular success. Pan bagnat means, literally, "bathed bread," so this is a very wet salad that would be well served over a bed of lettuce as a tempeh Niçoise salad, but is traditionally paired with a very crusty baguette or bun which absorbs some of the delicious vinaigrette that seasons the ingredients. The sandwiches are also traditionally pressed and rested, again to enhance the absorption of the liquids. I tried that the first time I made it, but the home-made roll I used didn't quite hold up to it. The second time, I used a nice, crusty baguette, which performed a little better. I also served to a group of friends with little slices of baguette, and it went over very well, in spite of leaking all over everyone.

Traditionally, pan bagnat is made with tuna, so I used steamed tempeh to provide that firm texture with a touch of chewiness. The salad benefits from a little marinating, so it will continue to taste better as it sits in the fridge for a day or two. Good quality olives are key; find a grocery store with an olive bar if you live in or near suburbia, or a specialty shop if you're more urban. Also, I would marinate the onions in red wine vinegar, olive oil, and black pepper for at least several hours before you make the rest of the salad.

Steamed Tempeh Niçoise for Pan Bagnat
Makes about 8 sandwiches  or about 6 dinner-sized salads

2 8-oz packages of tempeh (for this I used WestSoy's original, which is lighter in color than the 5-grain that I  usually use, and looks great with the bright-colored vegetables)
1/2 c. red wine vinegar for tempeh marinade
1/2 c. olive oil for tempeh marinade
1/8 c. lemon juice for tempeh marinade
1 Tbsp. dulse flakes (optional - add slight seafood flavor, but won't make a big difference if you don't have them on hand)

1/2 medium onion, diced
1/4 c. red wine vinegar for onion marinade
1/4 c. olive oil for onion marinade
1/8 tsp. black pepper for onion marinade

1 small cucumber, diced

2 small tomatoes, diced

1 1/4 c. pitted green and kalamata olives, chopped (yields about 1 c. chopped)

Extra red wine vinegar, olive oil, lemon juice, and black pepper for dressing the salad

Your favorite kind of lettuce, torn into pieces for the sandwich or in larger leaves as a bed for the salad


Ideally, marinate the diced onion in red wine vinegar, olive oil and black pepper for at least several hours and up to overnight before you prepare the salad.

Boil a good amount water in a large pot (one that has or can accommodate a steamer basket). With the basket in place, the water should not come within something like 3 inches of the basket, but fill the pot as much as possible so that you don't risk boiling it all away. As the water comes to a boil (leaving the lid on will make this happen more quickly), cut the tempeh in half lengthwise and then slice into pieces between 1/4 and 1/2 inch thick. Arrange tempeh in a single layer in the steamer basket.

Begin to prep your vegetables while the water comes to a boil. Chop cucumber, tomato, and olives, and if not prepared in advance, the onion. When the water is boiling, put the steamer basket with tempeh into the pot, cover, and steam for 10-15 minutes, until softened but not falling apart. Check a couple of times for texture if you need to. When tempeh is done, pull the basket out of the pot and set it somewhere that it can cool.

When tempeh has cooled, cut the slices into cubes and place in a large mixing bowl. Drizzle with lemon juice, then mix. Then drizzle generously with red wine vinegar and olive oil, following the guidelines above but using more if you feel you need to. Mix thoroughly but gently with your hands, trying not to break up the tempeh too much, and add dulse flakes if desired. Let the tempeh marinate for about 10 minutes, or whatever time you have (you may still be chopping vegetables). When it's done, add all the chopped vegetables, including the onion and its marinating liquid. Mix gently and drizzle with red wine vinegar, olive oil, and lemon juice to taste, adding black pepper as needed.

For salade Niçoise, spoon salad over lettuce leaves in a shallow soup bowl.

For pan bagnat, cut up a baguette into sandwich-sized lengths and cut in half, leaving a "hinge" intact. You can remove some of the bread from the inside to make room if you like (if you do, mop up some of the vinaigrette with the soft bread bits you pull out - a real perk of being the cook). Lay some torn pieces of lettuce across the sandwich, and spoon in the generous amounts of the salad. Garnish with lots of napkins.