It is no secret that I love a good sandwich. I think they are the most personal of foods. It is what we make for ourselves alone, and that we prepare in just the way that suits us. Casseroles are full of compromises…somebody doesn’t like cilantro (me), somebody doesn’t like onions, somebody doesn’t like black olives, etc…and you end up with a dish that often is made to please the most people in the room. But a sandwich is selfish. It is just the way you like it.
I’ve been eating a lot of Cubans lately, the sandwich that is. They are also called Cubanos. They are a rather simple affair. Beautifully simple, actually. However, the primary ingredient, roast pork, is often not on hand in the house and is also not something you pick up in the cold cut aisle. Cubanos, for me, were always a treat I enjoyed out. Of note, Jimmy’s Food Store has a spectacular Cuban and there is also a little spot called the International Bakery that has a very solid cubano. Scott Reitz of the Dallas Observer recently put a list together of the 9 best Cuban sandwiches in Dallas, he apparently being similarly moved by this treat. We should all go on a 9-day lunch-a-thon and check out the particulars. But they are nice to eat out because, not only does some angel of mercy place it before you and then take away the dishes, but you also don’t have to come up with the pork element.
And the pork here is key. All this sandwich consists of is pork, ham (more pork…oh joy), cheese, pickles and mustard on Cuban bread, all pressed into a hot, melty, flat meal.
But I’ve been purposefully thinking of ways to have left over pork on hand since I developed a taste for these sandwiches. And I’ve found myself searching the internet for hints about an “authentic” Cuban sandwich. I get very twitchy when I play with ethnic recipes. I like happy people. I want to give credit where credit is due. I don’t want to write about something that is important to a group of folks and screw it up. Do you get twitchy when someone calls chili with beans “Texas Chili”? Certain dishes carry more weight, or cultural pride, and respecting the source is a good idea, because you can then enjoy a meal as a connection to other people, not just as physical sustenance. I tried to explain this to my grade schooler with respect to writing techniques. You need to know and understand the rules (recipe and history) before you can break the rules (modify) in a way that produces great results.
So I’ve read about the bread (I don’t know where to buy Cuban bread in Dallas so I opted for Mexican bolillo and telera rolls, with the telera winning by a nose. These photos show a standard bolillo…four for a dollar. I’ll keep looking. I’ve gone with Swiss cheese because that is the most common choice I’ve found in the literature. Although I also played with a queso quesadilla that was pretty great. The pickles? These are just my refrigerator staples. I’ve had two occasions recently to make this with regulation leftover roast pork loin. But then I finally broke down and found some recipes for lechón asado, or pork shoulder, marinated in a sour orange marinade and slow cooked. I modified the recipes I found to suit my purposes and pantry, but it is essentially a pulled pork dish. However, it takes a 24 hour soak, and due to some mistaken timing estimates on my part, a large pork shoulder that I thought would be ready for dinner a few nights ago was actually not ready until breakfast the next day. Eighteen hours. Can you say evaporative cooling? Somehow I thought that was a phenomenon of the smoker. Anyway, it is not a recipe in which I was particularly confident or which I am going to share, but the leftovers were holy cow (?), just the thing for cubanos, and so tonight, I feasted with my two little converts, Lily and Ford, on big cubano sandwiches.
Follow Scott Reitz’ trail if you live in Dallas. If you don’t, plan some leftovers the next time you make pulled pork or even roast a pork loin. Once you have the pork in hand this is a very easy sandwich to put together. And it is a special treat. I haven’t read enough yet to figure out just whom to thank for this jewel…do I look to the expats in Florida…and if so, which city gets credit, or all the way back to the island…but what a great thing to have in our culinary lexicon.
As for sandwich presses, well, I don’t have one. I don’t need one. I don’t really want one, nor do I have space for one. When I am making one grilled cheese, I put a spatula on top of my sandwich and then put a heavy can of green chiles or tomatoes on top. Here, with 3 big sandwiches, I just top them with foil and put my great big cast iron skillet on top. Also, I have to give a little sunshine to my favorite new kitchen tool. I have a long Lodge Cast Iron griddle that I picked up at Wal-Mart for about $28 and it flat out rocks. And I’ll have it forever. And it is a grilled cheese making son-of-a-gun.
|The Cuban Sandwich|| |
- 4 ounces chopped roasted pork
- 3 ounces sliced ham
- 2 ounces swiss cheese
- 2 teaspoons yellow mustard
- pickle slices
- 1 small loaf Cuban bread or other roll
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- Gently warm the ham and pork before assembling the sandwich.
- Cut the roll in half lengthwise and spread mustard on the inside of the bottom slice.
- Assemble in the following order: pickles, half the cheese, pork, ham, the remaining cheese and the top bread slice.
- Warm a griddle or non-stick pan over medium heat. When the griddle is heated, liberally apply butter to the griddle and place the sandwich on the buttered griddle. Place a press or cast iron skillet on top of the sandwich and cook until the cheese is beginning to melt and the bottom of the bread is golden. Remove the press and turn the sandwich. Replace the press and continue to cook until the top side is golden and all of the cheese is nicely melted. Remove from the griddle and eat immediately.
Reheating pork is tricky business. It is very easy to dry out this succulent meat. Don’t pull the pork until you are just ready to serve. And if you reheat, do so gently.
In the cult of the sandwich, cheese is the glue. I go bread-mustard-pickle-cheese-meat because the cheese melts through the pickle layer to the bread and it also melts against the meat, effectively gluing together those strata of ingredients. Frankly, I would ignore my ingredient amounts and put as much cheese as you can get to melt before burning your sandwich. More cheese between the pork and ham would be optimal. But if you are strategic about cheese placement, your pork is less likely to fall out of your sandwich and that is a worthy goal.
Have I succeeded in honoring this dish? No. I’m busy and crazy and heading in 100 directions. But, I’m definitely paying attention. Do I want to continue figuring out the ultimate Cubano and all that it entails? Yes! So if you are in the know, or if you have been to the very best little Cuban deli in Miami or Tampa or…Heaven help us…actual-real-life-Cuba…please comment below and tell us all about it. Or, do you know anything about the sibling of the Cubano, the “medianoche”? Do tell. My sense is that it is just a more bready Cubano for the midnight crowd.
If you have read my blog for any period of time, you know that I am a sucker for foods and food topics that are at the intersection of culture, history, and food. Food is the best cultural ambassador. Food is an excellent doorway to history and understanding. If you like that kind of thing too, may I suggest that you look into joining Foodways Texas or The Southern Foodways Alliance. Also, some magazines are particularly celebratory about the cultures that bring us our favorite dishes. Consider a subscription to Saveur or Texas’ own Sugar and Rice. It is like going on vacation to all of the little spots in the world that you never quite make it to.