Maybe it’s a Jersey thing, or possibly a guy thing. Either way, I love me a good sandwich. There are few foods that I approach with such eager abandon as a sub piled high with fresh-sliced cold cuts, slathered with mustard and topped with lettuce, tomato and other assorted veggies.
But there are sandwiches…and then there are sandwiches. Oh, I’ll still gladly tuck into just about any combination of meats, cheeses and bread you offer me, but there’s really only one sandwich I actively crave. For the life of me, I couldn’t tell you when I first became aware of the one they call the Cubano, but since that day it has been the sandwich by which all other sandwiches are judged in my eyes.
Details on this not-s0-guilty pleasure – including how to make them at home – after the jump.
A classic Cubano (or Cuban sandwich) combines roasted pork, ham, swiss cheese and pickles on a loaf of Cuban bread with a light spread of mustard. That’s right: pork AND ham. The pork is frequently slow-roasted to give it a tender, juicy flavor,and the pickles of choice are most often kosher dills.
I know what you’re thinking at this point: “Sure, that sounds great, but I’m still not quite sure what makes this such a revelation of a sandwich.”
As it turns out, the Cubano’s mystique lies in the power of the press…the sandwich press, that is. When the ingredients are all assembled, they’re certainly good on their own. But it’s the addition of pressure and heat – as it is in the formation of a diamond from coal – that transforms the sandwich into something far more valuable. In traditional Cuban sandwich-making, a plancha press is used. This is a flat griddle that bears a slight resemblance to a panini press but is much more similar to squeezing two diner-style flattop grills on top of each other. This compresses the sandwich, flattening it out while heating it through and allowing the juices from the pork to intermingle with the melting cheese, the warming pickles and the tangy mustard. When a Cubano emerges, it looks roughly 1/3 as thick as it did when it went in, but it manages to avoid being dried out or tough.
Before we knew how easy it could be to make them ourselves, we even went so far as to try a frozen version from Havana Roadhouse. First purchased as our food offering for a traveling ‘golf’ party (9 houses, each represents a hole with its own signature drink and – very important – food for all participants), we ended up buying these cigar-shaped appetizers to have on hand for snacking. But they disappeared from our local grocery store’s shelves, and it was at that point that we realized we would have to fend for ourselves when it came to Cubanos.
So how do you go about replicating this culinary delight at home? As described by others like Off the Broiler and Taste of Cuba, it’s actually very easy to do. First, prepare a pork tenderloin however you like them, whether it’s a garlic crust, an apricot glaze or something else entirely. Realistically, you’ll want to cook the tenderloin and enjoy some of it as a meal before putting the rest away for use in sandwiches. Next, reach for a few slices of ham – no need to be fancy here, just go for whatever you normally buy at the deli counter. Ditto for an equal amount of Swiss cheese to match the ham. Next come the pickle slices – sandwich stackers work, though we prefer to slice half-sours from In a Pickle lengthwise instead. Mustard is a matter of personal taste – we’ve found that the smooth flavor of Grey Poupon has worked out well for us in the past, though we’ve also turned to Trader Joe’s Garlic Aioli when the taste of our pork was a bit underwhelming.
From there it’s a question of selecting the best possible bread for the job (Cuban bread is notoriously difficult to find outside Florida, so we’ve tried quite a few alternates). Believe it or not, the best of the bunch to date is a take-and-bake package of par-baked ficellle bread from Trader Joe’s. Popping the bread into the oven for 10 minutes or so, it emerges with a golden brown crust and a crumb that is crisp on the outside and airy inside.
Slice the bread, spread a layer of mustard, and then work the fillings to put together a nice, thick sandwich. My recommendation? Keep your wet/melty items toward the top of the sandwich, so they can saturate down toward the other ingredients as they warm and melt, rather than simply soaking into the bread. And then, when the masterpiece is assembled, turn to your handy-dandy plancha.
What’s that? You say you don’t have a plancha on hand? As luck would have it, there are two other ways to flatten out a sandwich while cooking. The first is elegant in its old-fashioned sensibility: place the sandwiches in a pre-heated cast-iron pan and then press down firmly on them with a second pan. If you’re unwilling or unable to maintain the pressure yourself, you can even weigh down the upper pan and let gravity do the work for you while the sandwiches cook through.
The second method (and the one we actually use) is the good old George Foreman Grill. Surely you remember this from college. If you’re like us, you’ve still got it even though you now have access to a real grown-up grill. When it comes to heating a Cubano, the Foreman just can’t be beat. It heats the sandwich thoroughly and can be weighted down for added pressure just like the skillets, but it’s a breeze to clean and its heating element is self-contained. I can’t honestly say we’d still have the Foreman were it not for Cuban sandwiches…but I can’t bear to part with it now that I know just how useful it is for this one application. For better or worse, we’ve reduced our Foreman Grill to a Cubano-pressing uni-tasker.
When the cheese has just started to melt and the sandwich is sizzling away, you know it’s time to take it off and enjoy. In our house, Cubanos have become a ritual every time we make a pork tenderloin – sometimes they’re even more eagerly awaited than the original meal!