A homemade Cubano may be a little lopsided, but the flavor of the slow-roasted pork is incomparable, especially when combined with sweet ham and melting Swiss cheese. A glass of blood orange juice brightens the richness of the sandwich.
I’m crazy about BLTs, especially the ones that have a roasted jalapeno tucked inside. And I’ve been known to inhale a muffuletta from Central Grocery in New Orleans.
But the sandwich I love the best is the Cubano, a basic compilation of slow-roasted pork, sweet ham, Swiss cheese, sour pickles and yellow mustard. Nothing fancy, that’s for sure. But it hits all the happy flavor notes: tangy, sweet, salty, spicy, meaty, and yes, cheesy.
And while I know the ultimate Cubano is somewhere out there, at the moment the one I love the best is the one I make at home. So I’m going to give you the recipe. But first, there are a couple of teeny tiny issues: namely the slow-roasted pork and the bread.
If you’re going to make Cubanos for yourself and say, five friends, you might as well do it right. That means buying a pork shoulder—boneless is fine—and marinating it overnight in a slurry of garlic, oregano, salt, coarsely ground black pepper and allspice mixed with ¾ cup of orange and lime juice (a substitute for the sour orange juice you'd use if you lived in the tropics).
The marinade is a simple, less liquid version of the famous mojo sauce that’s served with roasted pork, black beans and rice around Christmas in the Cuban community. Allspice isn’t normally used , but since Columbus discovered the round berries in Cuba in 1492—he thought they were peppercorns—it only seemed right to add a little, especially since it enhances the flavor of the meat.
The next day you slow-roast the pork, not until it falls apart but is still firm enough to be sliced. Let the meat cool to room temperature before cutting it. Pork cooked this way gives the homemade Cubano an incomparably rich, meaty flavor with the merest hint of citrus and garlic. It’s well worth planning ahead.
The bread, on the other hand, is a thornier issue. Real Cuban bread is light and soft on the inside and minimally crusted on the outside, all the better to compress the pork, ham and all the other delicious ingredients when it is flattened before serving. Rather than adding a lot of flavor, it's designed to contain the contents of the sandwich.
Lately I’ve been poring over Three Guys from Miami, a boisterous trio who post three-way dialogues about authentic Cuban food on their website. Naturally, they insist that the best Cuban bread (outside of Cuba) comes from South Florida. “A ‘Cuban Bread Line’ (the Mason-Dixon Line of Cuban baked goods) stretches across the state just north of Tampa,” they say. “If you go anywhere north of the Cuban Bread Line, you have two chances of getting a decent loaf: slim and none.”
For the record, the boys recommend two bakeries in South Florida: San Lago in Miami and La Segunda Bakery in Tampa, where each of the 7,000 loaves baked daily is topped with palmetto leaves that create “the distinctive cracking of the crust along the leaf line.” Neither appears to ship, at least not retail, so I guess I'll have to take an extra suitcase the next time I go there.
But if you want a Cubano now and you live north of the Bread Line, you will have to improvise. Alton Brown unabashedly makes his Cubanos using hoagie rolls.
As for me, when Angus and Serendipity were little and I was making Cubanos every other week or so, I didn’t worry too much about authenticity. But I did want bread that tasted good, so I’d buy a ciabatta from Whole Foods.
Ciabatta is about as far from soft Cuban bread as you can get: It’s a flat, misshapen sourdough loaf with a chewy crust. Make that very chewy, maybe even tough. The secret is to evenly slice off the top and bottom of the loaf-–each piece should be ½ to 3/4 inch thick--and discard the rest of the bread inside. Then layer the ingredients between the top and bottom pieces, and press them together. A Cubano made with ciabatta is a little hard to eat, but everyone loved the flavor.
Yesterday, though, I was thinking about the soft Cuban bread at La Carreta while perusing the bread aisle at the supermarket. A packaged loaf of “Large French Bread,” about 16 inches long and 4 or 5 inches wide, was the only baked item I saw that seemed remotely similar. The price: $1.67
This is not a crusty baguette, but a wider, softer loaf with a very tender, golden brown top—I hesitate to call it a crust--that’s been slashed with a knife before baking. The crumb didn’t taste like much, but as with the ciabatta, I sliced off the top and bottom and discarded much of the inside.
It made a surprisingly good Cubano—not authentic—but very tasty. It’s even better if you drizzle a little of the juices in the bottom of the roasting pan over the bread before slathering on the mustard and butter.
The best part? I didn’t have to go to Florida to eat it.
Homemade Cubano Sandwich with Slow Roasted Pork, Sweet Ham, and Swiss Cheese
To serve 5 or 6
Ingredients for the sandwich:
2 loaves Cuban bread, or a substitute such as ciabatta or French bread (see above)
Reserved juices and marinade from slow-roasted pork (optional; see recipe below)
Unsalted butter, softened
Sour pickles, sliced thin (substitute dill pickles if necessary)
Slow-roasted pork (see recipe below), sliced medium thin
1-1/4 pounds sweet ham, sliced medium thin
1-1/4 pounds Swiss cheese, sliced medium thin
Olive or canola oil for brushing the pan
1. Prepare the bread: If using Cuban bread, slice the first loaf in half vertically. If using a substitute, cut off the top and bottom of the ciabatta or loaf of French bread. Each piece should be 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick. Discard the inside or save for bread crumbs.
2. If you would like to drizzle the cut sides of the bread with a little of the liquid from the bottom of the roasting pan, now is the time to do so. Use only a teaspoon or two, so as not to saturate the bread.
3. Slather the top and bottom slices with softened butter and set aside. Add a modest amount of yellow mustard to the top slice.
4. Begin stacking the ingredients: From the bottom add 2 slices roast pork, 3 slices sweet ham, 3 slices Swiss cheese and top with sliced sour pickles. Cover with the top of the loaf and set aside.
5. Place a large cast iron frying pan on the stove and brush with a little oil. Turn the flame to the lowest heat. While the pan is heating, cut the sandwich in half on the diagonal so that you have two smaller pieces that will separately fit into the pan. You will only heat one piece at a time.
6. Put half the sandwich in the pan and cover it loosely with aluminum foil. On top of the foil place a smaller cast iron frying pan and weight it down with anything you have that is heavy: I have used 5-pound bags of rice, a full teakettle, even bricks wrapped in foil. The idea is to press the sandwich down firmly while heating it.
7. Heat the sandwich for 4 to 5 minutes, then turn it to the other side, replace the weights and heat for 4 to 5 minutes more, or until the cheese has begun to melt and ooze. You may hear it sizzle as it hits the bottom of the pan. Do not let the bread burn.
8. Remove the sandwich to a cutting board and slice it in half. Serve at once and eat while you are heating the other half. Continue with the second loaf until all the sandwiches have been made.
Slow Roasted Cuban Pork Shoulder
Makes enough for 6 or more sandwiches
1 large head garlic, cloves separated and peeled
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon sea salt
2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
¼ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
½ cup freshly squeezed orange juice
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 pounds boneless pork shoulder
1. Put all the ingredients except the pork shoulder in a food processor and pulse until they are well-blended. The garlic should be reduced to very small pieces.
2. Place the pork shoulder in a non-reactive pan and stab it all over with the point of a sharp paring knife.
3. Slowly pour the marinade over the pork, working the garlic and herbs into the slits with your fingers.
4. Cover and refrigerate overnight, turning the pork 2 or 3 times. The next day remove the meat from the refrigerator about an hour before cooking.
5. When you are ready to cook, set the oven temperature to 450 degrees. Put the pork in a roasting pan with the remaining marinade, fatty side up, and place it in the oven. Immediately reduce the heat to 225 degrees.
6. Slow roast the pork, basting occasionally, for 3-1/2 to 4 hours. The pork should be cooked through, but still firm enough to slice. Remove from the oven and move the top rack close to the broiler. Set the heat to broil and pop the pork back into the oven for 4 to 5 minutes, just long enough to brown the top. Remove and let cool to room temperature.
7. Meanwhile pour the marinade and meat juices out of the pan into a bowl and refrigerate. When cool, remove as much fat as possible. Drizzle the reserved juices over the cut sides of the bread if desired (as indicated in the recipe above.)