Pork Sandwich: My interpretation of the classic Cubano

College, away from home for the first time, wasn't as traumatic as I originally feared for two reasons: first, school was located at the base of the Oakland Hills, literally walking distance to UC Berkley and five minutes from the Oakland Bay Bridge heading into San Francisco so there were a lot of cool, hip places to explore; and second, the older sister of my best childhood friend lived in San Francisco. 

Melba, my friend's older sister, had moved to San Francisco to follow a job and stayed when she met her soon-to-be future husband. By the time I entered art college in Oakland, they were living together in a cute flat blocks from the famous stretch of Lombard Street (the crookedest street in the world). They had promised my mother to watch out for me while I was in the Bay Area. The benefit of having those two in my life at such a crucial time is difficult for me to put into words. They were my tether to home on the one hand and my guides into a new world on the other.

During the week, I'd get lost in school projects and meandering around the hip neighborhood the school was located in spending plenty of time walking to UC Berkley and popping into coffee houses and galleries along the way. On the weekends, Melba, and often times  her husband Charlie as well, would continue my education expanding it into culture, food, music, art and film. Up until then, my culinary exposure had  been only what I ate at home which was mainly standard American fare, typical Mexican food, some Italian favorites and the occasional foray into Filipino food when I dined at a friend's house. The very first place Melba took me too was a small Indian restaurant not far from the UCB campus. I had never smelled those aroma's before and was totally lost and exhilarated at the same time. She ordered for me and I have been in love with Indian food ever since. She exposed me to Persian and Lebanese food and took me to a Greek festival – my first ever - where I fell in love with lamb. She also introduced me to a different kind of Mexican food like I had never had before (it wasn't the border variety I had grown up with), South American food and Cuban. It's while in San Francisco with her that I first experienced a Cubano: a cuban sandwich that is made traditionally on Cuban sandwich bread and is filled with roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard. 

The assignment that re-ignited
my love for this yummy sammy!
Once back home in San Diego, just starting out, I didn't have much cash for dining out and my eating habits returned to my roots. I'd forgotten all about that delicious Cubano until years later while working on the Food section at the news mill that I had the opportunity to attempt recreating it for a story we were planning on for the cover. I researched the sandwich online and made it, styling and photographing it for the newspaper. That re-ignited my love for the sandwich. I frequently cooked pork butt at home since it's what I use for carnitas and now I was reminded that the leftover pork could be repurposed for these wonderful cuban pork sandwiches. 

After a while, I started to experiment with making the pork specifically for the sandwich which required a few more ingredients than traditional carnitas (which at is most basic is simply heavily salted water). Taking the extra time to use fresh orange juice in the recipe is well worth the effort. This roast pork is great on it's own, served alongside some cuban rice and black beans. 

Cuban style bread isn't as easy to come by in San Diego so I simply sub it with Ciabatta or bolillos (Mexican sandwich bread). I use my panini maker to press the sandwich but if you don't have one, you can wrap a clean brick in foil and use that to press the sandwich with (a heavy cast iron skillet will also do the trick). 

I typically serve this sandwich with a salad to offset the meat-fest but I've seen it served with plantain chips, potato chips or french fries. 

Even if you just decide to make the pork roast and not go the extra steps to make the sandwich, this roast is definitely worth the effort. 

But look at that sandwich! I know you want a bite! Make it the next day with your leftover roast. 

Cuban Pork Sandwich (aka, the Cubano)

3-4 pound pork butt (also sold as Boston butt or pork shoulder)
4 large garlic cloves, peeled and sliced in half lengthwise
olive oil
2 teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon whole Mexican oregano, crushed between palms just before using
1 cup freshly squeezed orange, blood orange or tangelo juice, plus rinds
½ large onion, halved

Rinse the pork butt and pat dry with paper towels. Using a sharp paring knife, cut eight small ½ inch deep holes into the pork butt (4 on top, 4 on bottom) and use your index finger to push a garlic half into each hole. Massage 1 tablespoon of olive oil into the pork. 

Stir together the salt, black pepper, cumin and crushed oregano in a small bowl or cup. Sprinkle the herbs onto the pork butt and massage it in.

Place a Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot on medium heat; add 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Once the oil is shimmering, carefully place the pork butt into the pan; brown the pork on all sides. Pour in the orange juice and add enough water to cover the pork then add the onion and the orange rinds (the bitter pith is used as a flavoring agent here so don't remove). Raise the heat to high and bring to a rolling boil; cover, reduce heat to low and simmer meat for 3 ½ to 4 hours until the meat is fork tender and a meat thermometer registers 145 degrees Fahrenheit. While the meat is cooking, occasionally skim off any foam that rises to the surface. When meat is done, remove to a platter, tent with foil and allow to rest for at least 5 minutes before slicing.

ciabatta rolls or other thick soft sandwich roll
¼ inch thick slices of cooked pork butt
thick cut deli ham, honey glazed is particularly a good fit
Swiss cheese slices
sandwich sliced pickles
yellow mustard
olive oil or butter

Spread a generous amount of mustard onto the bottom slice of the bread. Begin layering ingredients starting with a single layer of pickles, a slice or two of cheese, two or three slices of ham (folded), a slice of the pork butt, more cheese and if you're a pickle freak like I am, another layer of pickles. Spread a generous amount of mustard on the top slice. 

Heat a panini press. Lightly brush the outside of the bread with olive oil (or spread a little butter for more oomph!). When press is to temp, carefully place the sandwich in the center and close the press taking care not to allow the top half of the sandwich to push forward and slide off. Start off with gentle pressure, holding the sandwich in place with your free hand. After a minute or two, raise the panini press and turn the sandwich so that the flatter side is now facing out and the thicker side facing in. Lower the press and repeat the gentle pressure. Once the sandwich can maintain position without sliding forward, apply a little more pressure, then allow to warm until the cheese is melted and the bread is just starting to turn a golden color. (If your panini press adjusts for sandwich thickness, then you don't need to follow the directions to keep the sandwich from sliding forward; my press doesn't have a floating arm so I must do the above dance.)

Alternately, in place of the panini press, warm a heavy skillet such as a cast iron. Once the pan is hot, add the sandwich that has been brushed with the olive oil. Place a smaller heavy skillet on top to press the sandwich or use a clean brick covered in foil as the weight. Cook for two to three minutes or until the bottom is just turning golden then carefully flip and press and cook until desired color and cheese has melted. Remove sandwich to a small cutting board. Allow to rest one minute then cut diagonally and serve.

My beautiful girl finally gave up staring and sniffing the air while I was styling this sandwich and turned her attention to Grandma outside in the garden. The moment I turned my back however, she was at the table stretching, trying to reach the pork. Sneaky girl.

Until next time …
¡Buen Provecho!