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Making the Perfect Cubano Sandwich (and Much, Much More)

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

The Cubano is quite possibly the ultimate ham and cheese sandwich.

The Cubano is quite possibly the ultimate ham and cheese sandwich.

Let's Go to the Movies

Which movie genre is your favorite? My car-obsessed husband loves any film that involves a chase scene (Fast and Furious, The Italian Job, and Bullitt are on his top 10 list). One daughter seeks out horror flicks—the scarier the better, and the other daughter wants nothing but animated movies.

And then there’s me. I think animated features are too formulaic, real life is scary enough (I don’t have to pay to be frightened half to death), and car chase scenes barely keep me awake. But give me a good food scene and I’m all eyes and ears and taking notes. For example:

  • Who can forget Meryl Streep as Julia Child, blushingly euphoric over her first encounter with sole meunière in Julie/Julia?
  • Or the timpano in the 1996 Tony Shaloub/Stanley Tucci movie Big Night (this is so good I should f---ing kill you!)
  • In the movie Chocolat, Vianne the chocolatier hosts a birthday party for her friend, Armande. The setting is outdoors, a backyard patio, and some of the people of the village are invited. They chat amicably as they pass dishes of bread and vegetables. And then, there is that moment of awed silence when a chocolate mole is poured over the roast chicken. The camera pans around the table as guest after guest takes their first rapturous bite.

And then there’s this scene from the little-known 2014 movie Chef. Until this movie, I had never heard of much less tasted a Cubano sandwich. How unfortunate!

"Starting from scratch never tasted so good."

— "Chef" (2014 film)

Did You Notice the Ingredients?

The perfect Cubano sandwich is not complicated, but it does require some very specific (and amazingly tasty) ingredients. The most obvious component, and the one that takes the longest, is the slow-roasted pork. Sliced ham also plays a part, but that one is easily sourced at your local deli. Pickles? We'll talk about those in a moment. Cheese should be thinly sliced and meltable (I have my opinion about that too). And finally, the bread. Honestly, the bread is what makes or breaks a great Cubano. I'll help you with that also. So, let's get started.

Cuban-Style Roast Pork

There are many cooks in the online realm of kitchens on whom I rely. Each of them has their own specialties. When it comes to cooking protein, I know I can rely on J. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats.

Kenji is not just a cook, he is a food scientist and examines every ingredient and every process to the nth degree. In traditional Kenji style, he has methodically researched, documented, photographed, and explained every last detail to help you achieve the perfect Cuban-style roast pork shoulder.

The Cheese

There is only one type of cheese for an authentic Cuban sandwich. Thinly sliced Swiss cheese from the deli has a sweet-nutty flavor and just the right amount of meltiness (yes, that's a word) to hold the sandwich together. Make no substitutions.

The Ham

While you're at the deli buying that Swiss cheese, get a few slices of honey-roasted ham too. Thinly sliced. It's the perfect contrast to the smokey caramelized flavor of the roast pork.

The Pickles

You might be thinking "do I really need pickles?" Yes, yes you do. Sweet pickles are never to come near a true Cubano—dill pickles, sliced lengthwise (were you taking notes during the video?) will provide a tangy, briny snap, a contrast to the creamy cheese and smoky pork. Don't buy already-sliced pickles in the jar; they're too thick. Slice them yourself. Get your sharpest knife and create those perfect thin puckery slices. If you omit the pickle you won't be experiencing the amazing combination of flavors and textures that makes this sandwich so special.

The Bread Spread

There is no mayonnaise on a Cubano, no lettuce, no tomatoes. Mustard, and not any type of mustard—not Dijon, not grainy brown mustard, and not honey Dijon. Standard yellow mustard is the kick of flavor mandated by lovers of the Cubano.

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The Bread

Cuban bread has a unique taste and texture because it is made with lard. The crust is sturdy but not crackling crisp and the interior is pillowy soft. Unless you live in or near Miami your chance of finding true Cuban bread is probably quite slim. A Mexican bolillo could stand in as a reasonable substitute. If even that is not an option, a soft-crusted French bread will suffice. But if you are feeling particularly ambitious, you can make your own.

How to Assemble the Sandwich

  1. Slice the bread in half lengthwise (from end to end).
  2. Warm the ham and the roast pork briefly on the grill (just enough to take the chill off).
  3. Layer the roast and then the ham on one side of the bread. Top with cheese and then the pickles.
  4. A rich smear of yellow mustard on the other half of the bread and put it all together.
  5. Use a plancha, not a panini press. A plancha is flat, not grooved. If you don't have a plancha use a grill and a weight to press the sandwich against the gill. A large cast-iron pan or Dutch oven will do the trick. Paint some melted butter on the plancha (grill), place the sandwich on top, paint the top of the bread with more butter and start pressing. When the edges of the bread look golden and the cheese is starting to melt, you are done. (By the way, if your sandwich doesn't require at least two napkins you didn't use enough butter.)
Use a plancha (on the left), or use a cast-iron pan and your grill (like Kenji, on the right)

Use a plancha (on the left), or use a cast-iron pan and your grill (like Kenji, on the right)

Cubano pizza

Cubano pizza

Cubano Pizza

This is not your typical pizza. All of the flavors and textures you expect in a Cuban sandwich are assembled in this Cubano pizza. The dough is first spread with a generous amount of mustard. Next comes the Swiss cheese. The porky richness of ham and roast pork shoulder is the next addition and then pops of flavor from briny pickle chips. In a slight detour from the classic, mozzarella cheese is the final touch—it glues everything together. Bake this pizza on the lower shelf of your oven to achieve a crispy crust.

Cubano breakfast sandwich

Cubano breakfast sandwich

Cubano Breakfast Sandwich

Look at that photo. I will confess that I am a sucker for a runny egg yolk. I am not hungry, but oh my goodness do I want one of these Cubano breakfast sandwiches. Liren starts with a crisp English muffin and explains:

"Salty roast pork, sliced thin, stacked together with smoked ham, swiss cheese and pickles, all pressed together in buttery bread. But put an egg on it, and you’ve got the ultimate breakfast sandwich."

I couldn't agree more.

Cubano sandwich meatballs

Cubano sandwich meatballs

Cubano Sandwich Meatballs

This is not a meatball sandwich; this recipe is for my friends who are gluten sensitive but still want to enjoy the experience we've been talking about. Roast pork, ham, Swiss, and pickles are combined to make Cubano sandwich meatballs. Roast them in the oven and then top with a thin pickle garnish.

Vegan Cubano with seitan

Vegan Cubano with seitan

Vegan/Vegetarian Cubano Sandwiches

I was asked for a non-meat Cubano and am happy to report that I found two that might work for you. Both of them rely on vegan ham slices which you can find in the natural foods section of your grocery store. Three options that I'm aware of include Yves Veggie Ham Slices, Tofurky Smoked Deli Slices, and Litelife Smart Deli Ham. There may be other great vegetarian products out there, as well.

If you are vegetarian you can, of course, use real Swiss cheese, but vegan cheese is also available at your large grocery stores.

This Cuban sandwich with seitan is satisfyingly meaty. Seitan (pronounced “say-tan”) is a vegan meat substitute made from vital wheat gluten. It can be purchased pre-made or easily made at home with just three ingredients—vital wheat gluten, water, and a little bit of time.

The Cuban jackfruit sandwich marinates in the orange-lime juice that flavors the traditional Cubano. Unlike seitan, this option is gluten-free; the texture is incredibly just like pork and might even fool your meat-eating friends.

Have I Convinced You?

Sources

© 2020 Linda Lum

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