Havana good time
In the recent Thrillist article Every State’s Most Important Food Innovation, Florida’s contribution was the Cuban sandwich. Hard to argue with considering the iconic popularity of this sandwich, which is both a celebration of pork “before pig fetishization became chic,” as they wrote, but also possibly the best version of the most popular sandwich in the world: the modest ham and cheese.
Founded in 1905, the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City is Florida’s oldest restaurant and the largest Spanish restaurant in the world. If you are in Tampa, it is a must-visit destination. On their menu, they offer an endearing story about the history of the Cuban sandwich, or “Mixto,” as it was called in the 1890’s.
The Mixto was created for the cigar workers as they traveled to and from work, and is a reflection of the different cultures of immigrants who were responsible for building early Tampa. The Cubans were responsible for the mojo-marinated roast pork, the Spanish contributed the Serrano ham, the Sicilians provided the salami, and the Germans and Jews introduced the mustard and pickles. It is a heart-warming story of unity and a demonstration of what is possible when different cultures come together and pool their resources for a common goal. The result, in this case, is the world’s most balanced sandwich.
Cubano Italiano? Che cosa?
The traditional Cuban roasted pork is substituted with thinly-sliced crispy-skinned porchetta. Rather than roasting a pork loin for my porchetta, I smoked some skin-on pork belly.
Prosciutto di Parma is my ham of choice; although, culatello or jamón serrano would also be excellent. In all honesty, all three of them are perfect. Avoid run-of-the-mill boiled ham.
Typically, Genoa salami adorns a Tampa-style Cuban sandwich and a good choice due to its fat content and mildly-fermented flavor. Opt for something with a little more kick by choosing a spicy soppressata.
The traditional cheese used on a Cuban is Swiss; however, Fontina Val d’Aosta is creamier, nuttier, meltier (it’s a real word), and is the ideal cheese to pair with ham and salumi. Fontina made elsewhere pales in comparison of the cheese made in Aosta Valley. Visit a local Italian market, spend an extra $2, and eat something memorable.
Mustard is the most important condiment in the pantry. Far more useful and versatile than ketchup or mayonnaise—and a key component to the reason this sandwich tastes so perfectly balanced. Mustard, however, does not find its way into Italian cookery very often.
This citronette pays homage to the tang of mustard and the citrusy zest and garlicky bite of mojo criollo. Incorporating a whole-grain mustard with sour orange and garlic emulsified with olive oil provides the best of both worlds.
The crunch of a pickled cucumber on any sandwich is an amazing bite every time. They add another element of the perfect balance that makes a Cuban sandwich so ideal. Pickles are not common in Italian fare, so let’s entertain a spicy alternative with a little heat and a vinegar kick. Hot cherry peppers, piquillo peppers, and a few Calabrian chilies create a relish that leaves you salivating and begging for more.
The upper crust
I’m not saying this because I was a baker for one-third of my life (or maybe I am), but the quality of the bread ultimately defines any sandwich. Seriously. You can buy the finest ingredients, use the best methods, employ the most sought-after condiments—if the bread falls short; the sandwich falls to ruin. Or mediocre at best.
I implore you to make an effort to find authentic Cuban bread. The quality and freshness of the bread you use is arguably the most important factor in sandwich-making. I happen to be fortunate enough to live reasonably close to an authentic Cuban bakery that has been in business since 1915. I know the owners, I visit their facility, and I respect their process. They still make bread the way their grandparents did generations ago. You can visit the La Segunda Central Bakery website by clicking here. The aforementioned world-renowned Columbia Restaurant, the oldest restaurant in Florida, buys their Cuban bread from La Segunda. Case in point.
- Preheat a sandwich press, griddle, flat top, or your favorite pan. Heat butter to melt
- Add the peppers/chilies to a food processor and pulse until you reach a relish-like consistency
- Rinse the food processor, then add the garlic, oregano leaves, stone-ground mustard, orange juice and zest, and lime juice and zest, and blend. While blending, slowly add the olive oil until emulsified
- Cut pan cubano into individual loaves and slice each in half lengthwise
- Spread each of the insides of the bread with the citronette and spread the pepper relish on the bottom pieces
- Arrange the slices of porchetta, prosciutto, soppressata, and fontina
- Brush the outsides of each sandwich with the melted butter, and place inside the sandwich press until the bread reaches a crispy golden brown.
CHEF'S TIP: If you do not have a panini press, plancha, or similar tool, any hot pan will suffice. Here's a trick that works great: Find a brick and wrap it in aluminum foil. Heat the brick wrapped in foil in a preheated oven. When it is time to press your panini, set each one in the hot pan and set the wrapped brick on top. Halfway through, turn them over and repeat