Rapha Cooks: The Cubano

After winding down from a big day of bicycle racing, or in light of the last few days, watching bicycle racing, good food always does the trick. This recent edition of Rapha Cooks brings you one of the best sandwiches on the planet. The Cubano. Matt Card does another phenomenal job in preparing this recipe, and at the same time he is soliciting suggestions from the readers, so post them in the comments section and we shall see what he comes up with. Enjoy.

photos and recipe by Matt Card

When I’m running on fumes and on the verge of bonking, I see sandwiches. Not just any old sandwich, but a cubano, the zenith of all things bound between two slices of bread. It’s really a simple affair: Garlicky roast pork, cured ham, Swiss cheese, dill pickles, and mustard pressed flat and griddled just long enough to marry the flavors, melt the cheese, and crisp the edges. When one starts floating a few feet above and beyond my handlebars, I know I’m in trouble and need to eat quickly. Preferably, of course, a cubano.

For a great cubano, you first need good roast pork. Truly authentic cubanos are made from leftover pernil: a Cuban garlic and cumin-flavored pork shoulder roast. It takes the better part of a day to cook and produces enough to serve an army. I prefer to take an easier, less time-consuming route: roasted pork loin. A three-pound roast yields more than enough for dinner for four and sandwiches the next day, much less takes no more than an hour to cook.

Most any roast, chop, or steak is at its best when seasoned well in advance. Salt early and salt liberally—figure roughly one teaspoon of kosher salt per pound of meat. For a Cuban flavor profile, I’ll blend the salt with cumin, cayenne, paprika, black pepper, and garlic powder, an ingredient I’ll only use in meat rubs where fresh garlic will burn (and taste acrid).

For both flavor and color, the roast should be seared before sliding it into a moderate oven. The best tool for this job is an oven-safe skillet, preferably cast iron—the older and more well seasoned, the better. Cruise second-hand stores and yard sales for these. If heavy and old isn’t your thing, go with a pan from Le Creuset or All Clad—it won’t be cheap, but it’ll last you a lifetime.

I’ll argue that pork is best served at the upper end of medium rare (say 130 to 135 degrees Fahrenheit), but the USDA will tell you otherwise. I’ll leave it up to you, but if you like your meat moist, juicy, and tender, follow me (USDA guidelines are largely informed by worst-case scenarios of food-borne illnesses. Buy good-quality meat from reputable resources and don’t sweat it). Serve the pork for dinner with all manner of Latin-style dishes (beans and rice at the least—see my previous entry about beans for help in that department); just make sure to save enough for sandwiches the next day.

As for those cubanos, it can be tricky to track down the authentic “Cuban” bread that zealots will swear by (a lard-enriched, French-style bread), but any bread with a thin, chewy crust and tender crumb will make do; avoid anything too crusty. The rest of the ingredients are easy to spec from the deli case. When assembling the sandwiches, make sure to make at least two layers of cheese so that the layers of meat and pickle are firmly glued together.

Pressing the sandwich flat is tantamount to success. The professionals use a sandwich press, but a skillet and heavy pot with which to weigh the sandwiches down works just fine. Once the cheese has melted and the bread has crisped, serve promptly with beer, preferably after four hours in the saddle.

Cuban-Style Roasted Pork Loin
Serves 6 to 8

Look for a loin with a rich marbling of fat and a thick layer of fat across the top. Most of it will render off as it cooks and it will help to keep the meat moist.

3 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons sweet paprika (smoked paprika can be substituted)
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 pork loin (2 1/2 to 3 pounds), tied crosswise at 1-inch intervals with butcher’s twine
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons mild honey

1. Mix spices together and coat roast thoroughly at least 2 hours in advance; preferably 8 or more.
2. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Heat oil in large, oven-safe skillet over medium-high heat until smoking. Add roast and brown, about 3 minutes. Brown remaining 3 sides (12 to 15 minutes total); transfer to oven, and roast until meat is barely pink at center or registers 125 to 130 degrees Fahrenheit on instant-read thermometer, 12 to 18 minutes. Midway through, top roast with honey and roll to coat. Allow roast to rest at least 10 minutes, roll to coat in juices, and slice; serve.

Cubano Sandwiches
Serves 4

Look for bread with a thin crust and chewy crumb, a “ciabatta” roll works well.

4 rolls
Dijon or yellow mustard
6 ounces grated Swiss cheese
4 ounces cured ham
2 to 4 dill pickles, slices thin lengthwise
8 thin slices roast pork (see above)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Liberally smear both sides of bread with mustard, and divide ingredients between sandwiches. Melt butter in large skillet set over medium heat. Add sandwiches and turn each sandwich to coat with butter. Top with large, heavy pot and cook until well browned; 4 to 6 minutes. Flip and brown second side.