Lechon Asado and The Perfect Cuban

Thursday, April 8, 2010

cuban-sandwich-2

I am of the firm belief that one cannot live in South Florida for any length of time without developing an appreciation of Cuban food.  Seriously. You just can’t. The distinctive Latin flavor of Cuban culture is woven like a ribbon through our cuisine.  It makes perfect sense, though, considering that the most prominent Cuban American community in the United States is in the Miami-Dade metropolitan area.  But, you probably already knew that.  What you might not know is that Tampa Bay boasts the next highest concentration of Cuban Americans in the country.  And, the Tampa Cuban community has been going strong for over a hundred years – way before the mass exodus to Miami under Castro’s regime.

In 1885, Vicente Martinez Ybor, a prominent Spanish cigar manufacturer relocated his base of operations from Cuba via Key West to an area just northeast of Tampa. This was, at least in part, due to Tampa’s combination of a good sea port, new railroad line and humid climate. Ybor built hundreds of small houses for the incoming population of mainly Cuban cigar workers. Other cigar manufacturers, drawn by Ybor’s incentives to increase the labor pool, also moved in making Tampa a major cigar production center. In 1887 Tampa annexed the area and Ybor City was born.

Jose_Marti_in_Ybor_City

José Martí and cigar workers in Ybor in 1893.

The next three decades, as Ybor city grew and prospered, were considered its “golden age”.   In 1929, cigar production hit its peak when 500,000,000 cigars were rolled in the factories of Ybor City.

Unfortunately, in that same year also came the Great Depression. As a result, the demand for quality handmade Cuban cigars plummeted and there were many layoffs and factory shutdowns. This trend continued throughout the 1930s as the remaining cigar factories gradually switched to using cheaper mechanical methods for producing their cigars.  This, of course, led to even more layoffs and plant closings.

Ybor Cigar Factory

Inside an Ybor City cigar factory ca. 1920

Things looked pretty grim for Ybor City up to and through the 50s and 60s, as the neighborhood continued to deteriorate and empty out.  In an effort to revitalize the community, many historic buildings were demolished to make way for new development. But, due to a lack of available funds this redevelopment didn’t happen.  Sounds kind of familiar, huh?

In the late 80s and early 90s, a sort of revitalization of the area began with an influx of local artists who came into the area seeking eclectic spaces in which to work for cheap rents.  By the year 2000, Ybor City had experienced a Renaissance as a cultural mecca in the Tampa Bay area which  continues to flourish to this day. Although the cigar factories have long been closed, the thriving and vital Cuban American community lives on.

800px-YborCityTampaFL01

Ybor City today

(Photo by Bobak Ha’Eri shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic License)

Being so close to Tampa and Ybor city, there was bound to be a trickle down effect in our area regarding Cuban food, and there is. We have a lively Cuban American community here on the Gulf Coast as well as some terrific Cuban restaurants and markets.  I can even buy a halfway decent Cuban sandwich at my local supermarket.  But, you know me.  If I can figure out a way to cook something better and cheaper myself at home, I’m going to try it. So, a couple of weeks ago, I set out on a quest to make the perfect Cuban sandwich.

Although its history is a little murky, the Cuban sandwich or “Cubano” is said by some accounts to have most likely originated in Ybor City. The sandwich was a popular lunch food for workers in the cigar factories in the early 1900s. It’s a toasted sandwich filled with ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, and sometimes salami on Cuban bread. While it started out as a common working man’s meal, the Cubano has evolved into a popular menu item enjoyed by all.

I’ve done my research, and an authentic (and fabulous) Cuban sandwich starts with two essential ingredients: really, really great roast pork or “lechon” and real, light-as-air Cuban bread.  I can help you with the pork, but unless you live in Cuba or an area surrounding Miami or Tampa, that bread will be hard to come by.  I’m told that baking your own “pan Cubano” is a hit or miss proposition. I’ve never done it, so I can’t say either way. But, if you’re interested in trying your hand at it, here is a recipe I found that looks pretty good: http://www.tasteofcuba.com/pancubano.html.  And here’s another link to a very informative thread about the bread on The Fresh Loaf:http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/2596/cuban-bread. You can still make a very satisfying Cuban sandwich with French or Italian bread, though.  I’ve done it and it works great.

cuban-sandwich-4

Before I could start making my Cuban sandwiches, I first had to roast some pig.  I picked up a nice hunk of bone-in fresh ham from my favorite butcher and started looking for recipes.  The one I liked best was the Lechon Asado recipe from Three Guys From Miami, who are…well…three Cuban guys from Miami.  They have a great web site with lots of traditional Cuban recipes, and they even have two published cookbooks.

Lechon asado is merely a Cuban-style marinated roast pork.  It is marinated in a “mojo” sauce which is made with onion, oregano, lots and lots of garlic and something called “naranja agria” or bitter/sour orange juice.  Bitter orange juice is the juice of the Seville orange, which is significantly more tart than most other types of oranges.  I found this product in the ethnic foods aisle at the supermarket, but it is also widely available at most Latin markets.

sour-orange

After marinating overnight, the pork is then slow roasted for several hours until incredibly moist and tender.  Just look at this gorgeous, succulent pork!  Let me tell you, people, it doesn’t get much better than this!

lechon-3

While your pork is roasting, you might as well gather up the rest of your sandwich ingredients, because you’ll have a few hours to kill.  For two monster-sized Cubans, you’ll need:

  • 1 whole loaf of Cuban bread, sliced lengthwise
  • Lots of mayo (A lot of people use mustard, but I’ve got some Cuban friends that swear by mayo and I do too.)
  • Several juicy slices of the lechon asado (Don’t worry. You can do lots of other things with the leftovers!)
  • Around 1/3 of a pound of good deli ham. (I like to use Virginia ham.)
  • A couple of big, fat kosher dill pickles, sliced as thinly as possible
  • Around 1/3 of a pound of Swiss cheese.  (Don’t ask me why Cubans use Swiss cheese in their sandwiches. They just do.)
  • Some softened or melted butter for slathering on the Cuban bread (During pressing, this will make the bread impossibly crusty and splintery!)
  • A panini press or a griddle pan with a really heavy brick covered in aluminum foil to press down the sandwiches

Once all of your ingredients are ready, it’s time to assemble your sandwiches.  Here’s how:

Cuban-collage-web

Oooh! Check out that melty, oozey cheese!  Now, that’s what I’m talkin’ about!

cuban-sandwich-12

¡Ay dios mío! Este sándwich es fantástico!

cuban-sandwich-1

Stay tuned. Next time, I’ll tell you what I served with these Cubano masterpieces!

Lechon Asado
adapted from Three Guys From Miami

Ingredients:

Mojo Marinade

20 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cups sour orange juice (If you can’t get sour orange juice in your area, use two parts orange to one part lemon and one part lime)
1 cup minced onion
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon granulated sugar*
1 1/2 cups Spanish olive oil

1 8-10 pound fresh ham

Directions:

1.  Mash the garlic and salt together with a mortar and pestle. Add dried oregano, onion, sugar and sour orange juice to the mash and mix thoroughly.

2.  Heat oil in small sauce pan, add the mash to the oil and whisk. Make deep cross cuts in the skin of the pork, taking care not to cut into the meat beneath.  Pierce meat as many times as you can with a fork. Pour mojo mixture (save about a cup for roasting) over pork, cover and let sit in refrigerator for 2-3 hours or overnight.

3.  When ready to roast, pre-heat oven to 400 degrees F.  Place the pork fattest side up in an open roasting pan. Place pan in oven and reduce temperature to 325 degrees F. Spoon extra marinade over the roast occasionally as it cooks. Using a meat thermometer, roast should be removed from the oven when the temperature reaches 155 degrees F.  Immediately cover with foil and let rest for 10 minutes before slicing and serving. The roast will continue to cook after you remove it from the heat. A perfectly cooked pork roast will be pale white in the middle and the juices will run clear.

34 responses to Lechon Asado and The Perfect Cuban

  1. On April 08, 2010 at 4:25pm, Rosa said...

    Oh, yummy! It looks perfect with that cheese oozing out!

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  2. On April 08, 2010 at 4:34pm, Rachelle said...

    Oooh this looks so good! The roast pork looks great. I have never had a Cuban sandwich before, but have seen it on tv many times, and that has got me wanting one. I think it’s the pickles in it that intrigues me most. lol

  3. On April 08, 2010 at 4:34pm, Sarah, Maison Cupcake said...

    It cannot be a coincidence that that bread looks like a cigar?!

    • On April 09, 2010 at 9:05am, Susan said...

      Lol! I never noticed that before. :)

  4. On April 08, 2010 at 4:43pm, Joan Nova said...

    As a So FLoridan who is/has been steeped in the Cuban culture for many years…BRAVO! Great job of giving readers a peek into what we’ve been enjoying for years. Another area of Cuban concentration is Bergen County, NJ. You did a beautiful job with the roast and sandwich.
    P.S. I always have a bottle of Naranja Agria in the house. The mojo is also good for marinating chicken.

    • On April 09, 2010 at 9:09am, Susan said...

      Thanks, Joan! I like to marinate chicken in mojo too. It’s great stuff!

  5. On April 08, 2010 at 5:41pm, Rachel (S[d]OC) said...

    That looks beyond delicious. These days too many joints are throwing ham and cheese on a press adn calling it a “cuban”. I may not be from Florida, but even I know that’s not really authentic.

    I don’t get to Florida much anymore since my mother-in-law split from her crazy ex and he got custody of their winter place, but I do relish the times I’ve managed to have Cuban food down there. Really excellent and flavorfull food!

    That pork looked so good I’m not sure I could have waited till it was on the sandwich to eat it though.

    • On April 09, 2010 at 9:10am, Susan said...

      We couldn’t wait either. Good thing there was lots of meat on that bone! ;)

  6. On April 08, 2010 at 6:34pm, SMITH BITES said...

    The Professor and I honeymooned in FL and it was the first time I experienced Cuban food – which I lovelovelove!! Why don’t I cook more of it at home? Didn’t have recipes so this will be my first! Great storytelling, Susan!

    • On April 09, 2010 at 9:12am, Susan said...

      Thanks! We lovelovelove it too! Check out the Three Guys From Miami site. They have lots of really good Cuban recipes there. :)

  7. On April 08, 2010 at 8:13pm, Joanne said...

    I feel like I got a history lesson and actually learned something! Brava my dear. Well done.

    Mmm cuban food. I love cuban food. Especially this sandwich. Which is by far one of the best types of sandwiches – hello TWO kinds of pork?!?!?

    • On April 09, 2010 at 9:13am, Susan said...

      Lol! Once I got started with the background story, I couldn’t stop. I was fascinated to learn that Tampa had the original Cuban American connection long before Miami.

  8. On April 08, 2010 at 11:03pm, Tangled Noodle said...

    The moment I saw ‘lechon’, I knew I would love whatever followed! And sure enough, this cubano sandwich looks so delicious. Because I am not a pickle fan, I usually pass up on this whenever I see it on a menu, but perhaps it’s about time I give it a try!

    • On April 09, 2010 at 9:31am, Susan said...

      I don’t care for pickles either. In fact, the only time I eat them is in a Cuban. For some reason, it works for me. :)

  9. On April 08, 2010 at 11:52pm, Sook @ My Fabulous Recipes said...

    That sandwich looks so good! Yum!

  10. On April 09, 2010 at 12:16am, Memoria said...

    What a FANTASTIC post!! I love what you wrote about the history behind the sandwiches and parts of the Cuban community in Miami. The process photos are perfect. I’ve yet to make a cubano, but your post has definitely tempted me. The lechón (accent on the “o”, without it, the pronunciation and spelling change) asado looks freaking AMAZING! ¡Ay Diós mío! (jajaja I loved when you wrote that.) I am definitely bookmarking this post. Thank you.

    P.S. “Martínez” has an accent on the “i”. I apologize for the accent corrections. It is just that I teach Spanish and am a stickler for accent marks since they are an essential part of Spanish (and other foreign languages) orthography.

    • On April 09, 2010 at 9:35am, Susan said...

      Glad you liked it, Memoria! No problem with the accent corrections. I do realize that they are not always there. The problem is that I don’t know how to type them in on my keyboard. Sometimes, I can cut and paste from the web, but can’t figure out how to do it myself. If anyone knows how to do this, I’d love to learn. :)

  11. On April 09, 2010 at 1:45am, nina said...

    Susaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan, I can throttle you for showing me this, now I have a grilled panini on my brain for the rest of the weekend!!!

    • On April 09, 2010 at 9:35am, Susan said...

      Hehehe! ;)

    • On June 30, 2013 at 10:39pm, Annie said...

      32/ If the tree was not a hazard or it was a grand tree I find that a liltte hard to believe. Nothing lives forever but that does not mean we should just start a slash and burn campaign against these old trees. If so the image of the trees in the news letter should be replaced by a stump with a axe in it. FYI the city of Tampa has a preserve a tree program to save old tree using cables and other methods to save these old, historic trees. I used to live in South Tampa and we respected the trees as a valuable treasure to be preserved if possibble. And you can bet there were protests when a developer wanted to cut them down. Here I seem to sense a slash and burn mentality working. Or maybe its just someone trying to justify their own actions ! And ok you say can plant new trees ( and why not build faux bungalow looking houses by the same mentality) but it will be decades before these trees reach the majesty of the old growth we have here.In Orlando where my brother lives there was a rampant cutting of thousands of laurels there until about a year ago. Faced with protest about the loss of so many trees the city only removed a few hundred of the worst trees last year. City foresters have now opted instead to have the trees trimmed back, or salvaged, by cutting back their limbs. Something to consider especially when one drives around here and just takes a good look at al the hundreds of old trees in a declining state. Side note, How did this blog post became a tree forum ? Maybe there should be a tree forum.

  12. On April 09, 2010 at 8:52am, bellini valli said...

    I found the Three Guys from Miami site when I was doing research into South American cuisine. It is full of great recipes. Now all I need to do is head back to Cuba for a cubano and a side of mojitos…of course I could make it here at home too:D

    • On April 09, 2010 at 9:36am, Susan said...

      Oooh! Mojitos! You get the ice and I’ll bring the fresh mint from my garden! ;)

  13. On April 09, 2010 at 11:07am, Mara said...

    I was looking around for Cuban recipes and found your blog… thanks so much! I’ve been trying to prepare Latin American food lately and learning Spanish online (at Babbel.com (http://www.babbel.com)) — it’s keeping me warm while it’s still so cold in Germany, even in April…
    I really like the combination of the history with the recipe. Keep it up!

  14. On April 09, 2010 at 6:00pm, Karen@Mignardise said...

    It’s dinner time and I wish I had this sandwich more than anything right now.
    Even more than a glass of wine and that’s saying a lot, especially on a Friday.

  15. On April 11, 2010 at 5:13am, Memoria said...

    To add the accents on a PC there are various codes you can use such as “alt” “162″ for an accent on the “o”. You could also download the language keyboard which is easier.

    For a MAC you enter “option” “e” then the vowel you need to change.

    There are many codes and tutorials online. I send links to my students all the time. I hope this helps!

  16. On April 12, 2010 at 8:08am, Sarah said...

    Ahhh! I totally need to link to you so I can include this in my Miami/Cuban theme dinner party menu. Amazing!

    http://www.20somethingcupcakes.com/2010/04/miami-vice-theme/

  17. On April 12, 2010 at 8:45pm, Kevin (Closet Cooking) said...

    That is one nice looking sandwich!

  18. On May 02, 2010 at 5:03pm, nicole said...

    Love all of this information about the Cuban culture in your area. There is little Cuban food here in Seattle, but I have some Cuban friends who cook up a storm. And I’m excited to see that Naranja Nagria sauce. I will definitely pick some up (the specialty stores here are awesome)>See you at IFBC.

  19. On June 27, 2010 at 10:42pm, SandyinMiami said...

    As a Cuban born and raised in Miami, I’ve never heard of a Cuban sandwich with mayo. They normally have cheap yellow mustard (think French’s), which I abhor, but will use for authenticity. As for the ham, the traditional ham to use is sweet Serrano ham. I’m sure you have Winn Dixie and Publix in Tampa – they should both have it. Please note there is sweet and normal salty Serrano ham. The sweet “cuban” ham offsets the delicious roast pork, sour pickles and tart mustard to perfection.

    Next time you make it, try it. You’ll LOVE it. ;)

  20. On December 24, 2011 at 1:43pm, Gilberto Bazo said...

    I love the page and cook lechon on christmas eve. My grand children love cuban sandwichs. I was born and raised in Key West 1940s & 50s in cuban neighborhood. We called it a cuban mix sandwich.

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Hello and welcome to SGCC! I’m Susan, a professional writer, food columnist, recipe developer, wife, mother, daughter and sister, who used to be a lawyer in a previous life. My love of food comes from a long line of wonderful and creative Italian home cooks who didn’t always have a lot, but knew how to make a lot out of what they had. I hope that you enjoy yourself while you’re here, and visit often! read more >>

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