Food

The Cubano: An Ode to Pernil

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In the window of the teeny luncheonette, Havana Chelsea, a neon sign states what many New York eaters often proclaim of the place: Best Cuban Sandwiches. To support this claim, the goods ($4) are displayed for passers-by in neat stacks right under the sign, assembled but by no means ready-to-eat. The crucial step takes place when it’s ordered, and not a minute sooner: the pressing. As with a panino, the sandwich should be weighted down under a very hot press to become flat and dwarfed to about a third of its original thickness. Many local Cubanos are made with Italian or French bread—ordinary heroes even. Strictly speaking, it should be Cuban bread, which is (ironically) light with lard, and crisps perfectly.

There is more magic on the inside. It would be a shame to find any air separating the Garlicky roast pork, pernil, ham, Swiss cheese, and dill pickles sliced thinly lengthwise. The perfect heat and weight of the press melts the cheese, rendering it a
tasty adhesive, but the pickles should remain crunchy. This is more difficult than it may sound, and has as much to do with intuition as machinery. The best Cuban sandwich (and I will assert, in writing, that in Manhattan, it’s at Havana Chelsea) does not simply taste like the sum of its parts—it tastes like a Cubano, the absolute marriage of its ingredients, though not a mush of them. This marriage should be so loving and complete, they never need to spice things up with mayonnaise, mustard, salami, lettuce, or any other naughty adventures.

Most connoisseurs will insist that Cuban bread is the key. But let’s not overlook the obvious: The roast pork. After all, Cuban bread is nearly impossible to find in New York (though rumored to be somewhere in Jersey), and those who have not experienced it still find plenty to rave about in the generic-bread version of the sandwich. Also, Cuban sandwiches are most likely a spin-off of the classic roast pork sandwich, which culinary historian Linda Stradley (What’s Cooking, America?) says was a favorite lunch for Cuban mill workers in the 1930s. The beauty of this history is that the roast pork sandwich probably came about from a leftover pork dinner. If this is all true, the Cubano is the third generation of the original feast!

Perhaps one of those mill workers (or his wife, more likely) was preparing the sandwich one morning and didn’t quite have enough pernil to get him through the workday. She made up the difference with ham and cheese, and one thing led to another (her culinary instinct may have prompted her to add a few slices of pickle to brighten things up and give it texture). Roast pork is usually the shoulder, which is fatty and flavorful, because it
is a primary muscle. For Cuban pernil, it is usually flavored simply with
plenty of garlic and oregano and always slow-roasted, basting in its own fat
and juices for hours.

Even if you’re culinarily challenged, this dish is nearly impossible to mess up and must be added to your repertoire. Order a pork shoulder from Fresh Direct for about $13, and while you’re at it, get some oregano or your favorite herbs (I like sage or rosemary with my pig). Then chop up the herbs and make a loose paste with olive oil, garlic, salt, black pepper, chili flakes, fennel seeds, or whatever you’re into, and give that shoulder a nice massage. Ideally, wrap it in plastic and refrigerate it over night or at least for a few hours. Sprinkle it all over with salt and place it in a roasting pan (uncovered) for about 5 hours, turning it over a few times along the way. A pork shoulder will serve six-eight people, so it’s up to you what to do with the leftovers—either pick up some ham and Swiss or invent your own new dish (quesadillas, for example. Or even a ragu).

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