My pal, author and frequent media columnist Brian French, is an aficionado of all things Cuban. We discovered yesterday, as a result of my post about plantains, that we both knew the Barnhills and the old gal who loved her bananas. (I think, in retrospect that her name was Neddie, not Nelly). This, even though I live in Ottawa and Brian lives in Toronto. Small world!
Brian is a dedicated foodie and we’ve exchanged some pretty darn good recipes over the years. Here’s his take on the Cuban sandwich. (Love his description of the cheese in it as forceful but just ‘short of being rude.’ I found his description so compelling that I ran right out and bought the ingredients, or at least their Canadian counterparts, and it was ridiculously good. (So good that my usually impeccably well-behaved spaniel, Scout, pulled the first one I made off the kitchen counter and devoured it when I had my back turned.)
As frequent visitors to Cuba know, with a few exceptions, it’s not a place where gourmands rapturously gush about the cuisine.
For turistas, eating at a breakfast buffet, other than the fruit, it’s a toss-up whether to go for the spongy, tasteless waffles or the nasty attempts at beignets.
But, since the place is as it is, often a clever ruse, where nothing works yet everything works … in a fashion … there are a few things that have a positive effect on a visitor’s palate.
One is the often copied and sometimes made embarrassingly upscale, Cuban Sandwich.
In its true form it consists of bread, a single slice of cheese and and a single slice of meat. That’s it, save maybe a little runny and almost tasteless mustard. Certainly not butter, which is often rancid down there, when you can find it.
It might be garnished on the side with a semi-ripe slice of tomato taken early from its mother, perhaps some thinly shaved radish or daikon, or a sad piece of limp lettuce and a sample of onion. But simplicity is the key.
First the bread. Think a small and thin baguette cum submarine roll cooked with a good dollop of fat (not butter) of some kind; fluffy on the inside and crusty on the outside. A mushy version is not uncommon and is not necessarily less tasty than the crusty one.
The cheese, in its ubiquitous form in Cuba, is strongly flavoured and I suspect often made from whatever combination of dairy products that may be at the cheese-maker’s disposal. It is hearty and strongly-flavoured in a way that just stops short of being rude.
The meat? It’s either ham or some form of pork sausage, likely definable as a form of salami. In either case, the meat needs to be very well flecked with fat and will be seasoned with whatever spices to which its maker had access on its birthday. Yesterday.
This masterpiece of fast and cheap food can’t be reproduced with ingredients
from Whole Foods, so a trip to an Italian, or even better, a Portuguese, grocery store is likely your best bet. But once you have made one, you’ve created a thing that fed the last, and will probably feed the next, Cuban Revolution.
A last warning. These sandwiches are terrible. And terribly addictive. Like a lot of things in Cuba.
Brian French is author of Mojito, a novel about Cuba and its people, culture, food, music, romance and politics. www.mojitonovel.com