Sunday, February 1, 2009

Viva Cuba!!!

I'm going to try something different today as I cook our dish for the SuperBowl: posting as I go. I will update this post as I get through the cooking process and if you are bored on a Sunday, you can check back occasionally and see what I'm up to! And hopefully I'll have the full post done by bedtime--since I have book club tomorrow evening and won't have time to post a big long post until at least Tuesday.

Today's country of choice is Cuba. Why? For two reasons:

1. I saw Tyler Florence prepare the Ultimate Cuban Sandwich on his show Tyler's Ultimate, and I was drooling.

2. It's SuperBowl Sunday, and Cuban sandwiches seem like manly, football type food.

After seeing Tyler's Ultimates, I did some research on the Cuban sandwich. According to

No one is certain exactly where and when the Cuban sandwich was invented. We do know that Cuban sandwiches (called "a sandwich mixto") were common on cafeteria and restaurant menus in Cuba by the 1930s, and there is some evidence of them as early as the turn of the century. They were very popular with workers in Cuba's sugar mills. People set up restaurants inside the mills and sold the sandwiches to the workers on their lunch breaks.

I also looked at many, many recipes online, and Tyler's recipe actually seemed quite authentic, so it is the recipe that I have elected to use. It allows me to make the pork myself, which I thought would be a key to this experiment, and it seems to live up to the authenticity of Cuban cuisine, plus, I got to see him make it on TV AND I know what it's supposed to look like--highly unusual for most of the recipes I've been following. In fact, only Malaysia's Chicken in Coconut Milk provided a picture of the finished product.

Tyler also provided recipes for black bean soup and fried plantain chips. I'm going to make the black bean soup as well (I need to get that underway by 2:30 pm). We're skipping the plantain chips. I have tried them in the past, and I can't stand them. And I don't think Michael would like them enough to justify making them--which he agreed with.

If you'd like Tyler's recipes and want to try them yourself, please visit the Food Network's Recipe Index for the Cuban Sandwich episode of Tyler's Ultimate.

So far, we have already bridged one hurdle: boneless pork shoulder. I was shopping at our local Giant, which actually carried most of the things we needed--surprise, surprise! But they did not carry a 1 pound boneless pork shoulder--they had a monstrous 10 pounder available. I purchased a pork tenderloin, but it was not a substitute with which I was very happy. In fact, I felt like I'd been doing a fair amount of substituting in many of these recipes, and I needed to really try and stick with the ingredients called for. But I also couldn't justify purchasing 10 pounds of pork shoulder that I had no use for. So I bought the tenderloin.

In response to the ham hocks, my friend Brian suggested that they were available not so much in the south but instead in areas where there tend to be many Hispanic shoppers. My husband also felt that it was an "Hispanic thing" versus a southern thing, which got me to thinking this morning (a rare occurrence, I know! haha). We have a local grocery store that has a huge Hispanic section of goods, and even the meat department has a special section of sausages and other products from Mexico and Central America. As a bonus, Shoppers Food Warehouse has the best donuts in town, so I could get my honey some awesome donuts and just see if they had the right kind of pork. I was willing to bet they did--I've even seen pig snouts on sale over there.

I was glad I made the trip. I couldn't get a 1 pound boneless shoulder, but I did pick up 3 pounds of it, better than 10. After deboning it and pulling off the skin, it came to just about 2 pounds, or enough for 2 renditions of this recipe if we like it. If not, I'll have to determine what to do with it.

Ok, so it is now 1:18pm. We hope to eat around 5:30-6:00. I started cooking around 12:30. Why? Well, as I've learned the hard way, it's important to read the timing and all the directions on these recipes. I was thinking I needed to start with the soup, but having read the pork recipe, it states I need a pressure cooker. Guess what? No pressure cooker. *Sigh sigh sigh* When will my kitchen start demonstrating some simple competence!? So I had to Google what to do in the absence of a pressure cooker. And according to Google, I could use a slow cooker, but it was going to take all day. So I figured I'd better jump on it quick!

So, I got out all the required ingredients--olive oil, pork shoulder, herbs and spices, orange juice, lime, chicken stock. And again, my apologies that the pictures are dark--I can't find any real reason for it in the camera settings. I'm going to play with it some more today. The first thing to do was to mix up a spice mixture for the pork. It consisted of cumin, oregano, salt, and pepper. It smells really good!

I didn't want to get my hands all gunky with pork and then chop garlic and get the oil ready, so I did that first. I really enjoyed buying garlic this week, as the General and I had been discussing it, and he didn't realize that you bought garlic in a bulb and that the little cloves peeled off. When we went to the grocery store, I bought a new head of garlic, as we've been going through A LOT of it, and I showed it to him. It's funny the things I think are basic kind of knowledge, but for someone who has not cooked before and who hasn't had the opportunity to examine a lot of produce, it's a whole new world. It was fun to share that with him. I hope we get to buy other things that he can learn about--and maybe that I can too!! Lord knows, I'm learning about pork shoulder today!

Anyway, I started heating up the garlic and the pepper flakes in olive oil in a dutch oven. (Apparently, another substitution for a pressure cooker AND a slow cooker is to have a dutch oven that you just put in the oven on 250 for a few hours and it does the same thing. Thanks, Google.)

After I got that cooking, I quickly sliced up an onion and put that aside, and then I took out the bone from the pork and weighed it till I got more or less a pound--it's a wee bit over, but I think that's OK. I also sliced off the skin, which looked kinda nasty, and that went out too. Then I rubbed the spices onto the pork so it would get lots of flavor.

I'm not sure why, but I always get a kick out of rubbing spices onto meat. It feels like a good way to send off the meat to its ultimate destination: the pot and my stomach, and I like being able to get tactile with the food and a bit messy. It brings me more in touch with the process of cooking, I suppose.

So as that was done, I tossed it into the hot oil and prepared it for braising. I was also supposed to put the onion slices in with it, and the way I read the recipe is to let the onions say when things were pretty well done--when the onions are brown, move to the next step. So that's what I did! I let everything cook up, flipped the pork a couple of times, and then moved everything to the crockpot.

After it was settled in nicely, I poured orange juice, chicken stock, and lime juice (Let's hear it for more lime flavor! YUM!) over everything, clamped the lid on, and set it for what I hope is 4 hours. Why I say that is because the sticker with all the heat settings has peeled off our crock pot and it's always on a wing and a prayer that we cook anything with it. I've tried to find the model online and figure out which settings are what, but I haven't had any luck finding it. So let's all hope the pork is done and delicious by about 5:00!!

Ok, it's now 1:35pm, and I have an hour to go before I start with the soup. See you all back here after I get that humming!

Current Time: 3:30

Okie dokie, it is now 3:30 and the soup is going strong. It was a fun recipe to make, mainly because there is LOTS of cilantro in it.

Ok, so step one was to pick through the beans. Tyler says he always finds little stones in the beans. I didn't find any and I spread them out on a cookie sheet to make sure. But if you hear me screaming later, you'll know it's because there was a stone, I missed it, and I broke a tooth.

After I picked through them, I rinsed them in cold water. Aren't they beautiful? I'm using my grandma's Tupperware strainer, which is bright sea green and still working great after all these years. I also have been using her measuring cup today. I like the idea that even though she's been gone for more than 11 years, I can still use the the things that she used on the occasions she cooked (those occasions were often limited, but she did cook one of my favorite dishes--goulash with Mott's applesauce and garlic bread. Every time I eat it, I have to try not to cry--I can picture myself in her Connecticut kitchen, preparing it for us since she knew we liked it a lot.) Oh, and I guess now that I think about it, the soup is simmering away in her Revereware dutch oven.

Once the beans were picked and rinsed through, I left them in the sink to drain. Then it was time to chop up the green pepper, onion, and garlic, and prepare them for the food processor. Happily also, we needed TONS of cilantro for the food processor. Well, OK, not tons, technically, but since I love it, I took the liberty of adding a bit more than a quarter of a bunch--I added maybe a half a bunch. I pureed the living heck out of it and it became this beautiful green paste. And the smell was absolutely fantastic.

I let it rest for a while and started heating up the pot, to which I added a "three count" of oil (I basically did just that, started pouring, counted to 3, and stopped pouring) and threw in some cumin (used up what was left in my container) and oregano. The recipe called for fresh, but I didn't have it, so I used dried oregano instead. I am usually hesitant to buy fresh herbs on account of I use them for one recipe, put them in the fridge, and locate them as a primordial ooze at the bottom of my crisper three months after the fact. I knew I'd use up the cilantro, though, so I felt free to go ahead and buy it. :-)

When that was nice and warm and fragrant, I poured the vegetable puree into the pot and warmed it up until it smelled nice and fragrant. Then it was time to add in 1 3/4 quarts of chicken stock (7 cups if you need to know the equivalent--I looked it up in the Joy of Cooking to make sure I was doing it right!), the ham hock, the black beans, and the jalapeno. Now Tyler is a quite a spicy guy, but I am not. I can't stand a lot of heat in anything--salsa, potato chips, buffalo wings, etc. So while he threw it in seeds and all, I'll be quite honest, I took out about 95% of the seeds so maybe it'll have a little bit of a kick but nothing too overwhelming. I mixed it all up and it started cooking up rather nicely.

I have to say, actually handling the ham hock gave me a new respect for the animal. I thought about someone cutting off my hocks and didn't like the thought of it one bit. So I said a little prayer of thanksgiving and peaceful death for our hockless pig. But I also had a nightmare last night in which I was working at a Subway restaurant alongside a serial killer and he kept attacking me with a big, sharp knife, but I somehow had superhuman strength and was able to turn it back on him and stab him in the eye, but nothing happened to him when I did. So I'm feeling a little creeped out today anyway, is the point.

So, I tossed the hock in with a minimum of handling. And I figured while I was waiting for the soup to simmer, I'd go ahead and get some brown rice cooking, as that takes 2 hours as well in the rice cooker. And then I thought I might as well make up the crema that Tyler suggests putting in the soup. It's a very easy thing to make--sour cream and lime zest mixed together, so I quickly put that together as well, and now my hands smell so deliciously limey.

Lime is quickly becoming one of my favorite flavors.

I did a quick check on the pork and then cleaned up. I never feel quite right until the dishes are done and everything is tidy, so I can now say that the dishes are either done or they are in the dishwasher awaiting doing and the counters are wiped down. What's left? Finish cooking everything, assemble the sandwich, grill the sandwich, and eat!! Can't wait, the kitchen smells amazing! That's the news from 4pm.

Final Update: 6:15pm

Dinner has been eaten. But before I get to that, the final preparations...

Ok, so the soup was bubbling merrily away, but I turned it up a bit just to make sure the beans did get nice and tender as they were supposed to. Then it was time to check on the pork. Fortunately, the light had gone off to indicate that it had cooked the correct amount of time. Hooray! I should probably make a note that says "High, 4 hours" on that particular setting, but what fun would that be?

Ok, I decided to remove the pork from the crockpot, as it needed to 'rest' before it could be cut. It smelled so great when I pulled it out, I wanted to eat it just plain. But of course, that would not make much of a sandwich! As you can see, we had one hitchhiker of an onion that hung on, but the rest remained in the pot. I put the pork aside and turned my attention back to the soup.

According to the instructions, approximately a third of the soup had to be removed from the pot, pureed and put back into the rest of the soup to "bring it all together". I ladeled soup into my food processor, which made me nervous because it was so hot and the food processor container is plastic! Honestly, since starting this project, my food processor has never been so busy! And it has performed admirably. The soup, however, was not so cooperative. Apparently the beans like being whole, so I had to give it the real business. I let it really have it and it finally made a nice smoothish substance that was not as liquid as a broth, but not as solid as paste. Somewhere in between. I poured it back into the big pot and stirred it up, letting it sit and cook a bit more.

Then I started assembling the sandwich. I sliced up a loaf of French bread. Tyler warns against this, suggesting that a baguette is the only appropriate alternative to Cuban bread, which I could not find. I presume this is something to do with how crusty French bread can be. So I "massaged" it through the wrapper and let all the crumbs flake off, leaving a nice, soft loaf of bread. The pictures below show the progression of the sandwich being built. The steps are, in order: mustard, Swiss cheese, pickles, deli ham, the roasted pork, more Swiss cheese.

Next came the question of how to grill the thing. Tyler used a grill pan and some hot bricks to press it. Now, I have a brilliant solution that doesn't involve a grill pan or anything too special. And I must give credit to my friend Joe for this. One day we were shopping and I was lamenting my lack of a panini press, saying I'd like to be able to make paninis but couldn't without the proper gear. Joe looked at me like I was nuts. "You've got a Foreman grill. It's the same thing."

And indeed it is. I've made many wonderful paninis on my Foreman grill. And since my dad got me the big one, I can fit A LOT on it. Including an entire Cuban sandwich. Tyler suggested that the grill be brushed with extra virgin olive oil, so I used a little bit of olive oil spray on the sandwich before putting it in the Foreman. (I love this first picture, it looks like the sandwich and the grill are sizing each other up!)

So I stuck it in there and kept on pressing down on it to make it be nice and compressed. I left it in there the full 7 minutes recommended and dished myself up a nice bowl of soup in the meantime. I decided to get fancy with the crema and put it in a disposable pastry bag so I could squeeze it out in a fun pattern. Then, of course, I had to add a little bit more cilantro. Mmmm! It was smelling SO GOOD!

When the sandwich came out, I sliced it in half to see what was going on in there. It was looking mighty tasty and smelling delicious!

It was time to dish up and eat! We were both very, very excited. The smell of it all cooking for so long was torture. The General had skipped lunch so he was especially hungry. I was a little bit nervous as I do not like mustard whatsoever and I figured the General wouldn't be too keen on the pickles, but we were going to make the best of it.

And you know what?! It was damned good! The sandwich was thick and crusty, warm and gooey, and so flavorful. I didn't mind the mustard at all, and the General ate up his pickles as well. We both agreed it was fantastic. The soup was great and the touch of lime in the crema was a great accent. The only downside is that there is TONS of it left. I'll be eating black bean soup till I drop. I think I'll see if my brother-in-law will eat it at all.

So now it's time for the Superbowl, and I'm going to go snuggly with my honey, who has decreed that our next country will be Israel. I've actually got a cookbook from the Kesher Israel Sisterhood in Washington, so we'll see what they have to offer.

Have a great night, everyone!

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