April 24, 2012

11 Min Read
Latin Sandwiches on the Rise

By Barbara Zatto, Contributing Editor

The ongoing expansion of sandwich options with a Latin American influence falls directly in line with the decade-long trend of ever-increasing Latin food choices available in fine and casual restaurants, and the explosion of Latin-influenced meals, marinades and other products in grocery stores. And sandwiches are ideal vehicles for conveying ethnic flavors. A sandwich can offer a balance of protein, fat, acids, heat, spices and textures to make a complete and satisfying mealand the price point makes them an easy way to try something new for little cost.

Latin American countries have been variously influenced throughout history by European, Native American, Middle Eastern, Japanese and African flavor profiles, resulting in a delicious blend of flavors that give their sandwiches wide appeal. With Latin flavors trending upward over the last several years, the ingredients found in these sandwiches are now more familiar for consumers.

Quintessentially Cuban

When it comes to sandwiches with Latin flair, the Cuban rules. Pleasing the palate for over 100 years, the Cuban got its start in Miami and Tampas Ybor City when the Cuban cigar trade came to the United States. From Florida, it moved across the country along with pockets of Cuban immigrantsand in the last several years has grown increasingly mainstream, at home in a wide range of traditional American restaurants.

The key to a great Cuban sandwich is the bread. It has to be fresh, and historically the bread was 3 ft. long and more rectangular than rounded. The dough was stretched thin to create a crunchy crust and air pockets, and baked with a moist palm frond on top to give it a distinctive look. Currently, the bread is more commonly sold in elongated, personal-sized rolls. The doughs distinctive taste traditionally comes from using a starter, or sponge.

In Cuba, the sandwich comes with layers of mojo pork, sweet ham, Swiss cheese and pickles, and mustard spread on classic Cuban bread. Florida introduced this popular sandwich to the rest of the United States, and residents there debate how to make the best Cuban. Miami sticks closer to Cuban tradition, while in Tampa, the Cuban sees the addition of Genoa salami.

Mojo pork is key to any Cuban. The pork is marinated in sour oranges, garlic and spices (like oregano, salt and pepper) and then slow-roasted to develop its flavor. It is then either served sliced or chopped on the sandwich. After the sandwich is dressed, it is pressed and heated all the way through on a flattop grill or metal plate (a la plancha) so the fats from the cheese and meats seep down throughout the sandwich. A true Cuban should not be made on a panini press or have grill marks.

Other acceptable variations include the addition of vinegars and chicken stock to braise the meat, and the addition of aioli, onions, sweet pickles, and provolone cheese instead of the traditional Swiss.

The Cubans sister is the media nocheliterally translated as midnight," because it began as a midnight snack. Smaller in size than a Cuban and made on sweet egg bread similar to challah, the media noche is filled with roast mojo pork and heated through on a plancha for a crisp crust on the outside and gooey, melted cheese inside.

Traveling to Bauru

The Bauru, named for the city where it originated, is the most famous sandwich of Brazil. The traditional recipe calls for sliced roast beef (loin or rump roast), mozzarella cheese, sliced tomato and pickles topped with salt and dried oregano inside a hollowed-out French bread roll. The cheese is traditionally heated in a bain-marie (water bathlike a double boiler) until it is melted like a fondue and then poured over the other ingredients. The acid in the pickles contrasts nicely to the fat in the meat and cheese.

Variations on the Bauru include using slow-roasted ham or pork instead of roast beef, and even some vegetarian options are starting to appear regionally. In southern Brazil, a thin slice of steak is used instead of roast beef and may include a mix of peas, carrots, mayo, onion and tomato.

Sabores de mi tierra

In Puerto Rico, sandwiches are usually served in large portions from stores and trucks that stay open late, according to Miguel Campis, host of Sabores de mi Tierra" (Flavors of My Country") on Puerto Ricos WAPA TV. He typically starts all of his sandwiches using a loaf of crusty French bread or sweet pan de manteca (Puerto Rican lard bread). The beefsteak sandwich features marinated strips of seared steak, smothered with sautéed onions in a garlic and vinegar marinade. The tripleta stacks sautéed steak, ham and chicken with crispy fries inside. He serves both of these hot off the griddle.

On the Southern shores of Puerto Rico, sandwich fillings include marinated octopus or conch salad with onions, vinegar and olive oil. Newer on the scene in Puerto Rico are plantain sandwiches, where chefs substitute fried plantains (tostones) for bread and fill them with flap steak (similar to flank or skirt) and chimichurri sauce (a vinaigrette-style sauce typically made with parsley, garlic, olive oil, red-wine vinegar and red pepper flakes). In Chicago, plantain sandwiches are called jibaritos (made with steakand sometimes chicken or porkalong with lettuce, tomato and garlicky aioli).

A cousin to the jibarito is the patacón maracucho. This Venezuelan specialty dates back to the early 1990s, when chefs began filling the slices of crispy, fried plantains with thinly sliced roast chicken, avocado and cilantro, among other ingredients.

Chori, meet chimi

The choripan is a combination of two words: chorizo and pan (bread), so its no surprise that traditional choripan from Argentina features hot, grilled chorizo on a roll similar to a French baguette. Choripan is most recognized as street food, but is also served in smaller portions as an appetizer.

Traditionally, Argentine chorizo sausage is made from pork and flavored with pimento, smoked red peppers, garlic and red wine, and generally isnt spicy. Cooks split it down the middle and grill it before laying it on the bread and topping it with a chimichurri sauce. The crusty, crisp bread soaks up the meat juices and the sauce. U.S. chefs sometimes borrow the idea of dressing sandwiches with a chimichurri or vinaigrette.

Mexico, one sandwich at a time

Saul Ortiz, executive chef, Tacos & Tequilas, Las Vegas, names three sandwiches as tops when it comes to combining the flavors, spices, ingredients and traditional cooking methods of Mexico. The torta pepito is made with a baked bolillo roll (similar to a baguette with its crunchy crust but with an oval shape) with bean spread, mayonnaise, lettuce, cheese and grilled chicken, pork or beef. Its usually served warm, but also with cold deli meats such as ham or turkey. Guajolotas are sandwiches made by stuffing a tamale inside the bolillo roll and dressing it with a red chile sauce, mole or mayonnaise. Its combination of warm corn dough and bread is unique. A filling of tender pork tossed in a tomatillo sauce and topped with a mole and a sprinkle of oregano is quite tasty. Rounding out his trifecta of Mexican sandwiches is the pambazo. To create this hearty sandwich, a bolillo roll is soaked in a red-chile (guajillo) adobo made from guajillo chiles, onion, garlic, cinnamon and clove paste. Once the roll is soaked, its cut in half, stuffed with boiled, diced potatoes, sautéed chorizo, lettuce, queso fresco, sour cream and salsa, and is cooked on a comal (a Mexican cast-iron griddle) to give it a toasty exterior. The smoky taste of the red-chile adobo and the chorizo complement each other well. He suggests adding heat to all of these sandwiches with raw or grilled peppers, or adding dry spices like paprika and cayenne pepper into a mayonnaise-based spread.

Tortas are on the rise in casual and fine dining, as well as via the expanding food-truck business. Tortas are unique and adaptableserved cold or hot on bolillo or telera rolls (the telera is quite similar to bolillo, but a bit softer and rounder). Torta variations are endlessserved morning, noon and night, featuring everything from eggs and chorizo to carnitas with chile de árbol sauce (which can include pumpkin and sesame seeds, cumin, oregano, garlic, allspice, cloves and vinegar, along with fiery chiles de árbol), anything, really, that could go into a tacomaking this perhaps the most-adaptable Mexican sandwich. Jalapeños (usually a staple on tortas) add heat and cut through the fat of other ingredients like meats, cheese and avocado.

Flavors influenced by Latin America, including Tex-Mex and New Mexican, are currently trending in foodservice. The heat of this Latin influence is reaching all the way through quick-service burger chains, which are introducing options with ingredients like green chileseven locale-specific Hatch green chiles. Chipotles are popping up everywhere in aioli, sauces and as a condiment. Also new is the demand for New Mexican breakfast sandwiches with eggs, green chiles and/or jalapeños, cheese and breakfast sausage.

Also trending, according to Hamilton Gross, culinary director, KOR Food Innovation, Ashland, VA, are sandwiches that can substitute the need for a bread, as seen in the jibarito made with plantains, something that fits nicely into the gluten-free sector. Also, gluten-free breads made with nut flours can complement the flavor profiles of various Latin American sandwiches, which sometimes feature nuts and seeds in accenting sauces.

The next Cuban?

With rising numbers in the U.S. Latino and Hispanic populations, the delicious traditions of Latin countries continue to influence American sandwiches. While the torta could be the next big contender to challenge the Cuban, two close runners-up include the cemita poblana, a sandwich hailing from Puebla, Mexico, commonly featuring a milanesa, or breaded veal cutlet, on a crusty roll with sliced avocado, queso blanco, sliced onion and chipotles in adobo.

Also, arepasVenezuelan corn cakesare a good gluten-free option, often split and filled with a wide variety of ingredients, including shredded beef and cheese; chicken, avocado and mayonnaise; and perico (often containing scrambled eggs, peppers, tomatoes, annatto and onions).

Gross believes the next Cuban will not be one lone idea of a sandwich, but rather a movement toward a different principle in sandwich design. As the global culture is becoming more aware of nutritional needs, we are finding that the desire for more robust flavors delivered through smaller portioning is satisfying the consumers need for flavor while respecting dietary concerns and portion size," he says.

American palates continue to seek spicy flavors, and Latin-influenced sandwiches are ideal vehicles to meet demand.

Barbara Zatto is director of culinary and sales manager West for Mizkan Americas food ingredients division. She is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and is a member of the Research Chefs Association.


Flavorful Latin Inspirations

It is not uncommon these days to see Latin American flavors finding their way into non-traditional food forms. In most cases, this is done through the simple addition of chiles. However, there are many other ingredients in the Latin pantry that can be used as interest-generating additions to everyday dishesincluding sandwiches. Here are a few authentic and attention-grabbing ideas in which Latin-inspired garnishes can be added to this lunchtime favorite.

       Chipotle in adobo. This product is the ultimate flavor chameleon. Even in small amounts, chipotles not only add unique flavorssmoky, spicy and sweetbut they also add body and depth to sandwiches when incorporated into spreads or relishes.

       Roasted tomatillos. Crushed into a spread, or salsa verde, roasted tomatillos add an excellent combination of smoky depth and acidic brightness.

       Escabeche. This mix of vinegared carrots, jalapeños and onions pairs perfectly with many sandwiches, because what sandwich doesnt love a good pickle? Drained and chopped finely, escabeche is particularly well-paired with cured pork products.

       Black beans. Black beans, cooked and blended into a purée, add body and richness as a sandwich spread. They are especially good for use on vegetarian sandwiches.

       Chihuahua cheese. This mild cows-milk cheese is excellent for sandwiches. In cold preparations, the cheese is mild and firm, similar to Jack. In hot sandwiches, it provides unbeatable gooey creaminess.

       Jicama. This mildly sweet tuber provides freshness and crunch. Shaved into a slaw and tossed with lime and cilantro, jicama can be used as a brightly flavored condiment for anything from grilled chicken to braised pork.

       Habanero chile sauce. This three-alarm hot sauce may not be everyones cup of tea, but its perfect for adventurous eaters. Aside from the heat, this pepper also offers floral notes that are an excellent complement to grilled or braised meats.

Molly McGrath, chef and project manager, The Culinary Edge

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