I have wanted to make something and pretend that my friend Mario would show up for dinner for a long time now, and last night was that night. It had to be something special, after all, my friend Mario is very special to me. It also had to be pig!
I met Mario for the first time a year ago in Italy when he was teaching in Cortona at the same time as Dave, and we hung out together the entire 3 months of our stint in Tuscany. Besides being a Doctor of the Classics, specializing in all things related to ancient Rome, he has an insatiable zest for life that borders on surpassing mine! His “to-do’ list when he hit the city streets of Rome or Florence would read like an encyclopedic guide-book, taking in not only the most beautiful and important churches and museums, but where we ate and had our coffee or gelato was an integral part of the planning.
For some, I can only imagine that his wide-reaching and expert knowledge of Italian culture (and sub-culture) could result in your running in the opposite direction for fear of your head exploding from too much of a good thing, but I stuck with him, willing to take that chance. We had the best Spring ever!
I dedicated this really great pork sandwich to Mario for a few reasons, the first being that everywhere he went in Italy it was imperative that he sample the most popular street food of Italy: the Porchetta sandwich. I never knew a man so in love with fresh crusty bread filled with juicy pork, be it slow-roasted pork belly like in the Porchetta Sandwich, or some of the many other meats I saw peeking out of his daily sandwich when teaching at the hilltop school in Cortona, like… salami, capicola, sopressata, pancetta or one of his favourites, mortadella studded with slivers of pistachio nuts.
Porchetta is singularly Italian and deeply embedded in its food culture. In the strictest sense (and not my wildly loose interpretation) porchetta is the whole pig, cleaned, deboned and infused with pungent seasoning like garlic and a variety of easily found herbs like rosemary, cumin, fennel and oregano. It is then rolled and cooked whole on a spit for hours and hours until it is tender, juicy and unctuous. If you ever buy a pork sandwich in Italy from a big white van, you are most likely going to be served porchetta on a piece of lovely grilled bread with peppers and some sort of green.
I was in no position to cook a whole pig but I pulled the most important flavors from the original to make my sandwich: bacon fat (from the bacon) and richly seasoned, tender meat (from the tenderloin). There is no way this marriage of meat could disappoint my friend. It wasn’t quite enough however, I needed this to be really special and not just play second fiddle to the Italian masterpiece. So, I threw in some ingredients from another iconic street sandwich, the Cuban sandwich.
The Cuban Sandwich is probably the equivalent of the porchetta sandwich in that pork takes center stage, this time in the form of ham and sometimes roasted pork. The sandwich is also made on the grill but is lushified (there really should be such a word!), with swiss cheese, mustard and dill pickles. The combination makes for another addictive taste which if you get hooked on, you can’t live without!
I must say that this little sandwich of my own creation wins over either a Porchetta or Cuban sandwich; it is the absolute best of the two combined. I made it my own when I used my favorite cuts of pork: the tenderloin and streaky bacon. I marinated the thinly sliced pork in a garlic herb paste that included cumin seeds and dried oregano, and fried it quickly on the pan. I added roasted cherry tomatoes to up the sweetness factor imparted by the slivers of dilled pickles, and rounded it all out with soft white gooey cheese, and spinach leaves for a splash of color and crunch. I am thinking that if I owed a lunch truck people would be lined for miles just to get a taste of my “Porcubanetta” Sandwich!
I did mention there were a few reasons why I created this dish for Mario, and this factor is huge: NO DAMN ONIONS! What I mean is, when we spoke a few days ago he announced that if he saw so much as 1 thread of an onion cooking in a skillet on my blog, he would do himself in!! He has had it with my over-zealous use of onions, and he may have a point (right now he is screaming “DUH!”). I thought of what I could make without using onions (oh God, he does have a point!), and as I was trying to come up with something to please his very particular tastes my thoughts were distracted by pigs. You know, like when your brain goes into Surreal mode and floating Dali-like images dominate you to distraction. I saw pigs in fields, in pens, flying pigs, then pigs languishing on sandwiches, pigs tucked into sweet sauces, and on and on.
It was then it dawned on me that a pork sandwich would be the one place I could forfeit onions without guilt and also the one thing I could make for Mario that would be his ultimate last supper (well maybe a close second to Fritto Misto). So, this is for you Mario, and now get off of my back!
You will need:
3 cups cherry tomatoes, pricked once with a toothpick or sharp knife
3 tbs extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp coarse sea-salt
8 strips bacon
1 lb (or a little over is fine), thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
3 tsp whole cumin seeds
3 tsp dried oregano
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
bunch of spinach leaves (about 2 cups)
20 -24 slices mild cheese (Munster, Fontina)
8 dill spear quarters, thinly sliced vertically
4 tbs strong mustard
4 tbs unsalted butter, room temperature (might need a little more)
freshly ground back pepper (optional)
8 slices of good quality fresh white bread
Preheat oven 500*
1 – Roast cherry tomatoes: combine first three ingredients on a baking tray and mix well with your hands until tomatoes are coated with oil. Place in oven for 12 minutes.
2 – Take out of oven and turn tomatoes and place back into the oven for another 8 minutes or until black in spots and very soft. Remove to a plate .making sure to scrape in all of the escaped juices and set aside
3 – In the meantime fry the bacon until crispy. Set aside to drain on paper towels.
4 – While bacon is frying mince the garlic.
5 – Combine the oregano, cumin, minced garlic and 1/2 cup olive oil in mortar and pestle and grind until it is paste-like.
6 – In a bowl, combine the herb mixture with the sliced pork and set aside. Let it sit for up to a 1/2 hour, adn can be prepped and left in the fridge up to 24 hours. To cook pork: put big saute pan on high heat and add 2 tbs oilive oil. Fry in batches about 2 minutes per side in a single layer (make sure not to crowd the pan or it will steam, not fry!). Add more oil as needed and continue cooking until you are done. set aside, ready to be used when assembling sandwiches.
To cook pork: put big saute pan on high heat and add 2 tbs olive oil. Fry in batches about 2 minutes per side in a single layer (make sure not to crowd the pan or it will steam, not fry!). Add more oil as needed and continue cooking until you are done. Set aside, ready to be used when assembling sandwiches.
7 – Slice pickles and cheese. Butter each slice of bread on one side and put mustard on the other side of 4 of the slices. Wash & dry spinach.
Ready to cook and assemble Porcubanetta
Put large enough pan to hold one sandwich on medium steady heat. Place slice of bread butter side down in the pan and immediately layer as follows:
Continue until all sandwiches are made. Remove each one to a plate and after waiting a minute or two for it to cool, slice diagonally and serve.