16 April, 2009

Mojo Criollo Refrigerator Pickle Slabs

I have recently been part of a creative discussion of the Cubano or Cuban sandwich. This is one of my favorite sandwiches in the world and is right up there next to the Banh Mi (Vietnamese sub) and really good falafel sandwiches.

The essential description of a Cubano includes a hoagie type roll (ideally Cuban bread - with a thin, buttery crust. Thanks D), cut in half and smeared with mayonnaise and a bit of yellow mustard on both sides (well that's how I like it) and then layered with tender roasted pork loin marinated in Mojo Criollo (a marinade made with sour orange juice [Seville orange as I have been reading], lime juice [some say], garlic and oregano [possibly other herbs]), topped with a few lengthwise slabs of pickle and cheese (provolone or swiss, depending on who you talk to). Then the whole thing is shoved into a hot oven or onto a griddle (or flat-top) and pressed mercilessly (I use a cast iron skillet weighted with a full kettle). The result is a gooey, meaty slab of browned bread that is quickened by acidity from the Mojo Criollo, pickle and mustard. Muy Delicioso!

Now this creative discussion revolved around using pork loin that was prepared without the benefit of Mojo Criollo and attempted to get a similar effect. The proffered proof of concept was good, but not really a Cubano. One of the problems was that we used those neon, yellow-green, commercial dill chips for the pickle. While I love them when they are battered and deep-fried, they aren't really my first choice of pickle. The discussion moved onto the possibility of using one of those crunchy, monster kosher dills (which is a favorite type) sliced thinly lengthwise. It was generally agreed that this would be a good choice, but in my mind (I didn't want to go to far), I was missing the citrus. As I drove away, I was thinking about it (obsessed you say? Well probably.).

As often happens on a relatively long drive, I went into autopilot while my brain wrestled with the problem. How to get the citrus in without overly sweetening the sandwich. I wrestled for a long time and, seeing no immediate solution, I forgot about it for a couple of days.

Then, during a break from prep for my annual Easter Lamb-fest, I fell into discussion with my friend D (thanks for your help that day, D). D is of Cuban descent and has spent a lot of time in Miami getting to know his ancestral food and culture. We discussed among other things the Cubano and the importance of the Mojo Criollo to the essential nature of the sandwich. This discussion added an important ingredient to the seething pot that represented my thoughts on the aforementioned problem. It took a few days to get an answer.

What is a pickle? A preserved cucumber. It can be preserved with salt - which if you ask most Kosher Dill aficionados, is the best way - or acidity (usually vinegar). A pickle is a relatively simple thing to make - especially if the cucumber is cut up to expose the tender inner flesh to the action of the brine or acid. I have been experimenting with this lately since I love pickles and the crunchier the better. Bring well salted water (brine) to a boil and pour into a jar stuffed as full as you can make it with cucumber slices and various spices (crushed garlic, allspice, pepper, mustard seed, whole, dried, red chilies and dill seed). Try to leave as little airspace as possible and put into the refrigerator to cool (open for the first few hours. Remember to lid them up after they have cooled). After a day or two, you will have your very first refrigerator pickle. You could can them in a hot water bath at this point if you want to keep them longer, but mine never last more than a week or so. I do add a bit of vinegar to mine (because I like vinegar). I am still working on my proportions, so I don't offer more than the basic process here - there are plenty of places on the internet and in cookbooks where the recipe is presented. By the way, important safety note: If your garlic cloves turn blue, then your brine was probably too weak. Do not eat blue garlic. Throw the batch out.

That thought led to the next one: It didn't have to be a brine did it? Couldn't you use some high-acid preparation to achieve very similar results (like pouring vinegar over a jar full of garden fresh chili peppers)? It probably wouldn't last as long, but it might work.

Then the big one hit me.

Mojo Criollo pickles!

It was so simple. The cellular machinery in the cucumber would soak up all of that wonderful flavor and release it when you bit into it. I immediately altered course to the local grocery and picked up a lime. I already had some oranges left over from the Easter thing. While I shopped, I mused that it didn't *have* to be oregano - or at least, not just oregano - and I still had a full box of dill from the Easter thing. Besides, this was supposed to be a sketch of a kosher dill anyway. So I left the fresh oregano out this time. Maybe for the future.

I got home, excited. I hauled out the cheap plastic and metal mandoline and hacked up the cucumbers (lengthwise). Next the marinade. I had decided not to use the traditional grocery store orange juice because I probably couldn't get a small amount (I tend to forget about cartons of juice until they are fermenting - I'm busy, OK) and it would probably be too sweet. So I juiced the oranges that I had, three. The juice was sweet, but had a delicious tartness. Next I juiced the lime and added it to the orange juice (I strained both in a fine mesh sieve). Pretty tart. Adding a little of the juice to my mini-chop, I then threw in 4 cloves of garlic. I read recently that if you want a finer mince in a food processor, it was worthwhile to add some liquid to the bowl with the garlic (it is). I whirred it until it was fine, the added a good sized handful of roughly chopped dill (tender stems and all) to the bowl and processed until there weren't any big chunks left. I added this mixture to the rest of the juice and added some salt. Tasted. Hmm. The salt may have been a mistake since it seemed to take down the level of the acidity. I had a lemon left over from Easter, so I juiced that too (next time it will be two limes though - for the flavor). Ahh. Just right. I also added a few grinds of black pepper and a little coarsely ground dill seed (I really wanted the dill to "pop"). Then I shoved the cucumber slices slices into a zippie (Ziploc brand resealable baggie) and poured the juice mixture in on top of it and carefully pressed as much air out of the zippie as I could before sealing it up.

The hard part is the waiting.

This morning, I opened my zippie full of joy and tasted one of the slabs. Excellent. Plenty of citrus and dill flavor with a big hit of garlic. Not too sweet and pretty tart. Overall, I felt, a successful experiment.

I will present my findings and proof of concept to my discussion group tomorrow (2 days should be perfect). I'm pretty excited to see how it is received.

Here is the recipe as it stands:

Mojo Criollo Refrigerator Pickle Slabs

1 Cucumber sliced thinly lengthwise
4 Cloves of Garlic minced very fine
3 Oranges juiced
1 Lime Juiced
1 Lemon Juiced
1 small bunch of Dill
.5 tsps coarsely ground Dill seed
.5 tsps salt
a few grinds of black pepper

Combine everything but the cucumber in a bowl, mix well. Lay cucumber slices in a zippie or flat, non-reactive pan, add mixture, cover tightly and refrigerate for 1-2 days before using.

The next step will be to build the perfect Cubano. I'm taking applications for the tasting panel...

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