Sunday, November 8, 2009
But first, a slight diversion to talk about Mexican tortas (sandwiches) in general. Before I lived in Mexico, I didn't know that Mexicans have a fine sandwich tradition. I didn't even know they ate bread. After all, one is never offered bread in a Mexican restaurant. It's just "corn or flour?" tortillas.
Don't get me wrong: the tortilla - the corn tortilla - is and has always been the staple food of the Mexican diet. Like rice for Asians, one simply hasn't eaten unless one has eaten with tortillas. I say "with" because for most Mexicans, the tortilla is the fork and spoon with which they eat. Just like Indians use chapati and Europeans used to use bread as a plate, Mexicans use tortillas as edible utensils. Corn is the basic stuff of life (as bread is the staff of life for westerners - or used to be) and the tortilla is its most basic and ubiquitous form.
Nonetheless, Mexicans do eat bread. Lots of it, actually. In my mother-in-law's house, as in many others, there is a special late-evening snack called "pan dulce con chocolate." Usually around ten or eleven o'clock, long enough after dinner that everyone is feeling a mite peckish, the family gathers one last time around the table to enjoy steaming hot chocolate and sweet rolls. This is right before bed, the last chance to gossip about the affairs of the day and settle the stomach for sleep with some simple carbohydrates. After pan con chocolate, everybody goes to bed.
Mexico is one of the world's great street food countries. Even in quite small towns, there will be vendors in the main square (zocalo) selling ice cream or snow cones (nieves or raspados), boiled corn on the cob or cups of corn kernels with mayonnaise, cheese, lime and chile; and if you are lucky, real old fashioned food like totopes (cigar-shaped packets of masa filled with ground meat, potatoes, and peas and toasted on a comal, topped with shredded cabbage, sour cream, refried beans, and chile sauce), tamales, or empanadas. If you are in the real back country, you might see an old woman selling pulque from a clay jug or hot atole (a thick drink made from corn masa and various flavorings.).
And for those who want a quick, satisfying meal, there are the torta wagons. Here, vendors will take a big, soft loaf of french bread, cut it in half lengthwise and scoop out some of the soft crumb to make room for heaps of fillings - shredded chicken, roast pork, tassajo (dried beef), or fried eggs, soft white cheese, chiles, refried beans, avocados, tomatoes, onions, and all manner of other things. Then the sandwiches are grilled, or pressed in the manner of Italian panini. One sandwich wagon in Oaxaca even offers a chile-relleno sandwich - a whole chile relleno (New To Farm Life: Chiles rellenos) inside a sandwich, which seems to me a terrible thing to do to such a delicious and labor intensive food, but which I guess is kind of an over-the-top statement.
I make Homero's favorite sandwich when either 1) he asks for it or 2) we have leftover roast chicken and/or ham. Here, without further ado:
2 large loaves freshly baked soft french bread (not sliced)
1-2 cups shredded roast chicken
4 large slices cooked ham
6 oz queso fresco, sliced or crumbled (it tends to crumble)
1 large ripe tomato, sliced
1 large ripe avocado, or 2 small
1/2 red onion, very thinly sliced
2-6 canned pickled jalapeno peppers, sliced, to taste
a panini press, or a hot griddle and a cast-iron skillet
Slice the bread lengthwise and scoop out soft interior; save for another purpose. Slather bottom halves with mayonnaise. Lay down (in order) the shredded chicken, the crumbled cheese, the tomato, the onion, the avocado (sliced), and the pickled peppers. Use the thinly sliced ham to cover all and kind of anchor it in place. Carefully replace the top halves of the loaves.
Cut each loaf into two (pressing down will help avoid disintegration) and press in a hot panini press until cheese is melty and bread is toasty - about four minutes. If you have no panini press, then heat a griddle over two burners. Carefully clean the bottom of a cast iron skillet and heat over a third burner. Place sandwich halves on the griddle and use the hot skillet to press and toast the tops.
Serves four. Serve with cold Corona.