~ Sink or Swim: Mexican Drowned-Beef Sandwiches ~
Tacos and tortas -- two staples of Mexican cuisine. They are to Mexico's culture what pizza and hamburgers are to America's -- you can't pass through a city or a town where you can't find either. If you're an American cook with a fondness for Mexican fare, like me, you most likely have a recipe-or-six for tacos (American-style ground beef tacos, grilled-beef tacos al carbon, shredded-pork carnitas tacos, shredded-pork tacos al pastor, chicken tacos, fish tacos, etc.). That said, how many Mexican torta recipes do you have in your repertoire? I'm guessing not too many, or none. Sink or swim: there is no time like the present to add one.
Torta ahogada. Culinarily, "torta" can mean several things: in Spain it refers to a "pancake", in Latin America it's a "cake", in Central America it's an "omelette", and, in Mexico it's a "sandwich" -- the kind that, unlike the taco, fits the culinary definition of anything edible placed between two slices of bread. Generally speaking, in Spanish "ahogada" means "drowned", "drenched" or "drunk". Putting two and two together, today's recipe is: a Mexican sandwich, drowned or drenched in a spicy sauce, with a reputation for being a sure-fire cure for the common hangover.
Savory marinade + spicy sauce + the proper roll + protein of choice. All the components for Mexican-style sandwich perfection.
The drowned sandwich (torta ahogada) was invented in Guadalajara in the early 1900's. It was literally a mistake, a "slip-of-the-hand", so to speak. Don Ignacio "Nacho" Saldaña, was a thirty year old who just started working for one of the city's largest vendors, Luis De La Torre, at his central plaza location, which was managed by De La Torre's father. As per Saldaña, a customer requested extra sauce on his pork sandwich, and, senior De La Torre accidentally dropped the sandwich in the container. "It's drowned", the customer cried, but, after eating it and declaring how good it was, the son began selling torta ahogadas in all of his eateries. Saldaña eventually saved enough money to open his own restaurant at the corner of Madero and Indepence Streets, where, now, five decades later and well into his 80's, he's still selling the iconic sandwiches.
By simple word-of-mouth this humble, mess-of-a-pork and lightly-grilled- or raw-onion sandwich quickly grew in popularity. Before long, vendors all across the city were touting their versions, by tweaking the recipes for the Mexican-style marinade for the protein and/or the firey, tawny-red ahogada sauce -- not a lot, just enough to claim them their own. Variations on the presentation followed, with some serving the sauce in a bowl to the side, while others began slathering the all-important semi-firm textured bolillo roll with condiments like refried beans or guacamole prior to drowning. Still others took it one step further, by offering beef, chicken or shrimp options as a substitute for pork. The proper way to eat a drenched sandwich, served in a bowl (in a restaurant) or in a bag (on the street) is with the hands -- in Mexico, it often comes to you along with a pair of plastic gloves.
Today, I'm making mine using beef. Flavorful, juicy, tender and perfectly-cooked flank steak.
1 2-pound flank steak
1/2 cup my recipe for A Basic Mexican Marinade for Beef, Pork or Poultry
1 1/2 cups my recipe for Ahogada Sauce for Mexican Drowned Sandwiches
1 very large sweet onion (12-14-ounces), cut into 1/4"-thick rings
2 tablespoons achiote vegetable oil, or any plain (clear) ordinary vegetable oil*
4 bolillo, ciabatta or other crusty, 6" long sandwich-rolls, halved, and if desired, lightly-toasted or grilled
guacamole and tortilla chips, for accompaniment
*Note: Achiote oil, which is readily available everywhere, has annatto added to it, which is what gives it its signature pretty orange color, and, ever-so-slight hint of earthy, musty, peppery flavor. Annatto is the seed of the achiote tree, which is indigenous to Central and South America. The seeds are usually ground to a powder or steeped in oil prior to adding to all sorts of Spanish-style fare. If you don't do a lot of this type of cooking, don't buy it, or, if you don't want the orange color added to the dish you are serving, simply substitute vegetable oil without compromise.
~Step 1. Prepare the marinade as directed in recipe. Place the flank steak in a 1-gallon food storage bag and add 1/2 cup of the marinade. Seal the bag. Using your fingertips, squish the bag a bit, to push the steak and the marinade around enough to thoroughly coat the steak in marinade. Refrigerate for 6-12 hours or overnight -- overnight is best.
~ Step 2. Prepare the ahogada sauce as directed in recipe. It's easy to make, and, it freezes well too, so, make the whole batch and freeze the leftovers to have on hand for two more meals.
~Step 3. Position oven rack about 8" underneath heating element and preheat broiler. Remove the room temperature flank steak from the marinade and place on an 11 3/4" x 8 1/2" disposable aluminum broiler pan (the kind with the corrugated bottom). Place flank steak under the broiler and cook 8-9 minutes, until golden brown and bubbly. Remove from the oven and flip steak over. Return to broiler and cook 8-9 more minutes, using an instant-read meat thermometer to test for doneness after 8 minutes. Remove steak from oven when it reaches an internal temperature of 130°-134°. Allow steak to rest 10-15 minutes.
~Step 4. While steak is resting, peel and slice onion into 1/4" thick rings. Heat oil in a 10" skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and lightly season them with freshly-ground sea salt and peppercorn blend, about 15 grinds salt and 25 grinds pepper. Continue to cook until onions are soft but not mushy, 4-5 minutes, gently flipping them in the skillet with a fork or two forks during the process. Remove from heat and set aside.
~ Step 5. Slice the rested-but-warm steak in half lengthwise, then thinly-slice each half across the grain while holding the knife at a 30° angle, into (1/8"-1/4"-thick) strips. Yield: enough to amply fill (stuff) four, hearty, 6"-long sandwiches.
Note: Broiling steak just before assembling the sandwiches is best, but, if it must be made ahead, reheat uncut steak gently in microwave 60-90 seconds.
~Step 6. To assemble the sandwiches, slice the rolls in half, then place the bottom half of each in a wide, shallow bowl. Divide and heap the meat evenly atop the four "bun bottoms", followed by an even layer of onions (reserve a few onions for garnish at the end). I like to add the guacamole and tortilla chips to my "bowls" at this time. Before placing the top on each sandwich, pull a bit of the soft bread from their centers with your fingertips -- this forms a dome which helps keep the meat and onions in place while eating these sandwiches (see photo below). Using a small ladle, drizzle a scant 1/2 cup warm sauce over each sandwich, garnish with a few of the reserved onions and serve ASAP.
Drizzle w/sauce, garnish w/onions, &, serve ASAP:
Try the traditional Torta Ahogada Drowned Pork Sandwich too:
Special Equipment List: 1-cup measuring container; 1-gallon food storage bag; cutting board; chef's knife; 10" nonstick skillet; 11 3/4" x 8 1/2" x 1 1/4" disposable aluminum broiler pan w/corrugated bottom; instant-read meat thermometer (optional); serrated bread knife; small ladle
Cook's Note: A well done flank steak is not well done at all. Flank steak, while it lends its succulent flavorful self to indoor cooking beautifully, if the lean and sexy flank steak is not quickly-cooked and served rare- medium-rare it is not worth eating. While I occasionally pan-sear it, my favorite method is to cook it under the broiler. My foolproof method takes all the guesswork out of it too: ~ Melanie's Perfectly-Cooked 18-Minute Flank Steak ~. You're gonna love it.
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2018)