~ Mexico's Torta Ahogada Drowned-Pork Sandwich ~
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 sauce. A traditional torta ahogada is a fried-pork and onion sandwich drenched in a spicy red sauce, and, this Mexican working-man's lunch has a reputation for being a sure-fire cure for a hangover.
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.
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.
Two days ago I posted my recipe for ~ Sink or Swim: Mexican Drowned-Beef Sandwiches ~ using flavorful, juicy, tender and perfectly-cooked flank steak (pictured above). Today, I'm make the traditional torta ahogada, using pork blade steaks -- a pork butt (shoulder) cut into steaks.
Because overcooking renders them dry and tough, this quick-cooking cut is perfect for the grill, sauté pan or broiler. Choose pinkish-gray steaks that are generally the same size and thickness (3/4"-1" thick is ideal), and, have been trimmed of excessive fat from the fat-cap-side.
Note: These 4 steaks, weighing a total of 6.48 pounds, cost $10.87. That's a whole lot of economical porcine wonderfulness -- especially if you've got a big family with big appetites.
Because overcooking renders them tough, this quick-cooking pork steak is perfect for the grill, grill pan, sauté pan or broiler.
2 3/4"-1"-thick, bone-in pork butt blade steaks, about 1 1/2-1 3/4-pounds each
1/2 cup my recipe for A Basic Mexican Marinade for Beef, Pork or Poultry
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*
6 bolillo, ciabatta or other crusty, semi-firm, 6" long sandwich-rolls, halved, and if desired, lightly-toasted or grilled
additional achiote oil, for the diced-pork-and-onion sauté at assembly time
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 blade steaks in a 1-gallon food storage bag and add all of the marinade. Seal the bag. Using your fingertips, squish the bag a bit, to push the steaks and the marinade around enough to thoroughly coat the steaks 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. Remove steaks from refrigerator and return to room temperature, 30-45 minutes. Position oven rack 7 1/2"-8" under heating element and preheat broiler. Remove room temp blade steaks from marinade and place on an 11 3/4" x 8 1/2" disposable broiler pan (the kind with the corrugated bottom). Place steaks under broiler and cook 11 minutes, until golden and bubbly. Remove from oven and flip steaks over. Return to broiler and cook 11 more minutes, using an instant-read meat thermometer to test for doneness at 10 minutes. Remove steaks from oven when they reach an internal temperature of 140°-145°. Allow steaks to rest 10-15 minutes.
~Step 4. While steaks ares 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 each rested-but-warm blade steak, on a diagonal, in half lengthwise -- half bone-in, the other boneless. Thinly-slice the boneless half across the grain while holding the knife at a 30° angle, into (1/8"-1/4"-thick) strips, then dice the strips. Carve the meat away from the bone on the second half, then slice and dice that meat too. Place the diced meat in a bowl and repeat process with the second steak. Each steak, depending upon the size of the bone (large or small), will yield 2 1/2-3 cups diced pork, enough to amply fill (stuff) six, hearty, 6"-long sandwiches.
Note: To this point, all the components for these unique sandwiches (the sauce, the onions and the pork) can be prepared several hours to one day ahead of assembling and serving.
~Step 7. To prepare the spicy fried-pork-and-onion filling, in an appropriately-sized skillet (8", 10" or 12", depending on how many sandwiches you plan to assemble at one time), heat 1-2-3 tablespoons achiote oil over medium-high heat. Add 1 cup diced pork per sandwich and sauté until meat is heated through and fat is crisping up, 1 1/2-2 minutes. Stir in 2 tablespoons of the ahogada sauce per cup of meat. When steaming, fold in 1/3 cup (5-6 tablespoons) sautéd onions per cup of meat. Remove from heat.
~Step 8. To assemble each sandwich, choose a bowl, slice a roll in half, then place the bottom in the bowl. Using your fingertips, pull a bit of the soft bread from the center of the top of the roll and set aside -- this forms a dome that helps keep the filling in place while eating (see photo below). Slather the "bun bottom" with guacamole. Heap the warm meat mixture evenly atop the guacamole. I like to add extra guacamole to the bowl at this time. Place the top on the sandwich. Using a small ladle, drizzle a scant 1/2 cup warm sauce over the top, garnish with a few leftover onions, add some tortilla chips to the dish and eat.
Drizzle generously w/warmed sauce, garnish w/onions...
Special Equipment List: 1-cup measuring container; 1-gallon food storage bag; cutting board; chef's knife; 10" nonstick skillet; 2, 11 3/4" x 8 1/2" x 1 1/4" disposable aluminum broiler pans w/corrugated bottom; instant-read meat thermometer (optional); appropriately-sized skillet
Cook's Note: The Portuguese people eat these pork sandwiches like we Americans eat burgers -- anytime and anywhere. The bifana is so popular, McDonald's even launched the McBifana in Portugal. Never heard of the bifana? There's no shame in that -- we Americans don't always have access to authentic Spanish-style recipes. Click here to get my recipe for ~ The Bifana: A Perfect Portuguese Pork Sandwich ~, and, here for the ~ Papos Secos: Portuguese Dinner/Sandwich Rolls ~ recipe.
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2018)