Los Angeles, California – 2013
I am in a complicated relationship with wheat. It doesn’t say so on my Facebook page, but you have to believe me. When I decided to give it up as an experiment to see if avoidance would cure digestive problems that had plagued me for years, my world was turned sideways. I had to become an obsessive-compulsive food label reader. Going out to eat became like walking through a minefield: there is hidden wheat everywhere. I can be very wheat-sensitive, and leaving it out of my diet brought immediate relief. However, strangely enough, there are some wheat-based food products that I can tolerate. Since I never know how my body is going to react to ingesting wheat, the safest and most logical thing to do is avoid it. I do pretty well, but I don’t stash a bottle of Tamari in my purse when I dine at a Chinese restaurant. I’m not perfect in my abstinence.
One of the hardest things to give up has been the sandwich. Because of its convenient portability, the sandwich seems to be an essential meal for people who are always going and have umpteen jobs (that would be me.) Not that I was ever a sandwich lover. I really never appreciated the beauty of slapping some protein between two slices of bread, wrapping it up and taking it with you until that option was gone. Sure, there’s gluten-free bread. There’s also corrugated cardboard. Sometimes I am not sure which has less flavor. Plus, you have to proceed with such caution. Sprouted bread contains gluten. Some gluten-free breads have a tiny note on the package that warns of cross-contamination. It is like playing Minesweeper in the grocery store. The worst thing about it is that when my digestive system gets ‘bombed’ by wheat, it can leave me suffering for days.
Humboldt Park, Chicago, Illinois – 1995 (My mom’s old neighborhood)
Juan “Peter” Figueroa, owner of the now-famous Borinquen Restaurant on Chicago’s West Side, read something about someone making a sandwich that used plantains as the bread. He decided to try something similar, and claims to have invented the Jibarito sandwich. The green plantain is cut in half and fried just until it turns a deeper yellow. Then it is removed from the fryer, pressed on a flat wooden press, and returned to the oil to finish frying. After draining the plátano to remove the excess oil, it is plated, spread with a generous helping of mayo, a slice of skirt steak, cheese, lettuce, tomato slices and pickles. Finally, the top layer of plátano is added. slathered with garlic mojo. and the jibarito sandwich is cut in half.
You may read some jibarito recipes that will tell you that the sandwich is classic Puerto Rican fare. It’s not. This is a Chi-town (I want to coin the term Chi-orican, but I don’t want those who don’t like it to be upset) culinary invention that has spread throughout the Latin food world. In Humboldt Park and the surrounding areas, it is easy to find ingenious variations on the sandwich named after a country bumpkin, a ‘yokel’, or if you were on the island, as Juan “Peter” Figueroa explains, someone who lives in the hills rather than the city. This sandwich is casual enough to be served on a paper plate, and is usually accompanied by a side of arroz con gandules. For me, that’s way too much food. I’m fine with the sandwich.
Jibaritos come out best when green plantains are used. The first time I made them, my plantains must have been cut that morning, because they were too green and wouldn’t cook properly. You want a green plantain, but not so green that it is tough and completely inflexible. If you choose a plantain that is becoming yellow, there is a good chance that it will fall apart when pressure is applied during the flattening process. There is a Goldilocks rule that applies here” Not too hard, not too soft, but just right.
How to Fry the Plantain:
You can make a jibarito by frying your plantain in a skillet rather than a deep fryer, and your don’t need to use a lot of oil. Simply slice the peel of the plantain lengthwise, making sure not to cut through to the fruit, and remove the peel. Slice the plantain in half lengthwise. To follow tradition, soak your plantains in a bowl of salt water for about 10 minutes to let the plantains soak up some flavor. If you don’t care about tradition, you can skip soaking. One trick I use is to add about a teaspoon of hot sauce (Cholula, El Pato, salsa or sofrito) to the oil rather than soaking the plátanos. Place both halves of the plantain in hot oil and cook until the side facing down turns a brighter yellow (maybe 2 minutes.) Turn the plantain over and cook the second side until it also turns the same color. Remove the pan from the flame. Place the plantains on paper towel to drain. Press them down between two flat surfaces, such as two cutting boards. Press hard to flatten the plantain as much as possible. You may want to place a sheet of parchment paper between the plantains and the cutting boards to keep them from sticking. Then, return the skillet to the heat and place the plantains in the pan to fry again until they are golden brown (2-3 more minutes.) When done, they should look like giant oblong tostones. Drain again on paper towel.
Classic Steak: Sautee skirt steak in a pan with a little oil, garlic, sliced onions, cumin and oregano (Mexican oregano, if you can find it) until tender.
Chicken: Prepare a grill pan by rubbing grape seed oil, coconut oil or olive oil over the surface using a paper towel. Over medium heat, brown boneless leg or thigh meat with sliced onions, cumin and Mexican oregano. When tender, you can leave the meat in one piece or shred it.
Shrimp (Camarones en Mojo de Ajo): Saute shrimp in a grill pan treated with a light rub of oil. Add minced garlic to the shrimp and toss the shrimps around in the pan frequently to make sure they get cooked all over. Once they turn pink, they are done.
Vegetarian: In a 350 degree preheated oven, place a red bell pepper, a pasilla pepper (sometimes referred to as a Poblano,) and a portobello mushroom wrapped in foil. In about 15 minutes, check the peppers. If the skin is darkened and pulling apart from the meat of the peppers, remove everything from the oven. Let the peppers sit about 5 minutes, then peel the skin and discard. Slice the peppers into thin slices. Remove the stem of the portobello and slice the head of the mushroom.
In a comal or dry skillet over medium-high heat, place a long 1/2 inch thick piece of white meltable cheese (such as Oaxaca cheese.) Grill the cheese on each side for about 30 seconds. Be careful not to remove the browned skin when flipping the slice. That cheese with the browned crust and melted inside will be such a treat in your mouth.
A staple in Puerto Rican and Cuban cooking, garlic mojo really adds flavor to the jibarito sandwich. My secret for a special garlic mojo is that I roast the garlic in the oven. Simply wrap 7-8 cloves of unpeeled garlic in some foil and place in a 350 degree oven for about 20 – 30 minutes, or until your house begins to take on this wonderful aroma. When done, you can squeeze the garlic right out of its skin into a bowl. Add 1/4 cup fresh lime juice and a cup of olive oil. Add some salt if you like. Place all of the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. You can use fresh, unroasted garlic for a sharper flavor.
Another option: For even more fresh flavor, add a whole bunch of chopped cilantro and 1/4 cup red tomatillo salsa (Mexican style) or sofrito (Puerto Rican style.)
Assemble your sandwich as described in the text above using all of your favorite sandwich ingredients. Believe me, the jibarito will be messy, but that’s okay. After all, no sandwich ever tastes as good if it doesn’t get all over your face. Don’t forget that garlic mojo!