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. Two weeks ago, I'd never heard of it either -- now I'm hooked on them. Even in its basic form, there is nothing basic about this relatively easy-to-make, unpretentious sandwich. It is a perfect storm of flavors and textures coming together to sweep you up and take your taste buds to unforgettable-land and back for more.
A perfect storm: succulent marinated pork & onions on a dreamy roll.
A bit about the bifana (bee-FAH-nah): It starts off with lightly-pounded pork steaks (boneless cutlets) that have been marinated in a special garlic and all-Spanish spice concoction. The cutlets are then briefly sauteed, just long enough to cook them through while keeping them tender, moist and juicy. They get served on an oh-so-distinctive crusty-on-the-outside, tender-and-chewy-on-the-inside, floury Portuguese roll that has been slathered on one side with a mild, coarse-grained deli- mustard, then they're topped with a mound of lightly-caramelized onions. That said, I do not like the mustard on these sandwiches, so, you are not going to see it here.
Part One: Making the Marinade and Prepping the Pork
A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do. There are some special, must-have, pantry ingredients in order to pull the perfect bifana marinade off: Spanish paprika, peri-peri sauce and a uniquely-Portuguese red paste, massa de pimentao (mah-sah de pea-meant-oh). The first two are relatively easy to find. The third, not so much. In fact, unless you know someone who can ship it to you from Portugal, it seems to be impossible to get here in the USA. It is a sweet and salty pepper paste made from salt-cured red bell peppers that get roasted then mixed with garlic, salt and olive oil. For folks familiar with Portuguese food, its absence in certain dishes is a sure sign the cook is unfamiliar with real-deal Portuguese cuisine.
100% certain I could not find pimiento paste anywhere, and, lacking the desire to salt-cure red bell peppers for a week just to feast on a few bifana sandwiches, I concocted a very-tasty short-cut substitution, using the same four ingredients in the nowhere-to-be-found store-bought stuff.
6 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon sea salt
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
Note: In the case of the above pimiento pepper paste concoction and the marinade below, all of the spices have been measured to suit my taste. Feel free to adjust them to suit your palate.
1 cup white wine
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
4 bay leaves, broken in half
2 tablespoons massa de pimentao, pimiento paste
1 tablespoon peri-peri sauce, hot or mild (I use hot)
1/4 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper
2 1/2-3 pounds pork loin, trimmed of large pieces of fat, cut into 12-16, 1/2"-thick cutlets and lightly-pounded with a flat-sided meat mallet to a thickness of 1/4"
Note: I put 2 cutlets on each bifana. This will make 6-8 sandwiches.
~ Step 1. Place all of the marinade ingredients, as listed, in a 2-gallon food storage bag that has been placed in a large bowl.
~ Step 2. Slice and pound the pork as directed and pictured above, adding each cutlet to the marinade as you work. The objective is to lightly-pound it, just to break down the fibers to tenderize it a bit. Do not smash it to smithereens. Seal bag and refrigerate for 6-8 hours or up to 12-24 hours. To get the full-flavored experience, the full 24 hours, overnight in the refrigerator, is best. Be patient, it's well worth the wait.
Part Two: Making the Portuguese Sandwich Rolls (Papo Secos)
In a traditional Portuguese home, you will have a round loaf of this crusty bread or these oval rolls with practically every meal. Also known as a "pops", "papo secos" translated into English means "pouch", which describes its shape. These floury rolls have a nice crust outside, and a soft-yet-chewy inside. They're served alongside main dishes, dipped into stews and used to make sandwiches. While their shape is uniquely Portuguese, they are a great all-purpose roll for all sorts of American dishes too -- these are up there with the best sandwich rolls anywhere. Once I made these rolls a couple of times, I realized just how much better my deli-style turkey, roast beef and Italian sub/hoagie-type sandwiches tasted on them. I realized how much better my cheesesteak and pulled-pork sandwiches tasted on them too. Before long, I started making them in all sorts of shapes and sizes. I also adapted my recipe to make them in the bread machine. If you want to go old-school, feel free to hand mix, knead and rise it the old-fashioned way. That said, unless I miss my guess, like mine, your family is going to want these often. Isn't it nice to know there is a machine that can save you almost all of the work. Click into Category 5 to get my very special recipe for ~ Papo Secos: Portuguese Dinner/Sandwich Rolls ~. Make 'em while the meat is marinating!
Part Three: Sauteing the Onions, the Pork & Eating your Bifana
We're finally coming to the end of the bifana sandwich rainbow. Get the pork out of the refrigerator 1-2 hours prior to sauteing it. In order for it to cook properly and evenly, it's very important that it comes to room temperature before it goes into the skillet. Please do not skip this step. While the marinated cutlets are coming to room temperature, saute the onions as follows:
Note: This will be a little more than or a little less than 8 cups of sliced onions. It might sound like a lot, but it is not. Onions lose a lot of volume as they cook.
4 tablespoons olive oil
freshly-ground sea salt and peppercorn blend
~ Step 1. In a 12" skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the sliced onions and season liberally with freshly-ground sea salt and peppercorn blend. I start with 30 grinds sea salt and 60 grinds peppercorn blend, but, continue to taste and adjust seasoning throughout the cooking process. Continue to saute, using a large slotted spoon or spatula to keep tossing them as they cook, until they are light-golden brown, 20-25 minutes.
~ Step 3. Add and heat 2 tablespoons of EVOO in the skillet over medium-high. Remove 6 cutlets from the marinade, quickly blot the excess liquid from them in a couple of paper towels -- don't pat or rub them dry. Add them to the heated skillet. Saute until just beginning to brown on both sides (not a deep golden brown on either side), turning only once, about 1 1/2 minutes per side. Do not overcook.
~ Step 4. Once all of the cutlets are sauteed, get the pimiento paste out of the refrigerator and add 1/4 cup to the hot drippings in the pan. It's going to spatter and sputter a lot -- that's good. Stirring constantly, cook until mixture is thickened, about 45-60 seconds. Remove from heat.
Drizzle the pan dripping/pimento paste mixture over the cutlets:
Special Equipment List: paper towels; small food processor; 2-gallon food storage bag; cutting board; chef's knife; plastic wrap; flat-sided meat mallet; 12" skillet, preferably nonstick; large slotted spoon or spatula
Cook's Note: The last time I was so impressed with a perfect storm of a sandwich combination I was eating a ~ Buffalo-Style Beef-on-a-Weck (Kummelweck Roll) ~. While completely different in taste from the bifana, it's another example of a sandwich where the meat without the roll is just not not the right combo. One without the other is a mistake. Click into Categories 2, 5, or 17 to get this super-succulent, super-sandwich recipe!
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)