Global Cuisine Just in Time for Fall: Ropa Vieja

Ropa Vieja. Photo courtesy amazon.com

By Jake Strickler, Staff Writer

A portrait of the author as a young chef.
A portrait of the author as a young chef.

A little backstory on me: in a previous life, before making the decision to walk the hallowed halls of this institution, I spent four years running a couple of Cuban restaurants. During this time, I learned that the really cool thing about cooking and serving regional cuisine is that, if you put some effort in and really strive for a degree of authenticity, then the customers who grew up with it, or just have a strong familiarity with it, will often have a strong emotional reaction to the food. It’s like hearing a song that you loved when you were younger, or visiting the house you grew up in; it’s comfortable, and it brings back memories. I’ve had an elderly woman break down in tears after trying our flan because she hadn’t tasted anything so close to the flan she remembers eating in Cuba since leaving the country in the late 1950s, during the rise of Fidel Castro. Similarly, I once had a 14-year-old boy who had just recently migrated from Cuba cry after eating a ham croquette – his favorite food from back home. A quick personal aside – I ended up hiring his older brother, who didn’t speak a word of English and also became my regular bowling partner. I shared Thanksgiving with them one year, helped roast a suckling pig in the backyard, and then sat up with their grandfather hearing stories about life in old Cuba over Tecates. This bond was formed over the comfort that our food brought to the family. They were far from home, but they were able to find a little bit of it in a strip mall in a Colorado college town. But out of all the dishes that I cooked, the best and most emphatic response that I consistently received – by a distance – was for this one.

Ropa Vieja (In English, “old clothes,” so named for the stringy quality of the meat) is the classic Cuban comfort dish. Like all great comfort food, it’s a dish that evolved out of necessity. While the good cuts of beef were going to the rich upper class and the American tourists in Havana, the leftovers went to the common people, the farmers and cigar-makers and shopkeepers. Flank steak, the cut used in this dish (though now experiencing a bout of trendiness, with attendant rise in price), is not an automatically delicious piece of the animal like a nice, big ribeye is. If improperly prepared, it can be chewy and lack flavor. But with a little bit of patience and tender, loving care, it will eventually yield and transform from a cheap castoff cut into something that, I think, is better than that ribeye would have been. Any Cuban restaurant worth its, ahem, salt should have a pot of this going just about every day.

A pitcher of mojitos. Courtesy foodnetwork.com
A pitcher of mojitos. Courtesy foodnetwork.com

The key here is to give it time – it takes a while for the meat to get tender and take on flavor. This is a Sunday project, not a quick weeknight dinner. This can definitely be done in a Crock-Pot, but it won’t be nearly as thrilling as an open flame. Also, the secret to cooking good Cuban food is to be relaxed about it. This isn’t baking, so my given amounts are approximate. If you like something, feel free to use more of it. If you don’t like something, use less of it. Serve with white rice, black beans, fried plantains, and a pitcher of mojitos. Crank up the Celia Cruz y ¡buen provecho!

Part 1

Ingredients:

• 2-3 lbs. flank steak
• 1 green and 1 red bell pepper, de-seeded and the flesh cut into about 6 large chunks
• 1 sweet yellow onion, peeled, halved, and chunked
• 3 to 6 cloves of garlic (depending on how much you like garlic), peeled
• 3 bay leaves
• 3 tbsp. olive or canola oil
• Beef stock (or water – I use water and I’ll explain why later)
• Kosher salt

1) Get your biggest pot, ideally with a matching lid, put the oil in it, and put it over a high fire. You want the oil to completely cover the bottom of the pot so the meat doesn’t stick, so 3 tbsp. is approximate. I wouldn’t be too scientific about it.

2) When the oil is hot (you can throw a piece of onion in as a tester – if the oil bubbles, you’re good to go), use tongs to gently place your meat in the pot. You’re searing the outside of the meat here, not cooking it through. After a couple of minutes, gently tug at the steak with your tongs. If it lifts easily, it’s ready to flip. If it sticks when you try, it needs a little more time. When it is ready, gently turn it over.

3) Toss in your chunked onion and peppers. Put your garlic on a cutting board and whack it gently with the bottom of a frying pan to crush. Add this to the pot.

4) Allow the vegetables to sweat out a little bit and the second side of the meat to get a good sear. You’re going for nice and browned, not blackened. The better the initial sear you get here, the deeper the flavor of the finished product will be.

5) When you feel like these goals have been met, turn the heat down to low and add beef stock or water. A lot of people get weirded out about using water when cooking, but beef stock is mostly water with some salt. You can save a little bit of cash by cutting out the middleman and just using water and salt. The amount you add is going to depend on the size of your pot. You want to go about ¾ of the way up the side of the meat, and not cover it. If you’re using stock, skip the salt. But if you’re using water, throw in a few pinches. The rule here is that you can always add salt, but you can’t take it out. So use some salt to help develop the flavor, but don’t overdo it. Add the bay leaves as well.

6) Bring the liquid to a boil, and then reduce the heat to a low simmer and cover the pot. The meat is going to need an hour or two to break down. Check it frequently, adding more water or stock as needed to maintain the level of liquid. It’s good to reduce the liquid by about half, so uncover the pot and let the level drop towards the end, but don’t let it all cook off and scorch.

Cooked flank steak. Vertical lines are the grain. Courtesy myrecipes.com
Cooked flank steak. Vertical lines are the grain. Courtesy myrecipes.com

7) Telling when the meat is ready to go is simple: use your tongs to grab a side that’s perpendicular to the grain (see the picture; the grain is the lines running up and down, so in this particular instance you would grab either the left or right side) and lift it up. If the meat falls apart, it’s ready. If it doesn’t, it’s not.

8) When the meat does fall apart, use your tongs to lift it out, and transfer it to a tray or plate to cool off. Pour the liquid through a fine mesh strainer into a cup or bowl, using the back of a spoon to press on the vegetable solids and get all the juice out. If you like to cook and you don’t own a fine mesh strainer, go buy one (but not while you’ve got this on the stove). They’re $5 and you can use them for everything. Toss the solids and keep the liquid.

Part 2

Ingredients:

• 2 green and 2 red peppers, seeded, and cut into quarter-inch strips. If it’s a tall pepper, cut the strips in half. Think fajita veggies.
• 1 large sweet yellow onion, peeled, halved, and cut into strips the same size as the peppers.
• 3-6 cloves of garlic, whacked with a frying pan and finely minced
• 16 oz. canned tomato sauce, or some nice canned San Marzano tomatoes run through a food processor (I’d go with the San Marzanos over Hunt’s)
• 2 tbsp. tomato paste
• ¼ tbsp. cumin
• ¼ tbsp. oregano
• ¼ tbsp. black pepper
• Salt
• 2 bay leaves
• Cheap red wine or red cooking wine – consider purchasing a bottle of the former to help you through the cooking process
• Reserved beef and cooking liquid
• Olive or canola oil
• (Optional) a handful of raisins

1) After letting the beef cool to the point where it doesn’t burn you when you touch it, lay it out on a cutting board. If you have particularly large pieces, use a knife to make one cut, against the grain, halfway up the meat. The goal is manageable bite-sized strands; you shouldn’t need a knife to eat this. Using a karate chop motion with the side of your hand, break up the meat against the grain. Use your hands to further pull it apart into strands. This will make a lot more sense when it’s in front of you; it’s easier to do than to explain.

2) Wipe your pot out and put it over a medium-high fire. Add some oil; not as much as you used in part one, but enough to sauté your veggies in. Add the sliced peppers and onions when the oil is hot. Use your tongs to keep them moving around until they start to sweat. After a few minutes, throw in your minced garlic and pulled beef. Cook for a couple more minutes.

3) Pour in your reserved cooking liquid and the tomato sauce. Next, add the tomato paste and a half-glass (about ½ cup) of wine, ¼ cup if you’re using cooking wine. Add in your cumin, oregano, black pepper, and bay leaves. The given amounts are recommendations; I’m not a big cumin fan so I use a small pinch. You might like it more than I do. Hold off on the salt for a little bit. Give it all a good stir with your tongs so that everything gets incorporated.

4) If you like raisins, add them now. I love them, and as the sugar leaches out while cooking they add a sweetness to the dish that really improves it. A lot of people don’t like them, and it will still taste great without them.

5) Re-cover the pot, and give it another 45 minutes to an hour to let the flavor develop. Just like in part one, check on it frequently to make sure your liquid level isn’t getting too low. You don’t want soup, but you do want the liquid to be thinner than spaghetti sauce. Splash in some water, stock, or wine if it is approaching this consistency.

6) Now for the fun part: give it a taste, and salt it up to your liking. When salt is used correctly, it enhances the component flavors of the dish. When it’s used incorrectly, your dish tastes salty. Go a little bit at a time, stirring between each addition, and stopping when it tastes delicious, but before it tastes salty.

You did it! Invite some friends over, follow the above serving recommendations, and pretend you’re somewhere in the picture below. If you have any leftovers, put them in a container and let them cool for a bit. Cover and refrigerate. They’ll keep for a few days, and as with most comfort food, Ropa Vieja tastes even better the day after you make it!

Havana. Courtesy lahabana.com
Havana. Courtesy lahabana.com

If you want to cook Ropa Vieja with me, I can be reached at jake.strickler@tbird.asu.edu.

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