A taste of Cuba: Ropa vieja and fried plantains

Screen shot 2016-05-09 at 10.17.25 AMThere are a million variations of ropa vieja out there. Well, maybe not a million but a lot. The Cuban dish, made from shredded beef and strips of onions and peppers, thus the name “old clothes,” is sometimes called the national dish of Cuba. It generally is made with flank or skirt steak, red and green peppers and sports the odd addition of olives and peas.

Cumin is essential, and usually oregano, but spice additions can include an array of things from allspice to garlic. The meat is braised with some vegetables then torn into strips and combined with sautéed peppers and tomatoes and so on. Those who are familiar with Cuban food know it can be fairly tame. Traditional Cuban food is not at all spicy, and many Americans are surprised to find that it can be … well … bland.

It took me a while to find a recipe I liked, one filled with flavor, and then I lost it. I gave up searching and started over. This time, my goal was less about authenticity and more about flavor. I love a good ropa vieja, but I have had too many that actually tasted like old clothes. In fact, I began to wonder if the name was born out of the flavor, and not the appearance. It’s very liberating to let go of the need to be loyal to the roots of a dish and just keep the spirit and intent.

I really threw caution to the wind right up front and decided to use a chuck roast instead of flank or skirt. Why? Because it was cheaper. A lot cheaper. Flank and especially skirt are “hot” now and command a high price for what was once a throwaway cut. I have seen the price of skirt (one of my favorites) double in the past couple of years.

I did take a few minutes to pick out a lean chuck roast and then cut it into its natural parts, trimming away excess fat. It worked out very well, I thought, and because chuck has less connective tissue, it cooked to tender pretty quickly, about two-and-a-half hours.

The traditional recipe calls for braising the meat with carrots, celery and onions (and some spices) and then throwing those vegetables away. It dawned on me, when I was straining them out of the broth, that it didn’t make much sense to pitch them. After all, wasn’t this a peasant stew? So, would said peasant throw away food?

I dropped them back in, took out the bay leaf and blended the soft veg into the broth with a stick blender. If you don’t have a stick blender, you could just mash them with a potato masher. They are so soft at this point, and it is a stew, so they needn’t be pureed. This went a long way toward adding both flavor and body.

I didn’t necessarily want my peppers and onions to be mush though, so I sautéed them just to tender, not soft, before adding the remaining ingredients and simmering. I think it looks more appealing, too, when you can identify the peppers.

I was fresh out of peas, and the English peas I eat would not likely be the kind used in the dish in Cuba anyway. They would more likely be pigeon peas or fresh chick peas, so I skipped them. The olives however, are important. That saltiness is the perfect foil to the slightly sweet stew.

We ate the stew with brown rice, then with mashed potatoes, and finally, stuffed into flour tortillas I grilled briefly. I liked the fajita-style wraps best, but Bill liked the mashed potatoes, and declared this some of the best beef I had ever cooked.

Ropa Vieja

2-3 pounds lean chuck roast

1 small onion, chopped

2 celery ribs, chopped

2 carrots, chopped

5 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon oregano

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

2 fresh bay leaves

1 teaspoon salt

In a large Dutch oven, place steak over cut up vegetables and add water just enough to cover the sides of the meat. Add the chopped onion, celery, carrots and seasonings and bring to a simmer. Transfer the covered pot to a preheated 350 oven and cook for one hour. Reduce heat to 300 and cook another two hours or until the meat is tender and falling apart. Remove the meat to a plate. Remove the bay leaves and mash or blend the veg with a stick blender to make them blend in with the sauce. Simmer this on low while you do the next step.

In a very large skillet, saute the following, in olive oil, until tender crisp:

1 green pepper

1 red or yellow bell pepper

1 small red onion

1 clove garlic, crushed

½ teaspoon salt

When this is browning on the edges, add the following, stir well and add the meat back in. Simmer until the sauce is thickened and serve with rice or stuffed into empanadas, or over fried plantains or baked potato.

1 can crushed tomatoes

2 cups of the simmering liquid (the beef broth)

The pureed vegetables

1tablespoon sugar

Salt and cumin as needed

Add chopped green olives to the finished dish.

Fried Plantains

Plantains look like large, very green bananas; I usually buy them at Ultra. They are not sweet like bananas, and when fried, have a pleasing crunch.

2 large plantains

Peanut oil


Peel the plantains, using a paring knife to slice down through the skin. Slice them lengthwise into 1/8 inch on a mandolin, or with a very sharp knife, and set them aside while you heat the oil. Use a large skillet and heat the oil over medium heat until it is about 350 degrees. Use a spatula to place the plantains in the oil and flip them once, making each side golden brown. Drain on paper towel and salt them with popcorn salt.

Daily Journal, May 7, 2016

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