Ropa Vieja

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“Old clothes” make me salivate. Ropa vieja is a rustic shredded beef stew that all Cuban kids grew up eating. Ropa vieja is true Cuban comfort food and something my abuela would make weekly. Although named old clothes for its sloppy appearance, ropa vieja is a healthy (-ier) Cuban dish with peppers and onions simmered in tomato sauce, dry white cooking wine, and made with aromatic cumin, oregano, and garlic. My abuela’s ropa vieja was soft and tender flank steak cooked in a whistling pressure cooker with salt and onion. To kill two birds with one stone she would toss in a bag of garbanzo beans to have ready to make garbanzo frito for the next day.

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In her avocado green kitchen with its brassy worn fixtures and original 1970s trash compactor, my abuela fearlessly wielded the pressure cooker. I have always been intimidated by its high-pitched taunting whistle and haven’t dared to use a pressure cooker without her. As it is in my tiny nearly non-existent NYC kitchen I can’t afford to store one more cooking device. So I opted for the longer approach sans demonic pressure cookers.

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My apartment smelled like a Cuban household the instant I started boiling the flank steak. I was reminded how powerfully scent recalls memory as I felt the comfort and love that lingered in the air while the ropa vieja was simmering away.

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Ropa Vieja

  • 5-2 lbs flank steak (falda)
  • 2 qts water
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large onion cut lengthwise
  • ½ green bell pepper
  • 4-6 garlic cloves (or more if they’re tiny)
  • 1 cup tomato sauce
  • 2 tsp salt divided
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1-2 bay leaves (hoja de laurel)
  • ¼ cup dry white cooking wine (vino seco)
  • ½ cup beef stock (from cooking the steak)
  • Olives for garnish (optional)
  • Pimientos for garnish (optional)

Reserve a quarter of the onion to add to the cooking water for the flank steak. I seasoned the water with the quarter onion, chunks of green bell pepper, 3 whole garlic cloves, cumin, salt, freshly ground black pepper, and a bay leaf. If using the pressure cooker allow to whistle 40 minutes. OR place in a pot on the stove top and bring water to a boil. Once boiling bring to a low simmer and cook for 2 to 2.5 hours. Add water as needed to avoid the pot from burning. DO NOT cover the pot while the flank steak is cooking and be sure to stir every once in a while so nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot.

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Remove from the remaining beef broth and shred with two forks. I discarded the onion and garlic, but mashed up the green bell with the shredded beef for flavor. I am not crazy about green bell peppers but for some weird reason I do enjoy the flavor it imparts- just not eating pieces of one- if you want extra in yours saute some with the onions when you make the sofrito.

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Once the beef is shredded season with the extra salt and oregano and set aside. Start the sofrito. Slice the rest of the onion and mince the other 2-3 garlic cloves. Sautee the onions in the olive oil until translucent and tender. Add the garlic and cook for 3-4 more minutes. Mix in the shredded flank steak and stir with the dry white cooking wine and tomato sauce. Add the beef stock and stir again. My abuela’s ropa vieja is not as saucy as other varieties, but it is my favorite recipe there is. Simmer the ropa vieja for 20-30 minutes stirring occasionally. You can add olives in while it is cooking or as a garnish as I did, some people like to use red pimientos for a garnish as well. Serve with white or brown rice and platanos maduros, tostones, or even a fresh banana.

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