Cuban Vaca Frita

Vaca-Frita

Vaca frita’s crisp deliciousness is most transcendent when you get off a flight at MIA and rush over to Versailles to welcome your palate back home. Whenever I go back to Miami I have my mandatory must-haves, and vaca frita is one of them- like croquetas, pan tostada with café con leche, Publix subs, pastelitos, Pollo Tropical, and if I’m lucky Mary’s Coin and Laundry Pan Cubanos.

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Vaca frita is tender shredded flank steak marinated with garlicky mojo and fried crisp with white onion. Garnished with a squeeze lime it is best enjoyed with los tres amigos- friojles negros, arroz blanco, y platano maduros. Vaca frita is a Cuban classic that is one of my favorites. This is a dish I most often order out and rarely have cooked at home.

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When I was cooking this vaca frita recipe I realized hadn’t made this not even once since I last cooked it with my abuela. Sometimes I feel like I am stumbling through the steps with vague memories and recipe doubt, but this vaca frita was seriously perfection. Crispy. Flavorful. Home.

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Vaca Frita

For the steak:

  • 5-2 lbs flank steak (falda)
  • 1 large onion cut lengthwise, reserve half
  • ½ green bell pepper
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1-2 bay leaves (hoja de laurel)
  • Enough water to cover the steak
  • ¼ c dry white cooking wine (vino seco)
  • 2 tbsp olive oil for frying

For the mojo:

  • 1 tsp salt
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • Juice of one lime

To serve:

  • Lime wedges
  • White rice, black beans, and platano maduros

Rinse the flank steak and add it to a heavy pot. Add half of the onion, half a green bell pepper cut in large chunks, 2 whole garlic cloves, and 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp oregano, 1 tsp cumin, the bay leaves, and freshly cracked black pepper.

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Cover with the flank steak with water. Bring the water to a boil then turn the heat down to a low simmer and cook for 2 to 2.5 hours uncovered. Add water if needed (I didn’t) 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.

While the flank steak is cooking away make the mojo. Mash the 4 garlic cloves with 1 tsp salt and 2 tbsp olive oil with a mortar and pestle. Add the juice of one lime and mash a little more. Set aside.

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Remove the flank steak from the cooking liquid and shred with two forks while hot. Discard the onion and garlic, and keep the bell pepper. Remove the thin skin off the green bell pepper and mash it while hot. Mix the mashed green bell pepper with the shredded beef and add the mojo. Let it sit and marinate for a few minutes while you prepare the onions. Take this time to start cooking the white rice.

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Slice the other half of the onion. Sautee the sliced onions in 2 tbsp olive oil until slightly tender. Remove the onions from the oil and mix in with the mojo-marinating shredded flank steak. Add a little more oil to the pan as needed and get nice and hot. Seriously if your pan doesn’t start out hot the meat will just steam instead of getting crispy. Flatten the shredded beef out to cover the bottom of the pan so all of it can get nice and crisped. Cook the vaca frita about 5 to 6 minutes on each side. Squeeze lime and sprinkle a little salt before serving the vaca frita. Enjoy vaca frita with white rice, black beans, and a lime wedge on the side.

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Batido de Trigo

batido de trigobatido de trigobatido de trigo

Batido de trigo is the first in my classic Cuban milkshake series. Batido de trigo is a true Cuban breakfast enigma made of puffed wheat cereal, whole milk, and sugar- lots of sugar. Traditional Cuban milkshakes are sweet afternoon treats meant to be paired with Cuban sandwiches or enjoyed with croquetas and pastelitos as a sinful snack or late lunch. Cubans love the sweet and savory combination (hello- we eat fried sweet bananas with every meal!) and a batido with a steak sandwich is the epitome of perfection.

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Cuban batidos are made with tropical flavors like mamey, platano, trigo, mango, guanabana, vanilla, and papaya. They are easy to make, sweetly delicious, and a summer savior. Even though I know batidos are just milkshakes with different flavors, the tropical fruit (or puffed wheat) and addition of leche condensada seems to make all the difference.

batido de trigo

Batido de Trigo

  • 1 cup puffed wheat
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup ice
  • 2 tbsp sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • a few drops vanilla extract (optional)
  • Dash salt

Blend all ingredients together. Add more sugar if desired. Drink immediately. Makes two batido de trigo.

You can also add a scoop of ice cream to make your batido de trigo extra creamy, rich, and delicious.

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Ropa Vieja

ropa-vieja-family-recppe

“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.

plate-of-ropa-vieja

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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