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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Cuban Stuffing

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I’m a holiday traditionalist. Each year I look forward to the tried-and-true dishes, seasonal favorites, and family specialties. While I love thumbing the pages of cookbooks and pinning new holiday sides, I always go back to the classics. One of these classics is my abuela’s Cuban stuffing (relleno) that everyone craves around this time of year. Scribbled on the back page of my mom’s beloved Cocina Criolla cookbook is my abuela’s recipe that she makes each year for the holidays, especially thanksgiving.

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I have to admit I’m a sucker for the bready and soft American version with plenty of butter, celery, and onion, but my abuela’s Cuban stuffing is a thanksgiving and holiday favorite. The mixture of beef, pork, and ham with warm cumin, plump raisins, crunchy almonds, and Spanish olives makes Cuban stuffing a blend of deliciousness with familiar flavors and comforting aromas. My mom makes the stuffing each year for Thanksgiving, but I think it would be great stuffed in small cornish hens for fancy dinners, baked in pastry, or just by the bowlful atop white rice.

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I made this Cuban stuffing for the first time ever with my mom this year. The stuffing was easier to make than I imagined, and oh so flavorful. As the years go by, my appreciation for my family’s traditions and favorite dishes has only increased, and I’m happy I get to document them and share with younger cousins, baby brothers and sisters, and future generations.

Cuban Stuffing (Relleno Cubano)

  • 2 lbs ground beef (not low fat)
  • 1 lb ground pork
  • 1 lb ground ham (do not use smoked or flavored hams)
  • 1 large onion diced (about 1 ½ to 2 cups)
  • 5 garlic cloves minced
  • ¾ cup raisins
  • ¾ cup Spanish olives with pimientos sliced in thirds
  • ¾ cup sliced almonds
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 3 tbsp oregano
  • 2 tbsp Cumin
  • ½ tbsp ground black pepper or more to taste
  • 1 ½ packages cornbread stuffing
  • 1-2 cups turkey/chicken/ or vegetable stock

Dice the garlic and onions; grind the diced ham. I have made the mistake of purchasing smoked, honey, or mesquite diced ham. This totally kills the flavor of the relleno and does not work. I grind the diced ham in the food processor. Add the pork, beef, onion, and garlic to the pan all at the same time. Stir well and cook until just browned. Make sure to buy ground chuck or sirloin and avoid leaner cuts of beef. You do not want to overcook the beef because it will continue cooking in the bird if you choose to stuff it, or it will heat in a crockpot for serving, and do not drain the fat.

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Once browned add all of the herbs and spices and mix well. Do not add salt. Both the ground ham and the olives add plenty of natural sodium. Trust me on this!! Next add the package of cornbread stuffing and combine thoroughly.  At this point you can finally add the ham stirring to combine, and then go ahead and toss in the almonds, olives, and raisins. You can always add more to taste (of everything) and this part is really up to you- that’s the fun part of cooking and tasting =P. The raisin, almond, and olive trio really does add lots of flavor and is reminiscent of delicious picadillo.

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If you are making the Cuban stuffing a day in advance allow the dish to cool before placing it in the refrigerator. If you stuff the bird with the Cuban stuffing it does not require any stock to keep moist, but when you are reheating for a thanksgiving or holiday meal, you will want to slowly add hot stock of your choice and blend well. If the Cuban stuffing becomes too wet simply add more of the cornbread stuffing. I always buy two bags just in case. This year we placed the Cuban stuffing in a crockpot on low to warm a few hours before everyone came over and it was perfect and delicious. I’d say this version makes around 16-18 cups. Cuban stuffing is surely to become a holiday staple and thanksgiving must.

cuban-stuffing-taste-test

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Pastelitos de Carne

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In a city where bagels and rugelach are ubiquitous, I find myself craving real Cuban goodness- pastelitos de carne. Pastelitos are great at any time of day, kind of like ice cream, but they’re usually enjoyed for breakfast, an afternoon snack, or at any family party. I dream of days when I could walk into a bakery and stand before an array of golden pastelitos- de carne, de queso, de guayaba, guayaba con queso. The warm scent of homemade pastelitos de carne baking transports me to ‘la ventana’ or cafeteria windows, but I’m sipping my cortaditos at home in NYC instead of at Versailles nowadays.

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Pastelitos de carne are crazy easy to make- that is if you don’t have to stop every two seconds to take a picture! I made my mom’s classic Cuban picadillo for the pastelitos de carne, and I had enough picadillo left over for dinner that night. Making pastelitos de carne (or just pastelitos in general) is especially easier if you purchase pre-made puff pastry. While the idea of making puff pastry from scratch is warm and fuzzy and makes me feel legit, it’s just not realistic in my tiny NYC kitchen. These kitchens are small-I think the technical term is itty bitty. Kitchen size aside, these pastelitos de carne were worth every bit of effort, and I can’t wait to make pastelitos de queso soon.

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Pastelitos de Carne

  • Cuban Picadillo (I used around a cup and a half or so)
  • Puff Pastry
  • Flour for dusting
  • 1 Egg
  • 1 tsp water
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • ¼ cup water

Prepare the picadillo according to the recipe link here. I let my picadillo get to room temperature before making the pastelitos because the hot meat can melt the cold puff pastry too quickly before it gets into the oven. While the picadillo is cooling you can begin to make your puff pastry from scratch if you are choosing to do so.  I have used this recipe and this recipe too and I liked them both. I chose to buy pre-made puff pastry this time from Trader Joe’s so I wait until the picadillo is slightly warm before starting. Puff pastry is in the freezer section and you will need to let it defrost overnight in your refrigerator.

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Preheat the oven to 400F. Line a sheet tray with wax paper or on other non-stick material to have ready for later. Lightly beat the egg with one tsp water and set aside. Dust a clean surface with flour before rolling out the puff pastry a bit. It is already quite thin, but I rolled it out a bit more. Using a round cookie cutter cut out as many pastry circles as you can. Re-roll and cut more until you are out of dough. I kept on adding pinches of flour to prevent the pastry dough from sticking. Dust off excess flour and begin to prep for the pastetlitos. My recipe made around 15 pastelitos de carne so 7-8 rounds per sheet of puff pastry, but maybe this is because I am not an expert dough roller? Who knows?- my argument is quality not quantity.

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Place the pastry dough rounds down and brush with the egg wash. Add a spoonful of picadillo and press the pastry dough round on top making sure to firmly press the edges and create a seal. Repeat for all of the dough rounds until you run out. Place the pastelitos de carne on the lined baking sheet and brush the tops with the egg wash. Bake for 20-25 minutes. I baked mine for only 20 minutes and they were a perfect golden brown. While the pastelitos are baking put the sugar and water in a cup and microwave for 30 seconds. Remove it and stir the simple syrup and microwave for 30 more seconds. Allow it to cool and you will have a small batch of simple syrup for brushing the pastries. This step is optional, but it adds a wonderful sweetness to the picadillo stuffed pastelitos de carne. Brush the pastelitos with the simple syrup the second they come out of the oven. I suggest waiting a little bit before digging in as these pastelitos de carne will be piping hot! Buen provecho!

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