“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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
Tostones are crispy and golden, slightly sweet and savory. Made from the versatile plantain, a starchy member of the banana family grown in the tropics, tostones are green plantains fried to crisp perfection and enjoyed as a side dish or snack. When the plantain is green and under ripe you can make them into crunchy mariquitas (plantain chips), mofongo (plantain hash), or salty tostones. Very ripe plantains yield a sweet delicacy called platanos maduros that caramelize in the hot frying pan and melt in your mouth.
Tostones are at the top of my list of the Cuban food pyramid for their simplicity and tropical deliciousness. I was craving the flavors of Cuban comfort food and went to 5 bodegas before I could find any green plantains. I felt like NYC was playing a cruel joke on me, but alas persistence prevailed and I am one happy Cuban in the city.
Tostones are meant to be thin and crispy enjoyed with a touch of lime juice. Ordering tostones at a restaurant is risky- there is nothing worse than anticipating the glorious crunch of a crispy green plantain only to encounter a thick and soggy toston. Fry your plantains once, smash them, and now fry them again. Always remember: only crispy tostones can fulfill dreams and make wishes come true.
- 2 green plantains
- Vegetable oil
- Sea salt
Choose firm large green plantains. Cut a slit down the side of the peel and cut off the top and bottom of the plantain. Cut the plantain into 1 inch segments. When they are green the outer peel is difficult to remove. My abuela taught me to heat the cut plantain pieces in a microwave for around 15 seconds to soften the tough peel. When you peel them you will instantly feel the starchiness on your fingers.
Heat vegetable oil in a frying pan. The oil should be deep enough to cover the plantains. I try to use more shallow oil to make the dish seem less fattening- you know mental illusions and all. Since I used less oil I had to rotate them around to get crispy on all sides. Fry the plantains in batches if you are making a lot. Turn the plantains in the hot oil to get evenly golden. Transfer the plantains to sheets of paper towel to drain.
Now for this next step some people use a tostonera which I find absolutely ridiculous (but you know you do you- if you like it- go for it). Why on earth waste money on yet another expensive kitchen contraption!? My abuela taught me to mash down the plantain with the bottom of a regular old can of food. The bottom makes for a great and flat circular shape. Ironically I actually had no canned food so I used the bottom of a cafetera (percolator) which is very Cuban in and of itself.
Now re-fry the smashed plantains in the hot oil until golden and crispy. Drain the crispy tostones on sheets of paper towel and garnish with sea salt. I like to sprinkle the paper towels with salt as well to get the flavor on all sides. Squeeze fresh lime on top of your Cuban tostones right before enjoying!
Picadillo is a classic dish each Cuban holds dear to their heart. Everyone proudly proclaims that their mami’s, tia’s, or abuela’s picadillo is the very best, and they’re all right of course. Cuban picadillo has a multitude of delicious variations, and the one that follows is my mom’s. We grew up eating picadillo a whole lot. It was a weekly staple and a dish my mom could whip up in no time. Picadillo makes me nostalgic for the scents of my childhood- simmering ground beef with sofrito, cumin, and oregano that would fill the entire house and make my mouth water.
My mom’s picadillo calls for plenty of sliced green olives and plump raisins- the combination of sweet and salty with savory sofrito is sinful. I always aim to make a “perfect bite” with each element present in every spoonful. Picadillo with rice (and platanos maduros!!) is comfort food at its finest- simple and traditional. Whether you’re Cuban or not, you will find yourself craving this Cuban classic time and time again.
Cuban Picadillo with Rice (Picadillo con Arroz Blanco)
- 1 tsp olive oil
- 1 lb lean ground beef (or ground turkey or a combination of beef and pork)
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced
- 2-3 minced garlic cloves
- Generous splash Mojo Criollo or water
- 2 Bay leaves (laurel)
- ½ tsp salt (or more to taste)
- ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tsp sazón completa
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 cup tomato sauce
- ⅓ cup sliced green olives (or to taste)
- ¼ cup raisins (or to taste)
- White or Brown rice for 4 cooked as instructed (do not use jasmine rice)
Prep white or brown rice for four- it will be ready by the time you are done with the picadillo. Heat the olive oil in a pan on medium heat. Cook the onions first until soft and translucent. At this point add the minced garlic. Garlic cooks much faster than onions so add it when the onions are nearly finished.
Next add the ground beef to the pan- I turn up the heat to 6-7 during this part to really brown the beef. I stir occasionally and ‘chop’ up the ground beef with my slotted spoon. Sprinkle the browned beef with the salt, pepper, cumin, and sazón completa and incorporate. Add the tomato sauce, bay leaves, and the oregano to taste. Turn the heat down to 2-3 and let the stew simmer for about 5 minutes. Now stir in the olives and raisins; add the generous splash of mojo criollo or water. I have also added more tomato sauce depending on my mood. Simmer for another 5 minutes or until the liquid has cooked off and a rich thick stew remains.
Serve over white rice with fried sweet plantains (platanos maduros), fresh banana, or crumbled up mariquitas. Enjoy with iron beer, materva, or jupiña.