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Typically this dish is made with flank steak, which is lean and has long, shreddy fibers, and is how the dish earned the name “old clothes.” It’s the traditional choice, but we find it can be a bit tough, even after it’s braised for a long time. We prefer chuck roast for its fat, tenderness, and richness, but at the end of the day, this will be good with whatever you have on hand. Serve with maduros (fried sweet plantains) and Cuban-style black beans.
- 3 pounds chuck roast, brisket, or flank steak
- 2 tablespoons (or more if using flank steak) extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 red bell peppers, chopped
- 2 tablespoons Diamond Crystal or 3½ teaspoons Morton kosher salt
- 8 garlic cloves, finely grated
- 4 teaspoons sweet paprika
- 1 tablespoon dried Mexican or Italian oregano
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
- ¾ cup pimiento-stuffed Spanish olives, halved crosswise
- 2 teaspoons distilled white vinegar
- Chopped cilantro, white rice, maduros, and black beans (for serving)
Pat roast dry with paper towels. Heat oil in a large heatproof pot over high. Cook chuck roast, turning occasionally, until browned on both sides, 5–7 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate.
Place a rack in lower third of oven; preheat to 250°. Cook onion, bell peppers, and salt (plus 2 Tbsp. oil if using flank steak), stirring occasionally, until softened and beginning to brown, 12–14 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring frequently and scraping bottom of pan, until vegetables are golden brown, 3–5 minutes. Stir in wine and cook, stirring occasionally, until evaporated. Stir in paprika, oregano, cumin, black pepper, and cayenne until vegetables are coated; continue to cook, stirring, until spices are fragrant, about 1 minute. Add tomatoes and coarsely break up with a spoon (they’ll continue to break down as they cook). Bring to a boil and cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid is reduced by half, about 5 minutes.
Nestle roast into tomato mixture and tuck in bay leaves on either side. Cover and transfer to oven. Braise roast and vegetables until meat is very tender and shreds easily, 2½–3 hours. Let cool 15 minutes.
Skim excess fat from sauce; discard bay leaves. Using a potato masher or 2 forks, tear and smash beef into sauce until it’s shredded and incorporated into sauce. Stir in olives and vinegar.
Divide ropa vieja among plates. Top with cilantro. Serve with rice, maduros, and beans alongside.
Puerto Rican-Style Ropa Vieja
Adapted from Julia Turshen | Simply Julia | Harper Wave, 2021
In my early twenties, I ended up living in a studio apartment in the same building that I grew up in. It was a surreal experience, almost a time loop, and living there allowed me to reconnect to some of the places I went to as a little kid. One of those places was La Taza del Oro, down the block on Eighth Avenue, a very special lunch counter that opened in 1947 and sadly closed in 2015. Along with Casa Adela in the East Village, La Taza del Oro was one of New York’s iconic Puerto Rican restaurants and it served dishes from other cultures too, including traditional Cuban ropa vieja (which translates to “old clothes,” an evocative description of the texture of the shredded beef).
I make this version at home regularly, and while it doesn’t bring back a restaurant I wish was still thriving, it helps me keep my memories of it alive. It’s also just so satisfying and soul-warming (which is why I made it a few times for our local volunteer EMT squad when Covid-19 hit our area).
Enjoy it on its own with rice or sweet, starchy things like roasted squash, fried plantains, or grilled corn. You could also use this beef for tacos or inside of a pressed sandwich (try it on your next grilled cheese).–Julia Turshen
What is Ropa Vieja?
First, it’s the national dish of Cuba and loved throughout the Latin Caribbean, so you know it’s going to be captivatingly good. A long, slow braise tenderizes the relatively tough, inexpensive cut of meat and infuses it with a tangy, spicy sweetness. This version isn’t the classic Cuban version, which uses flank steak—the long, ropy fibers are how it earned its name—and slightly different ingredients, but this Puerto Rican inspiration is still stellar and relies on the even less expensive chuck roast.
- For braising beef:
- 3 pounds skirt or flank steak, trimmed
- 2 quarts water
- 2 carrots, chopped coarse
- 1 large onion, chopped coarse
- 2 celery ribs, chopped coarse
- 1 bay leaf
- 3 garlic cloves, crushed lightly
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- 2 green bell peppers, cut into 1/4-inch strips
- 1 red onion, cut into 1/4-inch strips
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 cups braising liquid plus additional if desired
- a 14- to 16-ounce can whole tomatoes with juice, chopped
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
- 2 red bell peppers, cut into 1/4 inch strips
- 2 yellow bell peppers, cut into 1/4 inch strips
- 1 cup frozen peas, thawed
- 1/2 cup pimiento-stuffed Spanish olive, drained and halved
- For yellow rice with toasted cumin:
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 teaspoons cuminseed
- 1/4 teaspoon crumble saffron thread
- 2 cups unconverted long-grain rice
- 4 cups water
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
Ropa Vieja -- Shredded Beef in Sauce
2 onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, mashed with 1 teaspoon salt
2 green peppers, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil (for sautéing)
4 ounces tomato paste
1 (32-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 cup red wine
1 bay leaf
salt and black pepper to taste
Do not trim excess fat from meat before cooking! (You can remove the fat when you shred the beef.) Salt and pepper the meat and lightly dust with flour.
Brown the meat in oil in a large Dutch oven. Add enough water to surround the meat, but NOT cover it. Add chunked green pepper, sliced onion, and garlic. Simmer, covered, until meat is fork tender, about two hours. (Add more water as necessary to keep from burning!)
Remove from heat and cool. Discard vegetables. Shred the meat.
Sauté onions, garlic and green pepper in oil in the same pan you cooked the meat in until limp. Add tomato paste, crushed tomatoes, cumin, red wine and bay leaf. Salt and pepper to taste.
Cover and cook on low for about 30 minutes stirring occasionally. Remove bay leaf and serve with rice.
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1 large onion, sliced into rings
1 large green or red bell pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 bay leaves
1/2 tablespoon ground cumin, or to taste
1 can (32 ounce size) crushed tomatoes, undrained
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
2 dashes hot pepper sauce, or to taste
2 pounds skirt or flank steak
1 cup reduced sodium vegetable or beef broth
3 bay leaves
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/3 cup green olives for garnish (optional)
Combine the onion, bell pepper, garlic, vinegar, Worcestershire, bay leaves, cumin, crushed tomatoes, salt, pepper and hot sauce in a bowl. Toss to coat well.
Transfer half of the mixture into the bottom of a crock pot. Place the steak on top spoon the remaining mixture over the steak. Pour the broth around the steak. Tuck in the bay leaves.
Cover and cook until the steak is fork-tender, 4-5 hours on low or 2-3 hours on high.
Transfer the meat to a cutting board and let sit until cool enough to handle. Remove and discard the bay leaves. Shred the steak into small pieces and return it to the crock pot. Stir well. Serve the meat with rice and beans or on tortillas. Garnish with cilantro and green olives, if desired.
Cuba. The land of cigars, eye-catching vintage cars and rum. I can easily picture myself chilling in a beach chair somewhere on the Atlantic coast, enjoying a snifter of Caribbean rum and inhaling aromatic cigar smoke deep into my lungs. Not at all. Few moments later I would be kneeling in the sand coughing like a cat trying to get rid of a hairball. That's how non-smokers roll. I wouldn't say no to rum though.
1957 Ford used as a taxi in Cuba. Photo by Alexander Schimmeck, via Flickr.
That was my stereotypical view of Cuba not such a long time ago. The breathtaking Caribbean island with luxury resorts, good food, cold drinks, happy people. No, I wasn't a complete bonehead. Of course I knew all those they-teach-you-at-school things. Communism, Castro brothers, dictatorship, dysfunctional relations with United States. What I didn't know is that for over 50 years there exists the special food-rationing system which establishes the amount and kind of products each person can get.
Rice, cooking oil, bread, beans, sugar, potatoes, bananas, a few eggs and small quantities of meat (usually chicken). That's the stuff you can find in the so called "Supplies booklet" (La Libreta in Spanish). Not too fancy. I am not talking real amounts because they tend to change frequently. But believe me, it's not enough for a normal living. Just to give you an idea - 5 eggs a month. Would it be enough to you? I don't think so. That's the amount of eggs I am using when making a breakfast omelet for me and my wife.
The situation with such a staple as milk is even worse. Only children under 7 and pregnant women get it. You are a 10 year old boy/girl and you want some milk? Well, that's unfortunate because the government thinks that you are too old for that. Now I understand why Cubans say that their three biggest problems are breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Chalkboard in the shop announcing the quantity of the products per person per month. Photo by Carlos Reusser Monsalvez, via Flickr.
It has to be mentioned, that Cubans actually CAN buy other products that are not included in the ration book but there is yet another problem. While all staples listed there cost only few dollars (country subsidizes about 90 percent of the cost), prices of products at the open markets are REGULAR. So what's the problem, you ask? Well, an average salary for a Cuban is 20$ a month. Pension - 11$. So theoretically you can even arrange a steak dinner for your family, but it will cost you half your salary.
Despite sad but true facts stated above Cuban cuisine offers a wide variety of traditional dishes that have withstood the test of time. For the very first post of this blog I've chosen to make Ropa Vieja - a classic stew made of shredded beef in a tomato puree base flavored with bell peppers, onion, garlic, white wine and spices. Ropa Vieja is Spanish for "old clothes" by the way. Don't worry, it tastes a little bit better than that.
Why such a derogatory name? The legend says that once upon a time lived a man who was very poor and had nothing to feed his family with. The situation was hopeless so he decided to cook old clothes and that's when the miracle happened. His deep love for the family turned them into the delicious beef stew. Aw, such a sweet story, isn't it?
One of the main reasons why I've chosen Cuba for the first blog post is the wonderful book comfortably sitting on my shelf - The Cuban Table: A Celebration of Food, Flavors, and History by Ana Sofia Pelaez and Ellen Silverman. I got it as a birthday present and I absolutely loved it. What I like the most is that this book is not just a pile of recipes (even though they are all interesting and authentic). The authors give you a sense of Cuban culture as well as provide brief history of dishes.
So, naturally, my Ropa Vieja recipe is adapted from this book. And THANK GOD it is. You see, almost every Ropa Vieja recipe online asks for a flank steak. So what, you will say, just buy a damn flank steak and the problem is solved. Not in my pork oriented country. To find a flank (or actually any other) steak here is even harder than to find something in my wife's purse. And I have never thought that something can be more complicated than that.
The Cuban Table book, though, stretched me a helping hand - I was able to use a brisket instead of a flank steak. Hooray. Sorry, I can't tell you what's the difference between Ropa Vieja made from one cut of beef or another, but I perfectly loved my version with a brisket.
Let me paint you a picture: tender melt-in-your-mouth braised beef soaked in the Caribbean style tomato based sauce (allspice and cloves do the job) with a blend of bell peppers, garlic, and onion. It is so good, I almost cried.
Ropa Vieja is traditionally served with rice and black beans. They go really well together. I mean, really well. It was the first time I made this Cuban dish and I am definitely going to repeat it because my taste buds enjoyed the ride.
- 6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 2 1/2 pounds skirt steak, cut along the grain into 6-inch pieces
- 3 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
- 2 large white onions, halved
- 2 large green bell peppers, halved
- 5 cups water
- 1 bay leaf
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed, divided
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/3 cup dry white wine
- 2 cups crushed tomatoes (canned or fresh)
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in an uncovered pressure cooker over medium-high. Sprinkle steak with 2 teaspoons salt. Working in batches, sear steak pieces until well browned, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a medium bowl. Add 1 onion half and 1 bell pepper half to pressure cooker and cook, stirring after 2 minutes, until browned in spots, about 5 minutes. Return steak to pressure cooker add 5 cups water, bay leaf, and 1 garlic clove. Lock lid into place and set pressure to HIGH (15 pounds) bring up to pressure over high heat. When pressurized, reduce heat to medium and cook 20 minutes. Remove from heat, release pressure, and let stand until pressure is completely released.
When pressure cooker unlocks, transfer steak to a bowl cool 10 minutes. When cool enough to handle, shred steak by hand. (The pieces do not need to be uniform.) Return shredded meat to bowl. Pour cooking liquid through a fine wire-mesh strainer into a bowl reserve 2 cups liquid. Discard solids and remaining liquid.
Thinly slice remaining onion and bell pepper halves. Heat remaining 1/4 cup oil in a large, high-sided skillet over medium. Add sliced onions, peppers, and remaining 2 garlic cloves to skillet. Cook, stirring often, until onions are translucent, about 10 minutes. Stir in cumin and oregano. Add wine. Bring to a simmer add shredded steak and remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Fold to incorporate with vegetables.
Simmer until meat is warmed through, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and 2 cups reserved cooking liquid. Bring to a simmer, stirring. Cover and reduce heat to medium-low. Gently simmer, stirring every 5 minutes, until meat is tender and liquid is thickened, about 20 minutes. If necessary, uncover and cook several minutes to thicken sauce.
Add the water, flank steak and bay leaves to the pressure cooker. Season with 1 tablespoon of the salt. Close the lid.
If using a stovetop cooker: Set to high pressure (15 PSI) and set the timer for 30 minutes. Cook over high heat until the pressure point is reached, then lower the heat to medium and continue to cook.
If using an electric cooker: Use the meat setting and adjust the time to 35 minutes, or set to high pressure (10–12 PSI) and 35 minutes.
When done, remove the stovetop cooker from the heat and apply quick-release, or cancel cooking for the electric cooker and apply auto-release. When all the pressure is out, open the cooker and transfer the flank steak to a carving board, using tongs. Allow the beef to rest, about 5 minutes. Reserve 1 cup of the beef stock for later use and discard the rest. Do not discard the bay leaves.
When ready, manually shred the beef, pulling it apart into 1/2-inch wide pieces.
Heat the oil in the stovetop pressure cooker over medium-high or use the sauté setting for the electric pressure cooker. Sauté all of the vegetables and garlic, adding the oregano and cumin, until the onion begins to soften and the mixture is fragrant, about 2 to 5 minutes. Stir in the tomato sauce, red wine and reserved beef stock. Add the shredded beef, vinegar and black pepper, and adjust for salt. Stir well, cancel cooking for the electric cooker and close the lid.
If using a stovetop cooker: Set to high pressure (15 PSI) and cook over high heat for 10 minutes total.
If using an electric cooker: Use the meat setting and adjust the time to 15 minutes, or set to high pressure (10–12 PSI) and 15 minutes.
When done, remove from the heat or turn off the cooker and allow the pressure to release on its own (natural-release), about 7 to 10 minutes. If the pressure is not fully released after 10 minutes, apply auto-release. Serve immediately.
Courtesy of Modern Pressure Cooking by Bren Herrera, Page Street Publishing Co.
A tale of how Cuba stole its national dish ropa vieja from the Canary Islands. Follow along on this Cuban journey as I weave you a story of how this came to be!
What is ropa vieja?
Shredded beef and vegetables that resemble a heap of colorful old rags – that’s ropa vieja. From the Spanish term for “old clothes”, this is one of Cuba’s most popular and beloved dishes. So popular in fact that it’s one of the country’s designated national dishes.
Ropa vieja is a popular dish of the Canary Islands and Cuba. The original recipe consists of a dish made with leftovers from the cocido (or cozido). It is a traditional stew eaten as a main dish in Spain, Portugal, Brazil and other latin countries. In the Americas, it is a shredded flank, brisket, or skirt steak in a tomato sauce base.
Variations of ropa vieja found across the Caribbean
Variations of the dish can be found throughout the Caribbean, especially in the Dominican Republic (carne ripiada) and Puerto Rico.
In Venezuela, ropa vieja is known as carne mechada (shredded beef) and is part of the national dish called pabellón criollo. Pabellón criollo consists of a serving of the carne mechada accompanied with black beans, fried plantains, white rice, and sometimes arepitas de maíz (corn fritters).
In Veracruz and Tabasco, Mexico, ropa vieja is made with shredded beef, mint, garlic, tomato, and onions, and cooked with eggs.
This dish seems to date back to the Middle Ages, and is a loose adaptation of a Sephardic Jewish dish that to this day is still popular in southern and central Spain.
Traditionally, it was used as a way to consume the leftovers of stews such as puchero or cocida, which just like the original Spanish version of ropa vieja, are also prepared with garbanzo-based. It is only later that this dish was brought to Cuba where the Cubans made their own version.
What cut of beef is used in ropa vieja?
Traditionally, ropa vieja is prepared with flank steak, which is from the bottom area of the cow. This means it typically brings less flavor, is leaner and tougher than other cuts of beef.
Flank steak is indeed typically best suited to high heat quick cooking, like grilling. It is not the best choice for slow cooking, as with low fat content and connective tissues, the meat tends to dry out during the slow cooking process. Flank steak used to be one of the cheaper cuts of beef.
Although prices have increased in the past few decades, this cut is still used in ropa vieja recipes. One of the reasons why flank steak is still used is because the cut yields long strands of shredded beef resembling torn clothing, hence the name in Spanish.
Flank steak works well, but chuck is more adapted to slow cooking. Indeed, the long cooking time over low heat helps break down the cartilage and melts the fat. It also help keep the beef cut moist while adding additional flavor. This is the reason why chuck is one of the most popular beef cuts for slow cooking and shredding.
What is the origin of ropa vieja?
The origin of ropa vieja is from the Canary Islands, which are Spanish islands off the coast of North Africa in the Atlantic Ocean. The original version of the dish contained leftovers, but later became a shredded meat dish with garbanzo beans and potatoes in the Canary Islands.
Some versions in the Canary Islands contain beef or chicken or pork, or a combination of any of the three. Ropa vieja is widely prepared in the Caribbean today. It is listed among traditional Panamanian cuisine, Cuban cuisine, Puerto Rican cuisine, Dominican cuisine and Canarian cuisine.
But what that old clothes (ropa vieja in Spanish) have to do with a Spanish recipe? It is probably because the dish is actually derived from another dish, a Spanish bean stew.
Making a stew was a way to take advantage of leftovers whenever a Spanish stew was cooked. The exact origins of the dish are not really known, but recipes have been passed down for decades.
Garbanzo beans were an essential part of the daily diet in Spain until about 50 years ago and were considered a food for the masses due to their inexpensive nature. They are a very healthy bean and a staple in many diets and have grown in popularity in the U.S. in recent years.
Today, even though the standard of living in Spain does not require such thrifty ways, cooks often prepare extra meat in their homes so that they may make ropa vieja the following day.
As with all traditional dishes, there are many variations and some of these are due to different regions. Ropa vieja is still one of the classic, comfort foods, which Spaniards fondly remember eating at mom’s or grandma’s table as children.
Ropa vieja, the national dish of Cuba, is a meal that is steeped in history. This rustic, humble dish so perfectly tells the story of the country’s culinary and cultural evolution over the last half-century. It’s fascinating and a perfect read if you’re feeling a little hungry.
The story behind ropa vieja
The geographical journey might be easy enough to trace, but the story of its invention requires a little more imagination. Like many great parts of Cuban culture, ropa vieja started life in Spain.
The story goes that a penniless old man once shredded and cooked his own clothes because he could not afford food for his family. He prayed over the bubbling concoction and a miracle occurred, turning the mixture into a tasty, rich meat stew.
Now, we’re not totally sure that this story is absolute fact but it’s wonderful nonetheless. What we do know is that the recipe for ropa vieja is over 500 years old and originated with the Sephardic Jews in the Iberian peninsula of Spain. Because cooking was not allowed on the Sabbath, the Sephardi would slow-cook a hearty stew the night before. And let me tell you, the aromas will drive you crazy overnight.
But beyond what tells the story and the place where it is said that this delicious dish emerged, it is already part of the Cuban culinary art. The truth is that those who visit Cuba and try it have the possibility of taking, with them and forever, the taste of Cuba.
The dish then travelled to the Americas with the Spanish people, where it became a staple dish across the Caribbean and Cuba. And although the recipe has been tweaked over the years, the fundamental base of ropa vieja remains today as it always has.
This dish is enjoyed all over peninsular Spain, and the Canary Islands. Even though it is very popular in Latin America, particularly in the Caribbean, the preparation, however, is different there. Indeed, beef is stewed with onions, tomato sauce, and vegetables, then shredded and served alongside beans, rice, and plantains.
As in Spain, there are many variations of the dish in Latin America. It is especially popular in Cuba, where even more variations exist. Despite the differences, though, most people refer to this as a classic comfort food.
Look out for this delicious dish on your trip to Cuba, and make sure to share its history with your friends.
Weekend Recipe: Cuban Braised Shredded Beef (Ropa Vieja)
Ropa Vieja, which means "old clothes" in Spanish, is one of Cuba's national dishes but is claimed by other cultures as well. The stewed meat can also be found in Puerto Rico and the Canary Islands, and the dish dates back to the 12th century via Sephardic Jews from Spain. Serve this America's Test Kitchen recipe with rice and beans or fried sweet plantains.
Cuban Braised Shredded Beef (Ropa Vieja)
Serves 6 to 8
Look for a brisket that is 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 inches thick.
1 (2-pound) beef brisket, fat trimmed to 1/4 inch
Salt and pepper
5 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 onions, halved and sliced thin
2 red bell peppers, stemmed, seeded, and sliced into 1/4-inch-wide strips
2 anchovy fillets, rinsed, patted dry, and minced
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 cups chicken broth
1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
2 bay leaves
3/4 cup pitted green olives, chopped coarse
3/4 teaspoon white wine vinegar, plus extra for seasoning
Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 300 degrees. Cut brisket against grain into 2-inch-wide strips. Cut any strips longer than 5 inches in half crosswise. Season beef on all sides with salt and pepper. Heat 4 tablespoons oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat until just smoking. Brown beef on all sides, 7 to 10 minutes transfer to large plate and set aside. Add onions and bell peppers and cook until softened and pan bottom develops fond, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer vegetables to bowl and set aside. Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil to now-empty pot, then add anchovies, garlic, cumin, and oregano and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in wine, scraping up any browned bits, and cook until mostly evaporated, about 1 minute. Stir in broth, tomato sauce, and bay leaves. Return beef and any accumulated juices to pot and bring to simmer over high heat. Transfer to oven and cook, covered, until beef is just tender, 2 to 2 1/4 hours, flipping meat halfway through cooking.
Transfer beef to cutting board. Remove and discard bay leaves. When beef is cool enough to handle, shred into 1/4-inch-thick pieces. Meanwhile, add olives and reserved vegetables to pot and bring to boil over medium-high heat simmer until thickened and measures 4 cups, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in beef. Add vinegar. Season with salt, pepper, and extra vinegar to taste serve.
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