Cuban comfort food: Ropa vieja

This dish's name gets your attention: ropa vieja means old clothes, presumably because the shredded, poached meat resembles rags.

Ropa Vieja cuban food 311 (photo credit: Yakir Levy)
Ropa Vieja cuban food 311
(photo credit: Yakir Levy)
One of my favorite Cuban dishes is ropa vieja. When my friend Victor Kozaski was growing up in Cuba, this flavorful entree of beef in tomato sauce was as popular on Jewish tables as it was on those of other Cubans. In his home they ate the entree with fried bananas, black beans and rice.
At first this dish gets your attention because of its name: ropa vieja means old clothes, presumably because the shredded, poached meat resembles rags. “If you tell your guests that the dinner entree is Old Clothes, you may get some strange glances, but this classic Cuban beef dish is a winner,” wrote Mary Urrutia Randelman and Joan Schwartz in Memories of a Cuban Kitchen.
The most important flavoring of ropa vieja is sofrito, a Cuban staple of sauteed onions, green peppers and garlic cooked with tomatoes or tomato sauce, sometimes with the addition of sausages or smoked meat. Olive oil or annato seed flavored oil is used to saute the vegetables. Cubans keep sofrito on hand and use it to flavor a variety of soups, stews and rice dishes.
Some cooks add white wine, dry sherry or beer to ropa vieja to subtly flavor the sauce. Others season it gently with bay leaves, oregano or celery, or with the bolder flavors of cumin or chilies. Most often ropa vieja is a dish of beef alone, but to make it more of a stew, some cooks add carrots, chopped onions and peas, or a garnish of pimentos and capers.
At a Cuban restaurant called Casa Don Rolando in North Hills, California, I enjoyed ropa vieja as a tasty sandwich. The meat, which had absorbed tomato sauce as it simmered, was so moist that no mayonnaise or other spread was needed on the long white roll. According to my friend Steven Raichlen, author of Miami Spice, ropa vieja is “a mainstay of the Cuban-American diet,” and I can see why Cubans who have left their homeland have kept their taste for this delicious dish.
My husband ordered ropa vieja on a plate; it was served with fried or boiled yucca (a tuber with a flavor somewhat similar to that of a potato) with a Cuban garlic-citrus sauce called mojo. Some diners at our table selected an accompaniment of black beans cooked with rice that was called congri rice at the restaurant but is better known as moros y cristianos, or Moors and Christians; with the rice stained black from cooking with the beans, its appearance is surprising but its flavor is very appealing.
Joyce Lafray, author of Cuba Cocina, always makes ropa vieja a day ahead, as it tastes better the longer the flavors blend. She recommends shredding the cooked meat with your hands or with a fork, until the meat fibers are in threadlike strips. Her version is flavored with sherry and plenty of vegetables. In addition to the sofrito, she adds celery, carrots, onions and finely chopped pimientos to simmer in the sauce. She suggest fluffy white or yellow rice as accompaniments.
Although ropa vieja is best known as a Cuban dish, it is loved in other areas of Latin America too, such as the Dominican Republic and Panama. The dish is said to have originated in the Canary Islands, where it includes chickpeas and potatoes and is sometimes made with chicken instead of beef.
Ropa vieja keeps well, and is easy to prepare. Unlike many other stews, there is no need to brown the beef and to contend with the inevitable splattering; the meat is simply poached in water with the seasonings. When it’s accompanied by rice with beans or by potatoes with mojo sauce, I find this Cuban specialty convenient for Shabbat.
Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.
If you’d like to cook this dish in two stages, poach the beef and cool it one day, and simmer it in the tomato sauce the next. Save the extra broth; it will make flavorful soups. Serve the beef with cooked rice or potatoes.
700 gr. flank steak or any other lean cut of beef, excess fat trimmed, in 2 or 3 pieces
1 onion, halved
1 whole carrot
4 whole garlic cloves, peeled (optional)
1 bay leaf Sofrito (see recipe below)
1⁄2 cup dry white or red wine (optional)
1⁄2 tsp. ground cumin, or to taste (optional)
1 tsp. dried oregano salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Put beef in a saucepan with onion, carrot, garlic cloves, bay leaf and salt. Add enough water to just cover beef. Bring to a boil, skimming foam from surface. Cover and cook over low heat for 11⁄2 hours or until meat is very tender. Cool meat in its broth for 30 minutes. Remove meat from broth, reserving broth. When broth has cooled, skim excess fat.
Let meat cool to room temperature. Shred meat in thin strips with your fingers, discarding any fat or gristle.
Meanwhile, make sofrito.
Strain 1⁄2 cup broth into a large skillet. Add sofrito, wine, shredded beef, cumin and oregano. Bring to a simmer. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, for about 15 minutes or until sauce thickens and becomes flavorful and coats the meat; it should be light, not very thick. If sauce becomes too thick, add a little more broth by tablespoonfuls. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding freshly ground pepper. Serve hot.
Makes about 4 servings.
Sofrito has many uses besides enhancing stews and soups. Mix it with vegetables like diced cooked potatoes or beans, or serve it with pasta or rice. Instead of the canned tomatoes, you can make sofrito with 11⁄2 cups tomato sauce. If you like, use half green and half red pepper.
2 to 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, halved and sliced thin
1 small green pepper, cut in thin strips
2 or 3 large garlic cloves, chopped an 800-gr. can tomatoes, drained and finely chopped or pureed
salt and freshly ground pepper
Heat oil in large skillet. Add onions and pepper and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, for 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook for 3 minutes or until onions are soft but not brown. Add tomatoes, salt and pepper and cook gently uncovered for 10 minutes or until mixture is thick.
Makes 11⁄2 to 2 cups
Mojo, which is made of garlic sauteed in olive oil and heated in citrus juice, is popular as a sauce for vegetables and for fish and as a marinade for chicken. The combination of sweet orange juice and lemon juice in this recipe is a substitute for the sour orange juice traditionally used in Cuba. The sauce tastes best if served within a few hours but you can keep it for several days in a covered dish in the refrigerator and reheat it gently before serving.
700 gr. fairly small white or red-skinned potatoes
1⁄4 cup extra virgin olive oil
6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1⁄3 cup orange juice
1⁄4 cup lemon juice salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Peel potatoes and cut in half. Put in a saucepan, cover with water and cook until tender, about 25 to 35 minutes. Drain well and keep warm.
Heat oil in a saucepan, add garlic and cook until over low heat until fragrant but not brown. Add orange juice, lemon juice salt and pepper. Stand back; sauce may splatter. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve warm or at room temperature.
To serve, put potatoes on a rimmed platter or on plates. Pour some of sauce over hot potatoes. Sprinkle them with chopped parsley. Serve remaining sauce separately.
Makes 4 servings.