Ropa Vieja

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As we’ve mentioned a million times, we use this blog as a vehicle to get us to branch out and try different dishes we wouldn’t have otherwise thought to make. I was browsing our recent creations recently and was struck by the thought that we’ve had a little bit of a geographic bias. Our branching out has ventured into the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and North Africa quite a bit… not surprising, given that we both really love the food and flavors of that region. But maybe we’re inadvertently limiting the scope of our branching…? I don’t know why, but after coming to this realization, I immediately settled on Cuban food for our next adventure.

After drooling over pictures of Cuban sandwiches for a little while, I landed on a recipe for Ropa Vieja, which many claim as the national dish of Cuba. If you speak Spanish, you may note that “ropa vieja” translates to “old clothes,” which is not the most appetizing name I can think of personally, but is evocative of the legend behind the dish. The story goes that an impoverished old man had family coming over for dinner. He had nothing to serve them, so he shredded and stewed some old clothes. After praying over his creation and cooking with so much love for his family, he found that he had a delicious stew to serve, though the shreds of meat still resembled his old clothes. As best my internet sleuthing can determine, the recipe came to Cuba and the greater Caribbean via Spanish settlers, with its roots hundreds of years ago in Spanish Sephardic Jewish cuisine and their home in the Canary Islands. Tweaks occurred in the ensuing years, and this dish is considered to be quintessentially Caribbean and Cuban.

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Ropa vieja is traditional served in Cuba with rice and black beans, so of course we had to make some Cuban black beans as well! This quick version uses canned beans, so they’re super easy to throw together. And its easy to see why the Cuban serve them in combination… delicious! After serving the ropa vieja on top of the rice, with the beans on the side, we realized that it was even better all stirred together! So go ahead and make a big messy plate – this dish isn’t on your table for its looks, that’s for sure!

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Ropa Vieja

(Adapted from Bon Appetit)
Ingredients: 
  • ~ 1 1/2 lb flank steak, brisket, or chuck roast (the chuck roast will cook the fastest)
  • 2 tbsp neutral oil
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 2 red bell peppers, sliced
  • 8 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup dry red wine
  • 1 tbsp paprika
  • 1 tbsp oregano
  • 2 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp cayenne
  • 1 tsp brown sugar
  • Salt & fresh ground black pepper
  • 3 medium tomatoes, pureed
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 cup sliced green Spanish olives
  • 1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • Cilantro, for garnish
Instructions: 
  1. In a large Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat. Season the beef on both sides with salt & pepper. Once warmed, sear the beef on all sides briefly (~3-4 minutes). Remove to the side.
  2. Add the onions, garlic, and bell peppers. Stir to coat with remaining oil and again season with salt & some fresh ground black pepper. Cook until soft and fragrant, approximately 10 minutes.
  3. Deglaze the dish with the wine. Stir in the spices and brown sugar.
  4. Return the beef to the dish, along with the pureed tomatoes. Nestle the bay leaves into the liquid. Cover and turn the heat down to low. Braise the beef for 2 1/2 – 3 hours. You want to see a slight simmer if you peek under the lid.
  5. Uncover, skim off any fat on the top, and raise the heat so the liquid is simmering fairly vigorously. Shred the beef between two forks.
  6. Stir in the olives and vinegar. Cook at the simmer for just an additional 15 minutes. Taste and add salt as needed – we added a fair bit.
  7. Serve with rice and black beans, with a little cilantro on top.
Serves 4-6

Quick Cuban Black Beans

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If you peruse our blog, you’ll notice that we try to minimize our usage of prepackaged or canned foods. I think that if you showed Selim a can of cream of <fill-in-the-blank> soup, he’d shrivel up like a vampire exposed to garlic and sunlight. Sometimes it’s unavoidable and sometimes the convenience outweighs all other factors, but we do try to err on the side of fresh ingredients. With that being said, I’m not going to lie. Soaking beans overnight in preparation for cooking them the next day just is not my cup of tea. I know there are many people out there who consider canned beans an anathema, but honestly I don’t think they taste much different and they’re SO convenient and time-saving. So we definitely use them.

Hence our quick version of Cuban black beans here. Certainly, they probably would be better (and certainly more authentic) if we used dried beans, soaked them overnight, and cooked them longer with the herbs and spices. But this quick version provides for a superior flavor to time ratio, in my opinion. You get to jazz up your black beans with just a few additions and barely any active time in the kitchen, allowing you to focus your energy (culinary or otherwise!) elsewhere.

Quick Cuban Black Beans

(Adapted from Bon Appetit)
Ingredients: 
  • 1 tsp neutral oil
  • 1/2 small onion, diced
  • 1/2 green bell pepper, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 15oz cans of black beans, rinsed & drained
  • 1/4 cup of stock (your preference)
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • Fresh ground black pepper
Instructions: 
  1. In a medium pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Once warm, add the onion, bell pepper, and garlic. Top with a few turns of fresh black pepper. Cook until softened and fragrant, approximately 6 minutes.
  2. Add the black beans, stock, and spices. Stir together.
  3. Lower heat to low-medium. Partially cover and cook for at least 10 minutes. With the heat turned quite low, you can cook long and allow the flavors to blend more!