Thursday, January 1, 2009

Ropa Vieja Triumph!

To start the New Year off with a bang, I made Ropa Vieja, arroz amarillo, frijoles negros, and a tres leches cake for dinner. DC gave it 2 thumbs up, saying it was the best Ropa Vieja he'd had since he lived in Tampa. I'll take that as high praise! I'll post details on the other dishes separately, but wanted to share the Ropa Vieja recipe I developed.

In creating the recipe, I found this video of a Cuban mom making Ropa Vieja very helpful. I think it's wonderful that people are taking the time to document the everyday food they cook. I love fine cuisine as much as anyone, but the simple foods we eat every day have a charm all their own. It's important to document not just our fanciest or finest, but what we actually prepare and eat (not what we think we should eat!).

I believe it was food writer Laurie Colwin who observed our reluctance to reveal what we really eat. When pushed, people will reveal the oddest things, such as a penchant for cold spaghetti noodles with grape jelly at midnight. I love Laurie Colwin-- how I wish I could write like her. I always relished reading her column in Gourmet, to which she was a regular contributor until her tragic death in 1992.

Watching the video reminds me again of the bygone dishes of my childhood, which my mother no longer remembers how to cook. I wish we'd thought to write down the recipes while we had a chance. It was genius for the son and daughter in law on YouTube to not only preserve their family recipes, but also to document their mom actually preparing the food on video.

But back to my Ropa Vieja. Here is my recipe. I think it yields 6-8 servings, depending on portion size. I would estimate the total prep time at 3 hours. Some of that is inactive time while the broth is reducing and the meat is cooling.

Karen's Ropa Vieja

Prep time: 3 hrs. Yield: 6-8 servings

Pt. 1, Cooking the Meat
2 1/2 lbs. flank steak
1 onion, peeled and quartered (I used yellow onions for this dish)
1 carrot, broken into large pieces
1 celery stalk, broken into large pieces
1 bay leaf
small handful of black peppercorns-- 10 or so?
1 t salt (I always cook with Kosher salt)
2 t vegetable oil (it really doesn't matter what kind, this is just to keep things from foaming too much in the pressure cooker)
2 qt water

1. Spray the pressure cooker with nonstick spray.
2. Cut the flank steak across the grain into reasonably sized pieces for shredding (you don't want "strings" 8" long!) From my original 2 pieces of flank steak, I ended up with 5 for the pot.
3. Wash the meat.
4. Add the meat to the pressure cooker along with the onion, celery, carrot, bay leaf, salt, and peppercorns. Add the vegetable oil. Add 2 qt. of water.
5. Seal the pressure cooker and bring to a boil over high heat, until maximum pressure is reached. Turn down the heat to low (about 3 on my electric stove is about right-- and I also put a flame tamer over the burner when I turn down the heat, to keep things from cooking too fast.). Cook at high pressure for 20-25 minutes.
6. Remove pressure cooker from the heat and allow the pressure to release naturally.
7. Carefully open the pressure cooker and remove the meat, placing it on a plate to cool.
8. Strain and reserve the cooking broth, and discard the solids.
9. While the meat is cooling, return the broth to the pot and boil over high heat until reduced to 2 cups of liquid (about 20 min.) . Reserve the reduced broth. Spoon the fat off the top of the broth and discard.
10. When the meat is cool enough to handle, shred (or as the Cuban family says, "string") into thin strips with your fingers. Discard any fat or tough connective tissue you may encounter. Set the shredded meat aside.

Pt. 2 Finishing the Stew

2T extra virgin olive oil
1 lg. onion, finely chopped
1 green bell pepper, finely chopped
4 lg. cloves garlic, minced
2 t. cumin
1/2 t. oregano
1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes (I prefer Hunts)
1 8 oz. can tomato sauce (Hunts again)
2 c. reserved reduced cooking broth
1/2 c. dry red wine
1 T red wine vinegar
Reserved shredded meat
1 c. green olives with pimientos, roughly chopped
1 T. juice from the olive jar
1/2 box frozen baby green peas (not thawed)
salt and pepper to taste

1. Spray a large pot with non-stick spray. Add the olive oil and heat the oil over medium heat.
2. When the oil is hot, add the chopped onion and saute until softened and translucent, about 5 min. Add salt to taste.
3. Add the bell pepper and saute until softened, about 4 minutes. Add salt to taste.
4. Add the chopped garlic to the pot, and cook just until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir often to prevent the garlic from burning.
5. Sprinkle the mixture with the cumin and oregano, and cook, stirring, for about 1 minute to blend the flavors.
6. Add the tomatoes and tomato sauce, reserved cooking broth, red wine, and red wine vinegar. Stir to combine.
7. Add the shredded meat; stir to combine.
8. Bring the stew to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes, to blend the flavors.
9. Add the olives, olive juice, and frozen peas. Stir just until the peas are bright green and barely thawed. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.
10. Remove from the heat and serve immediately, so that the peas do not become mushy.

Some Preparation Notes

If you are a cooking dweeb like me, you may enjoy reading my attempt to explain why I did what I did. Otherwise, it's BORING so just cut to The Chase.

  • I always spray pans (even the nonstick ones) with non-stick spray. I prefer the Mazola Pure and Natural canola oil spray.
  • When I was researching this dish, some recipes called for cooking the meat first, others added the meat to the pot with the other stew ingredients. I decided to cook the meat first, as the meat would need a long simmer to become tender. Long cooking can dull flavors, especially of herbs and spices. Cooking the meat ahead of time prevents the stew from cooking too long and losing flavor.
  • Although plain water is used to cook the flank steak in many recipes, I wanted to add additional flavor by incorporating the vegetables and seasonings in the cooking liquid.
  • I used yellow onions for this recipe, as they are somewhat sweeter than white ones. Unlike Mexican cooking, Cuban food appears to be more about subtle flavors than heat.
  • I did not brown the meat before braising, as that would create a crust, rendering the outer surfaces of the meat tough, dry, and hard to shred.
  • I like to use the pressure cooker not only to save time, but I think the meat stays more juicy in the pressure cooker because of the quicker cooking time. Obviously, you could also use a regular pot. I would bring the mixture to a boil and reduce heat to simmer, covered, for as long as needed to make the meat tender enough to shred.
  • I had planned to cool the meat in the broth to maximize the flavor, but was running low on time so I just pulled it out and let it cool separately.
  • Reducing the broth seems fussy and unnecessary-- but it added a tremendous amount of beefy flavor to the finished stew. I think it might taste a little wimpy without the reduced broth.
  • Working ahead: Pt 1 could be done a day ahead of time. That would make the prep time on day 2 significantly shorter. The longest part of the preparation was letting the meat cool. Shredding took surprisingly long too.
  • The combination of onion, garlic and bell pepper cooked in olive oil is usually referred to as the "sofrito." Some recipes will just say "add 1/4 c. sofrito", for example.
  • I believe in salting as I go, as it produces more flavor. However, beyond seasoning the sofrito, I didn't want to add any more salt until after the salty olives and olive juices were added to the stew.
  • Cooking the spices "dry" in the oil before adding the liquid is a technique used in Indian cooking. I think it helps to infuse the spices throughout the dish better, and also takes off any harsh or raw tasting edge from the spices.
  • I'd planned to use Spanish-style tomato sauce, but could not find any. I decided to try it just with the diced canned tomatoes. After an initial taste, the stew needed more tomato flavor, so I added some tomato sauce too. That seemed to do the trick!
  • The olives and peas are optional ingredients, many people do not add them to this dish. My DC prefers it with the olives and peas, and I think the olives and olive juice really add a nice boost to the flavor, and the peas create a pleasant contrast in texture. It is very important not to overcook the peas, so I like to add them still frozen to most dishes, and serve as soon as the peas are just thawed.
  • We served this with Cuban-style yellow rice, and it was AWESOME!!

The Chase

I think my Ropa Vieja was a hit-- DC just drifted in for an afternoon ropa snack and said it's BETTER than what he used to get in Tampa. SCORE!!
Quote o' the day: "It makes my cheeks tingle!"--DC.

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