Ropa Vieja, Alyssa Style

Ropa vieja is hearty stewed beef with a complicated history. Translating as “old clothes,” this dishes’ name most likely comes from the fact that the beef (usually skirt or flank steak) is shredded rather than cubed or sliced, giving it a metaphorical resemblance to threadbare clothing. Some go so far as to attribute the name to a folktale about a desperate farmer cooking old clothes until, through the force of his love, they transmute into beef stew. The name may instead refer to how ropa vieja is often made from the leftovers of other meals, an “old dressing” for something else.

Descended from recipes most likely invented by Spain’s Sephardic Jewish population before the Spanish Inquisition, ropa vieja spread through southern Spain and then the Canary Islands. It was most likely from Canary Islanders, overrepresented among Spanish settlers in its new empire, that ropa vieja arrived in Latin America, where it spread across the region. Like many dishes with Spanish origins, ropa vieja has variations across Spain’s former colonial holdings, as far away as the Philippines, with subtle differences and local customizations throughout, but it is most famous as a fixture of Cuban cooking.

Ropa vieja is the national dish of Cuba, and restaurants across the island and its diaspora proudly feature this fixture of the Cuban palate. It is time-consuming to prepare from scratch but deceptively simple in both ingredients and execution, hearkening to its centuries-long history. Neither simplicity could save ropa vieja from the trials of its homeland, however, and the dish spent several periods of Cuban history fading into its own background. Long periods of privation sometimes made beef difficult to procure, pushing Cuban cuisine in other directions, and substitutions with more easily acquired pork or lamb were not always sufficient to keep ropa vieja a mainstream dish in Cuba. This classic would not be lost in or out of the island, however, and not just because the rest of Latin America and the Cuban diaspora kept it alive. Enshrinement as the national dish and increased beef availability have revived ropa vieja into a mainstream, if still more expensive than ideal, dish in Cuba, and it remains a treasured taste of home for Cubans far away.

This recipe serves eight and reheats well. Ropa vieja is typically served with rice, often in the congri style, and fried plantains (tostones) or yuca. Note that this dish has a long cooking time, upwards of three hours, and should be planned accordingly.

This recipe is based on one from ¡Cuba Cocina! by Joyce Lafray.

Equipment

You will need a large pot, a food processor, your preferred tool for occasionally flipping a large piece of meat, a cutting board, your preferred knives, and a blender or food processor.

Ingredients

  • Fennel, 1 bulb
  • Skirt steak or flank steak, 800 grams
  • Water, 2 liters
  • Bay leaves, 2
  • Green bell pepper, 1
  • Cuban oregano, leaves from one long branch
  • Canned whole tomatoes, 796 mL
  • Red cooking wine, 15 mL or 1 tablespoon
  • Red or orange bell pepper, 1
  • Sazón with culantro and achiote, 2 tablespoons or 30 mL
  • Frozen chopped spinach, 50 grams
  • Frozen peas and carrots, approximately the volume of a fist
  • Black pepper, to taste

Common Food Restrictions

  • Gluten-Free: This recipe is naturally gluten-free.
  • Ketogenic / Low-Carb: Decide how you feel about the carrots, peas, and fennel.
  • Low-FODMAP: This recipe is optimized to reduce FODMAP content. If necessary, switch sazón for salt.
  • Vegetarian/Vegan:  A specific meat is the centerpiece of this stew, so a vegetarian substitute is unlikely.

Preparation

  1. Separate the fennel stems from the fennel bulb and reserve.
  2. Dice the fennel using a food processor.
  3. Combine the diced fennel from Step 2, the steak, the water, and the bay leaves and bring to a boil.
  4. Reduce heat to medium and cook for 2.5 hours uncovered. The steak is done when it can be shredded easily by hand with two forks. By this point, the water should have mostly evaporated. If not, remove all but ½ cup after the cooking time is complete.
  5. When meat has cooled, shred the steak until it consists of threadlike strips.
  6. Blend the green bell pepper, Cuban oregano, and canned whole tomatoes together in a food processor until no large chunks remain. It may be helpful to chop the green bell pepper first.
  7. Combine the shredded steak from Step 5 and the items from Step 6 and cook on medium for 7–8 minutes.
  8. Chop the red bell pepper.
  9. Combine the items from Step 7, the sazón, the chopped red bell pepper from Step 8, and the frozen vegetables and continue cooking until the sauce reaches the desired consistency and the frozen items are heated through and thoroughly mixed with everything else.
  10. Add black pepper to taste.
  11. Spoon onto plates with desired accompaniments and serve.

It might be a recent addition to my culinary repertoire, but ropa vieja is destined to become a regular part of my rotation. Few things can taste more like home or feel cozier than the national dish of one’s ancestry, and I look forward to many comfy evenings with old clothes. May this dish be as pleasant for you.

Here served with rice, tostones, and cornbread.
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Ropa Vieja, Alyssa Style
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