Ropa Vieja, the classic Cuban dish of shredded beef, peppers and tomatoes, is Spanish for “old clothes.” As legend goes, the dish got its name from an era when food was so scarce, women shredded clothes and turned them into stew. A kind of Cuban pot roast, Ropa Vieja’s most distinguishing feature is the shredded nature of its beef, which could resemble braised rags, if you use your imagination.
I’ve loved this dish so long I don’t remember where I discovered it, but now its the dish I can’t not order on a Cuban menu. Having long dreamed of adding it to my cooking repertoire, I decided to make it the star of my Cuban-themed dinner party. As I put together a menu of traditional Cuban dishes, I did some cursory research, seeking to understand the origin, technique and variations of this dish. Opinions differed, but a consensus emerged that flank steak was the traditional cut of beef for the dish, and the most authentic versions entailed a two-part cooking process similar to the one used for a corned beef and cabbage or boiled New England dinner.
Seeking to validate this theory by a resident Cuban expert, it occurred to me I live within spitting distance of one, namely the chef from one of the best Cuban places in town. Tucked into the back room of a Cuban food market, La Unica Food Mart is a mecca for all things Cuban–restaurant, butcher and a grocery store featuring Cuban products.
After verifying that Ropa Vieja was on the menu , I proceeded to the butcher counter in the adjoining room, theorizing that the meat must be sourced from it. Seeing no flank steak in the case, I asked the butcher which cut to use for the Ropa Vieja. “Flank steak,” he answered in a blink and asked “how much do you want?”
“Enough for six people,” I replied. With that, he smiled and scurried into the walk-in, emerging a few seconds later with two large cuts of beef amounting to three pounds.
“Do you know how to make it?” I asked.
“Oh, no, but the chef does,” he replied, gesturing towards the restaurant with a friendly smile. Luckily for me, he spoke English, since the chef did not, I was soon to discover.
The butcher followed me back there and introduced me to Chef Jose, who was only too happy to share his knowledge of the craft, pantomiming the makings of a dish that clearly made him proud. He gesticulated the long simmer in aromatics low and slow, the subsequent removal of the meat from the broth, the cooling and shredding, and finally the merge of the shredded meat with a sofrito of onions, tomatoes, and peppers. With my rudimentary knowledge of Spanish combined with snippets of translation from the butcher, the chef confirmed the two-part cooking theory.
Afterwards, the chef noticed the fresh yucca in my basket, intended for a Yucca con mojo and shook his head with displeasure. He marched over to the frozen bin, pulled out a bag of the frozen variety, and replaced my fresh yucca, murmuring something about the ease of plopping the frozen yucca into boiled water and serving it with a sauce of mojo on a platter.
We served both of these dishes as part of the Cuban dinner party menu below, which includes some links for recipes, and my own version of Ropa Vieja, adapted loosely from Island Bites, the closest thing I found to the two-part cooking approach I had in mind. My version replaces the round steak with flank steak, uses more vegetables and aromatics and incorporates pickled jalapenos and dry Sherry for some Spanish-inspired acidity. There’s also loads of recipes out there for using slow cookers, if that’s more your style.
Ropa Vieja is a great dish for dinner parties, Sunday suppers, and Latin-themed events. Leftovers also make for some fine tacos, very similar to the meltingly tender shredded beef tacos you’ll find at Mexican joints, driven into popularity in recent years by the emergence of Chipotle’s famed Beef Barbacoa.
The Ultimate Cuban Dinner Party
- Mojito Bar
- Fried plantains with mango salsa
Cuban Ropa Vieja with Flank Steak and Peppers
My take on this dish is cooked in the oven, instead of the stovetop, as many do, but it could also be cooked that way. I prefer to not worry about whether its simmering too low or high, so I just put it in the oven and forget about it. Either way is fine.
- Flank Steak, 3 pounds
- Large onion, 1 each, cut in quarters
- Large onions, 2 each, sliced
- Red bell peppers, 2 each, sliced, ends reserved
- Green bell peppers, 2 each, sliced, ends reserved
- Cubanelle pepper, 1 each, sliced
- Garlic cloves, 10 each, 6 whole, 4 minced
- Peppercorns, 6 each
- Bay Leaf, 1 each
- Ground cumin, 2 tsp, divided
- Dried oregano, 2 T, crumbled, divided
- Kosher salt, 1 tsp for broth, more to taste
- Goya (Spanish-Style) Tomato sauce, 1 8 oz can*
- Dry Sherry, ½ cup
- Pickled Jalapeno, chopped, ¼ cup
- Olive oil, 2 T
Part 1 – Cooking the Meat, Making the Broth
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F
- Place meat in an 4-quart Dutch oven, add the quartered onion, reserved pepper ends, 6 cloves of garlic, 6 peppercorns, 1 tsp cumin, 1 T oregano, 1 bay leaf and 1 tsp salt
- Add enough water to cover—there should be about 1 inch of water above the meat
- Bring the mixture to boil on the stovetop, cover with a lid, and place in the oven
- Cook until the meat is fork tender, about 2-3 hours
- Remove from the oven, and let it cool a few minutes
- Remove the meat, strain, and reserve the broth
- When the meat cools, tear it into shreds, discarding any fatty pieces or sinew
- Meanwhile, proceed to Part 2, once the meat is out of the oven
Part 2 –Making the Sofrito and Final Dish
- Heat oil in a large skillet
- Add the onions and sliced peppers, add a pinch of Kosher salt, and sauté at medium heat until soft, about 15 minutes
- Add minced garlic, 1 tsp. cumin, 1 tsp oregano and cook 2-3 minutes more
- Add Sherry and cook until the pan is nearly dry, about 5 minutes
- Add shredded meat, tomato sauce and pickled jalapenos
- Stir and cook until all ingredients are mixed together
- Add enough of the reserved broth to barely cover the ingredients, about 2 cups, and stir
- Taste and add salt and pepper, if needed
- Bring to boil, reduce to simmer, and cook until the oil begins to separate from the sauce, about 20-30 minutes, adding more broth if the mixture becomes too dry