Category Archives: Eat the World

How the rest of the world eats, from the front line

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Ropa Vieja – The Classic Cuban Dish

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 Cocktail Bar
Mojito Cocktail Bar

Cocktail Hour

 Dinner Menu

Dessert

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.

Ingredients

  • 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
Edible Alchemy Underground Dinner

A True Underground Dinner Experience

Underground dinners have always held a certain allure – that sense of mystery and exclusiveness that makes you feel lucky to get “in.” Unfortunately, most of the ones I’ve attended have not lived up the hype. I remember going to one a few years ago that sounded great on paper, but failed to deliver the great food, sense of community and just plain fun that I had imagined.

But I held out hope that the one I was planning to attend last weekend would fare better. I’d never heard of it before in the popular press, having  only found out about it after subscribing to the Edible Alchemy newsletter at the Good Food Festival in Chicago. It promised an “immersive vegetarian dinner experience focused on using local ingredients in traditional ways,” pretty much summing up my own philosophy of food. This particular monthly community gathering centered on the Persian New Year, or Nowruz. I was in.

The Altar of NowruzLocated in Pilsen, we arrived at a non-descript residential street and knew we’d found the right place when we spotted a few other curious-looking people hovering outside the building. We stepped inside and at once were immersed, as promised, in a Mid-Eastern feast. Friendly servers, chefs and hosts dressed in Mid-eastern garb swirled around us as we took seats at one of many long tables.  The menu explained the unusual décor we found at our tables, featuring the seven elements of the traditional table setting for the celebration, including fishbowls of live goldfish.

Edible Alchemy Mixologist
Pomegranate Rosewater Cocktail

The evening’s mixologist was hard at work with the first of the optional beverage pairings for the night, a vodka, pomegranate and rose water cocktail, garnished with drunken grapes. Mid-eastern music echoed through the lofted space, and we got to know our neighbors, friendly in the community way we’d always imagined.

Persian Appetizer Plate
Persian Appetizer Plate

Each course was introduced by the evening’s menu consultant, a Persian woman who shared the backstory on her mother’s recipes and the Nowruz traditions. The first course, a medley of salads and cold dishes, was akin to what you’d imagine Mid-Eastern food to be, but with interesting variations, such as the Koo Koo Sabzi, an insanely green quiche heavier on herbs and greens than eggs.

Vegan Kebab and Sweet Saffron Rice
Sweet Saffron Rice

One of the highlights of the evening was the Sweet Saffron rice, a sweet, chewy pilaf, highly aromatic from a long bath in Iranian-smuggled saffron, garnished with large bright strips of pickled carrots. It was served with a vegan kebab.

Date Nut Cake with Saffron Ice Cream
Date Nut Cake with Saffron Ice Cream

Finally, the night had to end, but not without a grand finale – dessert was the surprise hit of the evening. Described merely as “date nut cake + homemade saffron ice cream” it was way better than described.  More  fudge than cake, this utter slab of decadence was thick with dates and richly coated in pistachios. Cooling notes from the accompanying saffron ice cream  as dense as wet sand was the perfect complement.

At last, a true underground experience. But, shh! Don’t tell anyone. We’ll be back.

Rau Muong

Rau muống – the Spinach of Vietnam

Argyle Street is the bustling capital of Vietnamese food in Chicago, and I certainly go there whenever a good bowl of pho is in order, but I would venture to say that the best Vietnamese food in Chicago can be found at Hoanh Long, where the closest it comes to having an Asian neighbor is the Panda Express in the shopping mall across the street.

Despite the obscure location, Hoanh Long has plenty of admirers, many for its pho among other popular Vietnamese dishes, but I wouldn’t know anything about those, since I cannot get past ordering the two outrageously delicious dishes that are the reason I come here in the first place.

The first object of my admiration is the deceptively simply named “Chicken Salad” or  Goi Ga in Vietnamese, which is not at all like the one coming from the deli counter of a grocery store, although the name does conjure up those images. Thick with shredded chicken, this salad is a tumbleweed of carrots, cabbage and mild onions, dripping with the typical southeast Asian flavor profile of sweet, sour and spicy flavors. A shower of finely chopped peanuts, fried shallots and shrimp crackers crown the dish, adding depth, crunch and flavor.

Vietnamese Chicken Salad
Vietnamese Chicken Salad

This was my only go-to dish for the longest time, until one day I was joined by a friend who lived in Hawaii seventeen years. She requested the Rau Muong, translated as stir fried water spinach with minced garlic, a favorite of hers from the island days. It seemed pricy at $8.95 for just a vegetable but once I tasted it, I’ve never not ordered it again. And it’s a good deal anyway – the giant platter of leafy greens, including both the crunchy stems and wilted leaves, is satisfying in a way that’s unexpected. Since then, I’ve returned the favor and shared this dish with many a friend, and I’ve yet to meet someone who wasn’t both surprised and delighted.

A tropical plant reputed to grow several inches in a day, rau moung is is staple vegetable of Vietnam cuisine. You can buy a bunch on Argyle Street at Tai Nam  for a few dollars, but ask for Ong Choy, its Chinese name, or look at this photo so you know what to buy.

greens in package no good
Rau Muong

 

Best Lobster Roll we Ate

Anatomy of a Lobster Roll

I first heard of lobster rolls years ago, when a restaurant in Chicago put them on the menu as the next best thing. I didn’t get it at the time. To me, lobster was a special treat– I couldn’t see using it as a hot dog bun filling. The only thing I could figure was that lobsters were so abundant back East, people had to find a way to make use of them. We visited Cape Cod shortly after, tried a few rolls, but still didn’t grasp the idea of forking over nearly twenty bucks for mayonnaise and lobster on a hot dog bun.

Undeterred, we headed to Maine recently for a lobster roll tour, self-planned, with likely contenders culled from online reviews and discussions. We planned our lobster route in Portland and nearby Mid-coast, as locals call the region stretching north of Portland.

Our first discovery was the two different schools of thought on dressing lobster rolls –mayonnaise or butter being the predominant contention. Before long, some other foundational principles emerged as the keys to a great lobster roll, as follows:

Do not shred the lobster meat – You are not making tuna salad–you want big chunks, even the whole claw or half a tail
Dressing on the side or with a light hand – When lobster is this fresh, you want nothing to mask the flavor
Grilled buttered bun – Whether you choose butter or mayo or nothing, butter the bun and grill it.
Top-sliced hot dog bun– you may have to special order the bun, but it’s not really a lobster roll with out it
Fresh lobster –It goes without saying, but the best lobster rolls, naturally, come from the freshest lobsters
A lot of lobster –The most popular rolls on the circuit boast an entire lobster between the bun

Aside from that, we enjoyed a great diversity of lobster rolls – our favorite being “The Picnic,” from the Bite into Maine food truck camped in South Portland, the key to which seemed to be a barely detectable pinch of celery salt mixed with the requisite butter. We very quickly came to subscribe to the butter camp – I’d rather taste the sweetness of the lobster than lobster muted by mayonnaise and only butter seemed to enhance, rather than mask the ultimate luxury of fresh lobster.

Best Lobster Roll we Ate
Best Lobster Roll we Ate

Flageolet, Feta and Arugula Salad

Flageolet, Feta and Arugula Salad

It was time for beans – yes beans once again. Part duty, part pleasure, my healthy eating regimen prods me at least once a week to peer into my pantry, choose a bean, and make something healthy out of it.

“What in the heck are flageolets?”

This time, I peaked in and found a bag of flageolets, stamped with the reassuring label from the bulk bin section at Whole Foods. “What in the heck are flageolets?” I wondered, having no memory of why I bought them. A quick Internet search revealed that they are a type of white bean, prized by the French in a manner similar to the reverence held for Le Puy lentils. Sounds goods, I thought, and then immediately recalled the baby arugula in my fridge and how those two could pair together in my attempt to duplicate the wonderful arugula and white bean salad they sell at the Sopraffina Marketcafe in Chicago as part of their lunchtime antipasto trio selection.

Sopraffina Marketcafe’s Killer Dish

Flavor memories of the dish flooded my mind –the zing of the lemon, crunch and herbaceous notes from the celery, and the salty tang from the occasional fleck of feta. With these thoughts in mind I cooked the beans, set them aside and later quickly tossed a bean salad that come out even better than my memory of that famed Soprafinna version.

Here’s my take on a Flageolet, Feta and Arugula Salad

You can substitute Cannellini or Great Northern or any other white beans for the Flageolets.

Ingredients

  • Flageolet Beans, 1.5 cup cooked (1/2 cup dried)
  • Lemon zest, minced, 1 tsp.
  • Lemon juice, 2 T
  • Red pepper flakes, pinch, to taste
  • EVOO, 2 T
  • Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
  • Red onion, finely diced, ¼ cup
  • Celery, finely diced, ¼ cup
  • Celery leaves, chopped, 2 T
  • Arugula, small handful, about ½ cup, loosely packed
  • Feta, 1 T, small dice

Method

  • Cook the beans, use some from a can
  • When beans are cool, add to a bowl and toss with lemon zest, lemon juice, red pepper flakes, extra-virgin olive oil, red onion, celery and celery leaves
  • Season to taste with salt and pepper
  • Right before serving, add arugula and toss until it wilts slightly
  • Toss with feta and serve