Tag Archives: Chicago butcher

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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
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Leetle Eataly

I don’t remember exactly when the newly opened Chop Shop arrived on my radar, but somehow I got the idea that it was a smaller version of Eataly, the famed slow food market and restaurant emporium recently opened in the River North. While I could see some common elements – butchery, deli and restaurants all sharing the same space with emphasis placed on quality products, it felt more like a gastropub than an enoteca.

The lovely cuts displayed in the butcher case inspire visions of intimate dinners and candlelight, while the bar in the back is a draw for eaters and drinkers with more immediate needs.  A small demo station separates the two, with an apron-clad chef hard at work breaking down meat. I stopped for a few moments to watch, but felt it best to move on when he responded to my inquiry about whether he minded an audience with “whatever floats your boat” without looking up.

Undeterred, we headed to the bar to sample the wares. The menu is mostly a platform for its meats, which appear in multiple forms—deli sandwich, hot sandwich, and panini. The real star of show, however, is clearly the Meat and Cheese Board, an antipasto of Italian meats, cheeses and accoutrements that just about everyone in the bar was ordering.

Meat and Cheese Board at The Chop ShopOur very own wooden board arrived in due time, accompanied by a side of crusty charred bread. The meats themselves were delightful, but the lonely artichoke heart was clearly scooped straight from the can, doing nothing to improve its insipid flavor. My companion bit into it, flinched and remarked “If you’re going to take something out of a can, you better do something with it.”

On the other hand, the housemade porchetta was the best thing we ate all day and a truly a revelation. The chef and manager both seemed rather proud of how they’d made it, and I can’t say I blame them. Wrapped in pork belly to keep it moist, the pork tenderloin is stuffed with a blend of fennel, marmalade and other aromatics, giving it the kind of complexity that lingers long after you swallow. I’d heard of porchetta before, a traditional Italian roasted meat also featured as the sandwich of the day at Eataly on Thursdays, but I’d never actually tasted it. In one bite, the taste memory of porchetta and Chop Shop merged into one.

The Chop Shop is a great choice for a mixed crowd. Meat lovers will be giddy, but there is also an interesting assortment of salads, hand-tossed in bowls the size of the family-style salads served at popular pizza places. We spotted a lovely bowl of wild arugula on a nearby table, a billowy pile of feathery greens,  peppered with beets, goat cheese and nuts and hungrily anticipated its arrival. Unfortunately, our salad was flatter and wetter than that our neighbors and lacking the acidity it needed to balance the  arugula.

Surprising, amidst the sea of meat choices, there stands a lone ricotta gnocchi offering, perhaps an ode to Italy after all.