April 2, 2017
This week’s post was a bit challenging for me because, apart from a handful of athletes and some cooking and travel programs that have appeared on TV in the last couple of years, I haven’t come in contact with many Cubans. I’m not completely ignorant of the many qualities that make Cuban culture beautiful and unique, from the influence of the country’s African roots and music that you can’t help but move your feet to (even if you don’t know the steps), to its fried plantains, mojitos, and flavourful chicken dishes; however, when I sat down to really learn more about Cuban cooking, one dish came up over and over again as a favourite reminder of meals prepared by mothers and grandmothers – ropa vieja.
“Ropa vieja” literally translates to “old clothes” and gets its name from a local legend that claims that a poor, elderly man found clothing he had shredded and boiled because he lacked enough money to afford food for his family unexpectedly transformed into a delicious stew (with some divine assistance). The dish, widely considered to be a national dish of Cuba, is over 500 years old and has its roots in the Sephardic Jewish culture of Spain, eventually making its way to Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean with Spanish explorers en route to the Americas. While my own roots come from southern and central Italy, Spain, and France, my mother sometimes makes a variation on this dish, using flank steak, peppers, onions, and a mix of spices. In the end, it’s more stir fry than Spanish, but it’s still good (I actually consider chicken noodle soup made according to my mom’s recipe, poutine, and cake to be comfort foods, but that’s another story for another day).
So… back to ropa vieja. To make this dish, I borrowed a recipe from Ana Sofia Pelaez and Ellen Silverman’s The Cuban Table and made some white rice and black beans to accompany the dish. The rice you can make to your liking; I combined 1 cup of rice, 2 cups of water, and 1/2 tsp. of salt in a pot and cooked it on medium heat until boiling, then lowered the heat to low and let simmer until the liquid was absorbed into the rice (about 15 minutes total). To make the beans, I simply combined 1 can of black beans and 1/2 tsp. salt in a pot and cooked over medium heat until it just begins to boil. They cook quickly, though, so wait to make them until you’re almost ready to serve your dish.
Because I like to “tweak” recipes when I cook, either to make preparation easier or to adjust the flavour of the dish, I did not include cabbage with my iteration of this Cuban classic and substituted ground cloves for whole ones in the recipe. That being said, this dish is well worth the time and effort it takes to make it; it’s rich without being overpowering, it’s great as a sandwich or on its own… and, since it was originally designed to be made in advance so as not to disturb the Sabbath, you can definitely make it in your slow cooker if you choose (though I recommend making it from scratch if you have the time). Beef, bell peppers, roasted red peppers, and delicious spices… how can you go wrong?
Fun fact: Cuba has two different currencies; one, the Cuban peso, is used by Cubans. The other, the Convertible Peso (CUC), is intended for Cuba’s tourist economy and is pegged against the US dollar (USD).