Cuban Comfort Food (by any other name)

My first encounter with today’s dish was during a college tour trip to Manhattan.  We were visiting Columbia University with our son, who was then nearing graduation from high school.  When the time came to grab some lunch we popped into a Cuban joint across Broadway.  Sadly, in the intervening five years the place has closed, but it was there I sampled Ropa Vieja for the first time and was instantly hooked by this savory, bright-tasting meaty concoction.

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Recently I made some Ropa Vieja for some friends whom we hadn’t seen in some time.  One of them was born and raised in Honduras, so when I introduced the dish by its Cuban name, she didn’t recognize it.  All that changed, however, the moment she took her first bite.  She instantly brightened up and said: “I know this dish. In Honduras we call it salpicón.  This is just like my dad made it.  This is comfort food for me.”  Needless to say I was deeply gratified at her enthusiastic response, despite the fact that I had cooked up this down-home Honduran fare entirely by accident.

Whatever you prefer to call it, here is what you will need for 6-8 servings:

  • 1 cup beef stock or low-sodium beef broth
  • 1 can (15 oz.) crushed tomatoes
  • 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 jar (4 oz.) pimentos
  • 4 tbsp. tomato paste
  • 3 cloves minced garlic
  • 2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 2 ½ to 3 lb. flank steak
  • ½ cup green olives, sliced
  • ½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • ¼ cup vinegar
  • Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
  • Fresh cilantro for garnish

You can do this dish either in a slow cooker or using a Dutch oven braise.  Either way, combine the stock or broth, tomatoes and paste, onion, garlic, peppers, pimentos, dried spices and sugar in your cooking vessel and mix well.  Season the flank steak well with salt, and cut it into pieces of about a half-pound each. Push the pieces down into the sauce until they are completely covered.  Cover and cook on low heat, about 8 hours for a slow cooker or 3-4 hours for a Dutch oven.

When the steak is quite tender, transfer it to your cutting board and shred it with a pair of ordinary forks, like so.

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Return the shredded meat to the pot, along with the olives, cilantro and vinegar. Adjust your seasonings with salt and pepper, then cover to cook for another 30 minutes or so.

And with that, you’re ready to serve it up with a garnish of fresh cilantro.  Ropa Vieja is a great stand-alone dish, but also goes very well over a bed of rice.  We served ours with a side of my signature Cuban black beans, and there were big happy grins all around – even if we were actually eating Honduran food.  Until next time: Eat well, my friends!

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