Outside of Miami and the New York metro area—and maybe Cuba—it's not easy to get great Cuban food. No matter. Every year, I have a whole hog (lechon asado) party in my southern California backyard. For those who don't eat pork, I offer the other signature dish on virtually every Cuban menu, ropa vieja. Literally translated as "old clothes," it is shredded beef stew. Ever since Nitza Villapol, the "Julia Child of Cuba," wrote a recipe in 1956 using Accent seasoning and flank steak, that's the beef that's been used, stewed or boiled before shredding. In this "gourmet" version, thanks to influences from countless Cuban cooks and experimentations, ropa vieja goes to a whole other level.
Cuban food is not spicy. It's comida criolla, a creole blending of the cuisines of the natives and the colonizers. This ropa vieja recipe, like much of Cuban cooking, relies on cumin, garlic, bay leaves, peppers and onions.
Instead of flank steak get two to three pounds of short rib meat. For a less costly option, look for chuck eye roll or flat. In either case, get Certified Angus Beef for its consistent marbling and quality. The flavor is worth the money. The key is to sort-of-braise the meat—without browning—at low temperature until it reaches an internal temperature of at least 180°F.
Once it's super-tender, you'll remove the meat from the pot, let it cool, and then cut it into three-inch pieces. You don't have to tear it into shreds right away. Empty and clean the pot you've just used and start sautéing the onions, bell peppers and garlic in good olive oil. Use sherry to deglaze. The next step is to add the cumin.
You could use ground cumin, but whole cumin seeds are best. Toast them in a dry, nonstick pan, and then grind them. You might never go back to pre-ground. Here you'll add crushed tomatoes. I use canned whole plum tomatoes, for consistency year-round, and crush them by hand. The amount of tomato you add distinguishes this dish as your own. I use about three cups prior to adding the shredded beef. Use the juice from the cans. Allow most of the liquid to evaporate during cooking. Put in salt and freshly ground black pepper to your taste. My final flourish is to top off the pot with frozen green peas, cover and let them thaw in the final minutes of cooking.
Serve over rice, white or yellow, with ripe plantains on the side. Make sure you've picked out your favorite cigar to cap off a great Cuban meal.
Visit cigaraficionado.com for the full recipe.