Here we are, at the end of 2008, in that strange limbo period between Christmas and New Year’s. No one is really going out, no one is really at work; it’s a weird feeling. And it’s all the weirder if you are alone for Christmas, as I was, even if you don’t celebrate it, as I don’t. As has been much discussed, though, Christmas is basically an American holiday at this point, or at least our version of Christmas, so even though I officially was missing lighting the menorah with my family, it was particularly poignant on the 24th and 25th. (Don’t feel too bad for me — I’m headed to California for the first two weeks of January, which is why I was stranded in Brooklyn for all of December. Still, Christmas alone is strange.)
I was on my own in New York last Christmas, too, when I was also headed to California for all of January. That was when I first cooked ropa vieja on Christmas Eve, and now that I cooked it again this year, I’d say it’s become a tradition. It’s a great dish: stewy, comforting, and richly flavorful. It needs to bubble on the stove for several hours, which gives an empty apartment a greater feeling of Christmas cheer (you can actually hear the bubbles). And it will last for days and days and days, just getting better and better as time passes (til a certain point, anyway), which means when you come home exhuasted from day-after-Christmas-shopping on the 26th, you have something at the ready. Yes, I still went day-after-Christmas-shopping in this economy, though it was more a day-after-Christmas-window-shopping trip. Still exhausting, however.
Ropa Vieja is Spanish for “old clothes.” I don’t think there’s a clear consensus about the origins of the name, but the basic idea is you take a tough cut of beef, simmer it for a long time with a lot of flavorful spices and veggies, and make it tender and delicious. Kind of like making your old clothes new again. Kind of like what many of us will be doing this year to revamp our wardrobes without spending a lot of dinero. It’s not only delicious, but also a metaphor for our times! Doesn’t get any better than that.
Though the recipe is not, ultimately, the most economical. It calls for either flank or skirt steak; curious what the difference would be, I bought half-and-half, coming to a total of about $20 for 3 pounds of meat. Considering this makes about 10 servings of food, I guess that’s pretty good, but at the time I had a bit of sticker shock. Last year, I remember the supermarket had neither flank nor skirt steak, so I just bought the cheapest cut of beef (knowing that that was the idea behind the dish in the first place), simmered it away, and it came out beautifully. I don’t, however, remember what that was…so you’ll have to choose your own adventure. If you follow the recipe, I recommend flank steak. As you can see from the picture, the flank (on the right) has much longer “grains” of beef, meaning it pulls into longer ropes. The skirt steak makes for shorter pieces of beef that also didn’t end up quite as tender. Also, you should note that all these times are pretty flexible. You need to simmer everything for at least as long as the recipe calls for, but no harm (and some good) may come of simmering longer.
This dish can take one long day (lots of simmering time) or two shorter days to make; I stretched it over two days so that Christmas Eve itself would have a little less work. Serve it with yellow rice (recipe forthcoming), black beans (I heated up a can of them and seasoned them with cumin, salt, and ground coriander), sliced ripe avocado, chopped red onion, and maybe a simple salad with some leafy greens and red wine vinegar (the acidity helps cut the richness of the food). I also sprinkled some goat cheese over, which was a great addition. And, though Cuban food is meant to be deeply flavorful but not particularly spicy, I couldn’t help myself, and drizzled Frank’s Red Hot sauce over the whole thing.
To drink? A glass (or bottle) of sparkling wine, the wise man’s answer to Champagne. Really a great pairing, plus you can pop the cork early and work up an appetite for your food.
I will say, also, that while I enjoyed this purely on my own, it would make a great Christmas Eve meal for a crowd. I love the idea of a nontraditional Christmas — when I’m in Berkeley, we always go to a friend’s house for a big lamb curry, with a table full of garnishes and lots of papadam. But hopefully this will appear on my stovetop before another 360 days passes.
Makes 10 servings or so, when served with rice and beans alongside
Adapted from Gourmet
For braising beef:
– 3 pounds skirt or flank steak, trimmed
– 2 quarts water
– 2 carrots, chopped coarse
– 1 large onion, chopped coarse
– 2 celery ribs, chopped coarse
– 1 bay leaf
– 3 garlic cloves, crushed lightly
– 1 teaspoon dried oregano
– 1 teaspoon ground cumin
– 1 teaspoon salt
– 1/4 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
For Ropa Vieja:
– 2 green bell peppers, cut into 1/4-inch strips
– 1 red onion, cut into 1/4-inch strips
– 4 tablespoons olive oil
– 2 cups braising liquid plus additional if desired
– one 14- to 16-ounce can whole tomatoes with juice
– 3 tablespoons tomato paste
– 3 garlic cloves, minced
– 1 teaspoon ground cumin
– 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
– 2 red bell peppers, cut into 1/4 inch strips
– 2 yellow bell peppers, cut into 1/4 inch strips
– 1 bag frozen peas, thawed
– 1/2 cup pimiento-stuffed Spanish olive, drained and halved
– more ground cumin and ground coriander (my addition to the recipe)
To braise beef:
1. In a large pot combine all braising ingredients and simmer, uncovered, 1 1/2 hours, or until beef is tender. Remove pot from heat and cool meat in liquid 30 minutes. Transfer meat to a platter and cover.
2. Strain braising liquid through a colander, pressing on solids, into a bowl. Return braising liquid to pot and boil until reduced to 3 cups, about 30 minutes.
Stew may be made up to this point 1 day ahead. Cool braising liquid completely and chill it and the beef separately, covered. One added bonus to doing this ahead of time and chilling the braising liquid is the fat will separate out and create a solid layer on top by the next day. You can then carefully remove the fat layer, and have a slightly leaner final product. This is what it looks like (with a piece of fat removed, so you can see the difference between the broth and the fat):
For Ropa Vieja:
1. In large pot cook green bell peppers and onion in 2 tablespoons oil over moderate heat, stirring, until softened.
2. While vegetables are cooking, pull meat into shreds about 3 by 1/2 inches.
3. Add shredded meat, 2 cups braising liquid, tomatoes with juice, tomato paste, garlic, cumin, and oregano to onion mixture. Use a wooden spoon to break up tomatoes a little. Add salt and pepper to taste and simmer, uncovered, 20 minutes.
4. While stew is simmering, in a large skillet cook red and yellow bell peppers in remaining 2 tablespoons oil over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until softened. Stir peppers into stew with enough additional braising liquid to thin to desired consistency and simmer, uncovered, 5 minutes.
5. Stir in peas and olives and simmer, uncovered, 5 minutes.
6. Add more ground cumin and some ground coriander (about 4 teaspoons) to taste. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Serve with yellow rice, black beans, sparkling wine, and various other accompaniments. Eat with family, friends, or the cast of the Wire.