Ropa vieja translates to “old clothes.” It is a Caribbean shredded beef stew with variants found in Cuba, Panama, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Ropa vieja recipes in English found on the web (American, mostly) use flank steak to get those long strands. But because it is lean, flank steak is really the worst cut for ropa vieja. Don’t sacrifice texture and mouth feel for good looks. Use stewing beef with a generous amount of fat.
It’s a lesson I learned the hard way. Here, let me show you.
The first time I cooked ropa vieja, I used a mixture of beef shank and knee caps. There were tendons and fat galore that gave the shredded meat a wonderful mouth feel — despite the meat having been cooked to the point that it literally fell apart.
But I didn’t post the recipe. Why? Because it wasn’t pretty. The beef strands were short and looked nothing like those ropa vieja photos that land on the first page of search results in Google. So, I made ropa vieja again to get those beautiful long strands.
Oh, my ropa vieja was visually perfect. In the pan and on the plate.
It looked good, the appearance was everything I hoped for and I was extremely excited to post my recipe. But there was just one problem. It had the mouth feel of cardboard. And no amount of spices and seasonings could cure the defect. Despite meat stews tasting better the next day, no one was thrilled with the idea of eating the leftover good looking ropa vieja. Oh, yes, we had leftovers.
That’s what happens when you use a lean cut of meat for cooking a stew. Steaks are good for quick-searing high heat cooking but they are the worst choice for the long and slow cooking required for making stews. I felt sheepish — embarrassed, actually — that I ever entertained thoughts of putting pretty looks over and above good cooking. Never again.
In the end, I decided to post the recipe for the first ropa vieja that I cooked — the one with the short strands, the one that didn’t look so pretty, the one that felt so amazingly good inside the mouth, the one that had us going back for second and even third helpings.
- 1.5 kilograms stewing beef (I used a combination of knee caps and shank)
- 2 tablespoons cooking oil
- 6 cloves garlic peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 large onion peeled and thinly sliced
- 1/4 teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon cayenne (reduce for less heat)
- 2 tablespoons smoked paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 16-ounce can diced tomatoes
- 6 cups bone broth
- salt to taste
- 4 bell peppers cut into thin strips
- 10 pitted olives sliced into rings
Arrange the beef on a baking tray and roast in a preheated 400F oven for 15 to 20 minutes until the edges are lightly browned.
Heat the oil in a thick-bottomed pot.
Saute the garlic and onion with the cumin, cayenne, paprika, pepper and bay leaves.
Pour in the diced tomatoes and broth. Season with salt (the amount depends on how well-seasoned the broth is).
Drop the roasted beef into the pan. Cover and simmer for three to three-and-a-half hours.
Scoop out the beef and transfer to a large plate or the chopping board.
Using two forks, shred the meat. Cut tendons and fat into small pieces.
Fish out the bay leaves from the cooking liquid and discard.
Return the beef (minus the bones, if any), to the cooking broth. Add the bell peppers and olives. Cook uncovered over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has reduced considerably. Taste once in a while and add salt, if needed. I like my ropa vieja to be almost dry. If you prefer a saucy stew, stop cooking while there is still a generous amount of sauce.