Ropa Vieja (Shredded Beef in Tomato Sauce)
Literally translated, “ropa vieja” (Spanish) means “old clothes.” But, let me tell you, this delicious beef dish does not taste like old rags!
The reason for the name, apocryphal origin stories aside, is because the beef is shredded and it resembles threads, like old ripped clothes. The shredded beef is then cooked in a tomato-based sauce.
Like much of Cuban food, ropa vieja originated in medieval Spain, not that Spain as such was a thing in the Middle Ages). Colonists later brought it to Cuba during the colonization process.
The earliest documented version of a recipe with this name in Cuba comes from the 1857 book El Nuevo Manual del Cocinero Cubano y Español. I have cooked from this book before and use it for reference often.
The recipe is called “Ropa Vieja a la Americana,” or “ropa vieja in the American style.” Despite the name, it is not really the same dish.1 Yes, it has shredded beef, onions, and peppers, but it does not have a tomato-based sauce, which is essential in modern Cuban ropa vieja.
I do not know what exactly makes that recipe American style.
Today, it is not ropa vieja if it does not have a tomato-based sauce. Dishes evolve over time, some faster and more dramatically than others. To be sure, ropa vieja did not contain tomatoes in the Middle Ages.
They are a crop native to the Americas and were not introduced to Europe until the 16th century. Even then, Europeans did not eat them widely for another two or three hundred years.
El Nuevo Manual del Cocinero Cubano y Español does have recipes with tomatoes, and tomato sauce, just not for the ropa vieja.
In Cuba, sometime between 1857 and 1954, ropa vieja gained its tomato-based sauce. And we are the better for it.
When I decided to start learning to cook Cuban food, and I have a whole blog post about that, the first thing I set out to learn how to make was ropa vieja. This has been a life-long favorite food of mine and even my mom does not know how to make it well, by her own admission.
At this point, I have made it so many times that, without exaggeration, I have nailed it and it is consistently fantastic. It helps that I had a great recipe from which to learn.
Traditionally, ropa vieja has been the byproduct of beef soup. The beef is cooked into the soup to provide flavor for the broth, then pulled out and saved for ropa vieja. It is a get two meals out of one cut of beef kind of thing.
It is foods and preparations like this that really embody Cuban cuisine. Cuban cuisine is a peasant style of cuisine, a rustic cuisine. But that is not necessarily bad, as the final results attest to.
Some people still follow that two-meal preparation method, but I just cook my beef specifically for ropa vieja. Then I end up with beef broth, which I freeze and use as a base for soups.
So I guess I also follow the two meal method, just in reverse.
The recipe I am sharing today comes from Cocina Criolla by Nitza Villapol, a Cuban cookbook that I have had for almost 20 years. The book itself is, it turns out, a pirated copy of the original book. It is printed in Mexico and Amazon sold it, but Nitza Villapol never authorized any of the reprints that were made outside of Cuba. And not just for this book, for any of her books. If your copy of a Nitza Villapol book was not printed in Cuba, it is pirated.2
While I am certainly glad to have this book, it is unfortunate that presses and publishers chose to infringe on someone’s copyright, specially since, or precisely because, she could not fight back from a communist country.
But that’s a tangent for another time!
The recipe in the book follows tradition. It calls for beef that has already been cooked in a soup. As such, there are no instructions on how to cook the beef. In the recipe I am sharing here, I start with the uncooked beef, but that is the only point of departure from the original. Once the beef is cooked, everything is as Villapol wrote it, albeit translated from Spanish to English.
2 lbs beef skirt steak [you may use flank]
1 whole onion
2 whole carrots
1 tsp peppercorns
For the sauce:
1/3 cup of oil
2 garlic cloves
1 red bell pepper
1 8oz-can of tomato sauce
1 tsp of salt
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup of dry cooking wine
1 can of pimientos [optional]
Remove as much of the fat and gristle from the beef as you can and place it in a large pot with the onion, carrots, and peppercorns. Cover with plenty of water, enough so that the beef is submerged for the cooking process.
Bring it to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for an hour and a half to two hours, until the beef is fork tender. Some foam may float to the top during simmering, skim it off as best you can.
When the beef is cooked, remove it from the liquid and place it on a cutting board. Discard the vegetables and peppercorns, strain the broth and save it for another time.
Shred the beef into thin strands.
Slice the onion and the bell pepper. Crush the garlic cloves and cook them in hot oil with the onion, then add the bell pepper and cook them a bit longer. Add the rest of the ingredients [including the beef] and cook, covered, on low heat for 15 or 20 minutes, stirring occasionally so it doesn’t stick. The pimientos can be added chopped up, ground, or can be used for decoration. Serve with white rice and a good fresh salad. Serves 8.3
The recipe takes a long time, but most of it is inactive time (cooking the beef).
I do not love pimientos so I always leave them out entirely.
The recipe does not specify what temperature to cook the garlic, onion, and pepper over but it should be medium heat. You are not trying to brown them, just soften them.
The term used in the Spanish recipe is sofreír, which is a pretty particular word for which I have not found a good translation. The action it entails is not quite frying, not quite sweating, and only ever applied to this particular preparation of garlic, peppers, and onions. They are often chopped, but sometimes sliced, and produce something called sofrito. It is more or less a basic seasoning for meats, stews, soups, beans, etc.
There are a couple of clarifications about the ingredients that I need to make, because it matters to the recipe.
First, the meat. The recipe specifically calls for skirt (falda), but you can also use flank. Both of those cuts are characterized by thin strands of meat rather than the solid muscle of other cuts. When cooked long enough, they shred easily. For ropa vieja, you need that. To make the shredding easier, specially if the beef is still hot, use two forks.
I have had the best luck with skirt steaks both in texture and flavor. But, whereas skirt was once the cut of the poor, it is quite expensive now that it is trendy. This is the case at least in New York City, where I live. Don’t get me started on avocado toast!
But I digress; back to the ingredients.
Do you know what cooking wine is? If you are not Cuban, or least Hispanic, you might think that cooking wine is just a regular wine you use for cooking. But no, you would be wrong.
In this context, the wine (vino seco, literally “dry wine'”) is a cooking-specific kind of wine that is seasoned with salt. I have tried it, it is gross to drink as wine and not particularly alcoholic.
There are several brands in the US, and you can almost certainly find it in the Hispanic section of the supermarket. Traditionally, they have been white “wines,” but now you can also find them in red and golden, whatever that means.
My favorite way to eat ropa vieja is over white rice with fried ripe plantains, another staple of the Cuban table.
When I make it, I always have leftovers, which I heat up the next day and eat for lunch in a sloppy-joe style sandwich.
Quite frankly, I could eat this every day.
- J.P. Legran, El Nuevo Manual del Cocinero Cubano y Español, (La Havana: Imprenta La Intrepida, 1857), 25.
- Sarah Moreno, “The Legacy of Cuban cuisine guru Nitza Villapol arrives in Miami, along with some secrets,” Miami Herald, August 16, 2018. https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/cuba/article216747150.html
- Nitza Villapol, Cocina Criolla, (Mexico D.F.: Ediciones Zocalo, S.A, n.d.), 49. There is no date in this book, but the original print year in Cuba was 1954.