I used to be a very picky eater, a likely result of my mother cooking the same rotation of seven dishes for the entirety of my childhood. This perfectly orchestrated dinner schedule suited my risk-averse personality, and the fact that my parents are Cuban meant dinners always comprised of protein, rice, and magic mom sauce.
On weekends, we deviated from the traditional and went for some “outside” food — cheese pizza from Pizza Hut or some lo mein and orange chicken from the local Chinese spot, where the owners curiously spoke some really, really good Cuban Spanish.
Our lives were habitual, and for us, that was good.
There was a dark, impactful consequence to this arrangement. I started to reject all other foods that fell outside this soft, safe, and familiar bubble. Who needs a burger from McDonald’s when mom makes her famous Cuban burgers every two weeks? A burger with so many chopped onions, you’d think the meat was just there to keep all the other ingredients together.
As I grew old enough to make my own food decisions, I started experimenting. The first time I ate Taco Bell was on the last day of high school, while all the other kids were high out of their minds eating their 500th Double Decker Taco Supreme. I was severely stunted.
I evolved by force-feeding myself sushi until I learned not to gag at the feeling of raw fish in my mouth. I married a man who loved to cook and loved to take me out of my culinary comfort zone.
Eventually, I had several years of cultural dining experiences under my belt, with hundreds of Instagram photos and Yelp reviews to prove it. I could lean back in gluttonous amusement as my parents gasped at my radical food adventures. Yes mom, I ate escargot and I didn’t die.
I was becoming a monster.
One night at my parent’s house for dinner, I poured an offensive amount of Sriracha sauce all over the beans my mother toiled over for hours. I added some rice vinegar to a bowl of rice she served me and snottily told her “this is how the Japanese do it.” My mom barely adds salt to her dishes and the taste of pepper is spicy to her palate. She watched me deface all of her traditional meals, horrified.
This is probably a good time to mention that I’ve never learned to cook. Moving from mom’s home-cooking to my husband’s Pan-asian stoner cuisine left me no reason to really pick up the habit. At 27, my repertoire of things I knew how to cook started at Rice Krispies treats and ended at omelettes.
As Thanksgiving approached, my office was hosting their annual employee potluck. Usually, I force my husband to make a huge batch of his favorite Barefoot Contessa Pesto, Peas and Pasta salad. Undeterred by my complete lack of any of the skills required to complete the task, I agreed to cook a dish anyway.
For inspiration, guidance, best practices and general love, I decided that spending an afternoon with mom would be a good place to start. We decided she’d teach me how to make one of my favorite childhood dishes — Ropa Vieja, which is Spanish for “Old Clothes”.
As I jotted down the recipe while she cooked, I asked her for precise measurements so I can accurately replicate it later. Afterall, I was planning on making 10 whole servings. As she added ingredients, she kept saying “a ojo” which more or less means “eye it out” or “cooking by eye”.
“What do you mean, “eye it out?”, just guess?! I’m going to royally fuck this up, you know.”
“Mija, I’ve been making this dish for over twenty years, trust me, it’s just second nature.”
While the recipe I’m about to share is mostly useless thanks to the amount of irresponsible guesstimation, my very first 10-serving ropa vieja came out “freakin’ magical” according to my coworkers.
Recipe: Ropa Vieja
Ingredients: Serves 4
- 2 lbs flank steak
Mom’s pro-tip: “Ask the butcher to cut it into small chunks”
- 1/2 green pepper
- 8 cloves of garlic
Mom’s pro-tip: “The more the better”
- 1 large onion
- 15 oz. can of tomato sauce
Mom’s pro-tip: “Get Goya”
- Golden cooking wine (Vino Seco)
- 1 jar of Fancy Pimientos
- Olive Oil
- 1 Bay Leaf
This recipe works using a pressure cooker or just a large pot of water. Pressure cooker is ideal since it’ll make the meat softer in a shorter amount of time. In my case, I only had a large pot.
Make sure your meat is cut in chunks and put them in your pot/pressure cooker. Fill it up with water until it’s just covering the meat.
Cover it up and set it to boil. Once it starts boiling, turn the temperature to low. If you’re using a pressure cooker, set your timer for an hour and twenty minutes. If you’re using a pot, set it for at least two hours.
While you wait, start prepping the veggies. Cut the green pepper and onions into long strips, and mince the garlic. Set aside, and watch whatever you have on the DVR while you wait.Once the meat is done, take it out of the pot and onto a plate or bowl. DO NOT throw out the succulent meat juice, you’ll need it later.
Take a fork (or your hands) and start to strip the meat into stringy goodness. Don’t burn yourself!
Now it’s veggie time. Take your oiled up pan and place your green pepper/onion/garlic mixture and fry until translucent — don’t burn them. Place all of your stringy meat into the pan and stir a bit.
Grab your can of tomato sauce and give it a couple of hard shakes into the pan. This process is super “a ojo”, but for those that can’t live by abstract terms (I can’t), I guesstimated a little over a half cup of tomato sauce — feel free to increase that amount for extra sauciness.
My first time doing this didn’t end up “quite right” so I added another pour of vino seco and salt until I achieved near-perfection.
Ropa vieja is best enjoyed with fluffy white rice and a couple of tostones.