I used to sail in a PHRF fleet with a fellow whose wife was a native of Cuba. She came to rest in the wilds of suburban East Tennessee after agonizing transport via the Mariel Boat Lift to escape Cuba. Castro indicated those who were fed up with the situation on the island could leave, so they skedaddled. She never told any stories and I never asked all those years I sailed with them, but I am sure it was a harrowing tale start to finish.
She had roots in the Cuban community in South Florida. They did a lot of salt water sailing when visiting relations in Miami. He got invited to take part in the J-24 midwinters to be sailed out one of the gold plated yacht clubs in Coconut Grove that year. In fact, it was right next door to the Olympic Sailing Center, come to find out. Long ass story short, he called me and said the race committee needed help and would I care to tag along. Does a one legged duck swim in a circle? I arranged a flight out of New Orleans post haste and met them in the Miami airport.
We cleaned our carcasses and laid our heads in a lovely high rise condo on the very tip of Key Biscayne. There was a beautiful view of the state park on the southern tip of the key, as I remember. We spent quite a bit of time driving on the Rickenbacker Causeway to South Beach. The drive revealed what I contend to be one of the most stunning skylines in America. The rest of the time was spent maneuvering marks for a huge national fleet of competitive keel boats upon the salty surface of Biscayne Bay. The rest of the time not navigating, sleeping, or showering was spent running amok in the depths of Little Havana with our willing translator.
Quite a few parallels can be drawn between the cuisine of the deep South and that of Cuba. Much like the itinerant Southern roadside barbecue or chicken shack I grew up with, it did not come as any great surprise to find every corner store and crusty dive offering a myriad of Cuban staples. Given the agrarian backbone and the waste-not, want not ethic of the pre-Castro, workaday Cubano, a way of battering and frying everything but the squeak or the quack or the grunt and presenting it in a most appetizing way is a kitchen norm. Needless to say, I reveled in and cringed at all sorts of victuals in locales that varied from the dim to the sublime.
It seemed as though every service station, that is to say, a place that offered gasoline, a grease rack, and an alignment machine, also had a discreet window that allowed any number of gastronomic delights to pass through from a guerrilla kitchen. I sampled the full spectrum of pressed sandwiches from such a port-hole, from the Medianoche to the classic Sandwich Cubano, the slighty arcane Cubano Mixo.
Similar venues, albeit closer to the waters of Biscayne Bay, offered Octopus sautéed in its own ink, giant Stone Crab claws with a spicy Scotch Bonnet relish, and Conch prepared pretty much any way you can dream up. There were Conch fritters, Conch salad, fried Conch, Conch ceviche, and the list goes on. I remember one spot in particular; literally, a thatched grass hut on the same stretch of sand as the Miami Marine Stadium, where the chef-in-residence kept a chicken wire enclosure, about 10 feet square, anchored in the emerald tinged water about thigh deep. When someone wanted a conch dish, one merely waded into the enclosure selected a shell, and WHACK, fresh conch at your fingertips. I still might be coerced into dragging my testicles through a bucket of rusty razorblades for a never ending order of those conch fritters. Spiced ever so delicately with scotch bonnet – if there is such a thing – they were truly memorable.
So when piece of flank steak mysteriously appeared in the refrigerator next to a container filled to sloshing with fresh roasted peppers from the garden, you can imagine, based on the flashback above, the super tanker full of karma that sailed through my mind as the pairing materialized. I dug out my yellowed paperback version of A Taste of Cuba by Linette Creen (forward by Felipe Rojas-Lombardi), and declared the flank steak and roasted peppers forevermore intertwined. Their destiny would play out fully in a flavorful pot of Ropa Vieja.
Ropa Vieja came wtih to Cuba by Spanish sailors and was commonly served by Havana innkeepers who catered to seafaring folk. Literally translated, Ropa Vieja means “old clothes.” The shredded flank steak resembles rags.
The assortment of chiles I roasted were just that. There were Anaheim’s, Poblanos, and little round ones that are green and devilishly hot, about the size of a golf ball. Their name escapes me a the moment. I selected some of each in an amount to make a chopped cup.
In my version of Ropa Vieja I start with a water simmer; a poach, if you will, on the meat rather than fully braising it, only because it’s the way my recipe book dictates. Be sure and cook with seasoning vegetables until tender, somewhere just this side of two hours. It needs to just fall apart. Reserve three or four cups of the stock and use it with an equal amount of fresh diced tomato as the base of the stew. I purée the seasoning veg and make sure it finds its way into the pot as well. Never any need for sophistication in terms of bouquet garni; a head of garlic, a clean celery root, an onion, and a carrot or two should answer nicely.
I find it a plus, once I get this one-pot dish assembled and heated through, to put it in the fridge for a spell if I can. It goes a long way in settling all the flavors into a groove, much like any serious gumbo cook in New Orleans would do. You never eat gumbo the same day like some festival troglodyte. It’s always twenty times better after 24 hours. Trust me.
Serve it over a starch of some sort. White or yellow rice is the norm. A slice or two of crusty French Bread would work as well.
Even though flank steak is at a premium these days, save up your forbidden ricey carbs for a month and indulge. You will not be disappointed.