Ropa vieja. Be still, my heart.
While I was studying to become a dietitian, I lived in Miami for three years. Moving to Miami can cause some serious culture shock, even for a Florida native, but I have to admit that crazy town has some perks.
Some of the best perks were getting to know Cuban friends and their Cuban FOOD. In Miami, I met some of the world’s nicest people who got me very well acquainted with Cuba’s rich culinary traditions. Cafecitos. Maduros. Picadillo. Pastelitos. And one of my personal favorites, ropa vieja, a classic comfort food that makes you feel at home whether you grew up eating it or not. It’s a flavorful stew made with peppers, tomatoes, and flank steak cooked low-and-slow until the meat is tender enough to effortlessly pull apart into long shreds that resemble the fibers of threadbare cloth, hence the name (ropa vieja = old clothes).
If you live in Miami and you’re lucky, your friends will make this when they invite you for dinner. If you head to my old stomping grounds on vacation, do me a favor and order it from Puerto Sagua in South Beach (I miss that place so much!). If you’re stuck at home like me, you’ll have to take matters into your own hands.
Luckily, a pressure cooker makes it pretty fast and easy to get your ropa vieja fix. It’s time to pull out Instant Pot and get cooking!
Start with a big hunk of beef flank steak. Season it, and brown it well on both sides. (Even if you prefer to slow-cook vs. pressure-cook, this is a big reason to use Instant Pot: Saute Mode!)
When the meat has a healthy dose of golden-brown-delicious, set it aside and throw in some onions and garlic. Saute them for a couple of minutes before adding a cup of broth to deglaze all the tasty essence from the bottom of the Pot.
After deglazing, we can add a can of tomatoes, cumin, oregano, a bay leaf, and a little sazón or adobo if you are so inclined, for the authentic Miami touch. We’ll also add sliced mild peppers. When I lived in Florida, I liked to buy cubanelle peppers for this dish, but I haven’t seen them for sale here in California. This time I chose Anaheims instead, which are pretty similar, but I don’t think quite as sweet. Use whatever you like – bells or any favorite varietals available near you. Cuban food isn’t typically very spicy, but you could also add any of your favorite hot chilies too.
Mix it up, and nestle the beef back in to pressure-cook. Depending on the thickness of the steak, it typically takes about 40 minutes under high pressure to thoroughly cook a typical 2 lb. cut enough to easily shred. This length of time does leave the peppers very soft, so if you’re willing to take on an extra step, you may prefer to cook the peppers separately and add them back at the end. I’m defaulting to the above method for simplicity and because it does deeply infuse the pepper’s flavor. Just FYI – your choice!
Yasssss. When you open the lid, your beef should need only some gentle tugging with your fork to collapse into ropa vieja perfection. If your cut was thick and the meat isn’t tender enough yet, cook for a few minutes longer and try again.
This is an entree that likes to be served alongside a spread of Cuban fixin’s. You’ll probably want a fluffy bed of rice as a landing pad for savory spoonfuls of stew – I served plain brown rice here, but seasoned arroz amarillo is also a good pairing. A fresh salad is a nice touch to counter the richness of the main course. Black beans are always welcome on this table too, but my very favorite special side dish to include here are maduros – sweet, ripe plantains, sliced thickly on the bias and pan-fried – Dios mio! I make them rarely because frying is messy and it’s not always easy to find good plantains now that I’ve left south Florida (in Miami, you can even buy maduros ready-to-eat in the freezer section of the grocery store!) – but they are a true regional delicacy worth re-creating.
Isn’t it wonderful that cooking gives us the power to take a culinary vacation? If you already have a sentimental attachment to this food like I do, you can cook your way down memory lane. If Cuban food is completely new-to-you, you have a new exotic locale to explore. Either way, use your kitchen to take a trip. Bon appetit & bon voyage!