Spring is a rough season for me. My thin tropical skin adapts quickly to warm weather, and then when taken away, I enter a funk. The up-down roller coaster ride of spring weather makes me long for the almost-always warm weather of Tampa. When I start to think about home, I miss some of the cuisine enjoyed at the Cuban restaurants that pepper the landscape.
I first had ropa vieja and some other Cuban meals at The Columbia Restaurant in the Tampa district known as Ybor City. The Columbia has been in business for 102 years and is the benchmark for Cuban cuisine in my opinion. Ropa vieja is a slowly-cooked Cuban pot roast packed with flavor. The name translates to “old clothes” because the meat cooks so slowly for so long, that it shreds like old clothing.
Hawkins’ girlfriend Sanci visited that Saturday a few weeks ago when I tried the ropa vieja. She said that she ordered it once at, of all places, a Cajun restaurant. I wondered how a Cajun eatery would know about it, but she said that it was good. Already the bar had been raised with a baseline to compare to.
To get things started, I browned two small, pound-and-a-half pot roasts in a skillet, seasoning with salt and pepper. Any large and inexpensive cut of meat works well for this recipe. Trim the fat off if possible before browning. Inexpensive meat works well because the long slow cooking process would tenderize anything.
In a roasting pot, heat two tablespoons of olive oil with a heaping tablespoon of minced garlic to medium temperature. Slice two green peppers, two ribs of celery and two medium onions into thin strips and sauté quickly, just until the peppers begin to soften slightly. Season the vegetables again with a bit of salt and pepper, not much, just a pinch. Add the browned meat to the pot with a half-cup of red wine.
The flavor of ropa vieja comes primarily from cumin. A good teaspoon-and-a-half of cumin with a teaspoon and a half of black pepper gives the ropa vieja a spicy and distinctly Cuban flavor. Add two teaspoons of oregano and two bay leaves to the pot. A tablespoon of parsley is never wasted on a dish like this. Ropa vieja is incomplete without tomatoes. For that last bit of Caribbean goodness, cut two large, ripe tomatoes into large chunks and add them to the pot. Cover the pot and simmer it forever. If forever is too long, I would say at least three hours. During the last half hour, add a half-cup of frozen peas for character and flavor. Continue simmering with the lid on, stirring occasionally, and adding water or wine as needed should it dry out. When the meat is about to fall apart from long-term braising, grab a pair of forks and shred it as much as possible. Leave some larger pieces to give diners something to chew, but make sure you have plenty of “shredded old clothes.”
As I shopped for groceries, I thought I might make some yellow rice. Back home, yellow rice mixes are sold next to boxes of potato flakes. Since I could not find a mix, I searched for saffron to make my own, and again struck out. Yellow rice is a Cuban staple, but as I had no luck on that front, I opted for another Cuban staple, black beans and rice.
Black beans are readily available in cans. They taste good on their own, but I sautéed two tablespoons with a clove of minced garlic in a small saucepan before heating the beans. For the rice portion, any rice is acceptable. Serve the beans over the rice. With my rice, I used the usual Alan Reed staple of brown rice, toasted before boiling, with a pinch of cumin, some salt, and a little celery seed, just to match up with the flavor of the ropa vieja. I added a few peas to the rice as well, just for color.
Yellow rice, black beans and rice and fried plantains are the most popular side dishes for ropa vieja or any Cuban dish. Some fresh crusty bread goes well with it. Sanci said that she did not remember the ropa vieja from the Cajun place too well, but approved of my recipe. Hawkins enjoyed two bowls, as did your humble narrator. Next month, I am planning a short vacation back to Tampa, and will try to visit the Columbia to see how my cooking compares to their century-old gold standard. The taste of home made sure that a good time was had by all. Good eating.