Ropa Vieja gets its name from an old story of a poor farmer who had no money or food to feed his family. Out of desperation he took the shirt off of his back, gathered whatever food scraps and spices he could muster and cooked them with love and his tears. The result was a soul-satisfying stew that still lives on today. Ropa Vieja, literally means, “old clothes,” and refers to the beef being shredded to resemble torn rags.
A dish like Ropa Vieja, a stew of braised meat, leaves a lot of room for improvisation and substitution. The essential elements are:
- Flavorful cuts of beef — Something marbled with lots of connective tissue. Flank steak is commonly used but you can substitute London broil (or skirt steak) or even a roast.
- Sofrito — Addressed here if you want to make on the spot, here if you want to make ahead of time and store.
- Beef stock — I improv my own by cooking the beef in the pressure cooker in a mirepoix of my own: carrots, onions, garlic, green peppers, bay leaves. When the beef’s cooked, I’ll remove it then reduce the stock by at least half, place in freezer then skim the fat. You can use a beef base or a good bullion too.
Aside from those basics, you have a lot of room to play; add olives and capers, dice in some heat with some hot chiles like Serranos or Habaneros (or even a splash of Sriracha!), or layer in some fresh herbs like cilantro, oregano, or basil. There’s a lot you can do to make this your own and in my experience every Ropa Vieja cook has their own version. And it’s how I measure a Latin restaurant. If they have Ropa Vieja on the menu, it’s the first thing I’m trying.
Here are some notable recipes I’ve found and tried:
- Saveur — First off, this recipe changed how I fricassee. Adding bacon at the top elevates the whole experience. Plus anytime olives and capers are involved I’m in.
- Food & Wine — I used to consider it a bastardization to incorporate non-traditional ingredients like cinnamon and cloves into Ropa Vieja. Until I tried David Rosengarten’s. This is really awesome stuff, the cinnamon and clove don’t overpower but subtly enhance the aroma and flavor. Worth the time and effort.
- PaleOMG — Great slow cooker recipe with an accompanying carb-free “rice” alternative using cauliflower, if you wanna go that route. I served the beef over white rice with black beans.
- Havana Rumba — Not a recipe link BUT if you live in Louisville and haven’t tried theirs yet, make some time to visit. This link takes you to their gallery, it’s at the bottom, far left.