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Old Clothes/New Beginnings

When I asked my grandmother who’d taught her how to cook, her answer was always “el exilio”. Married in the 40’s and raising children in early 50’s Havana, she was very much a part of a generation that believed every modern convenience was invented to limit their time in the kitchen – a movement that if she hadn’t followed, she would have invented. Then like many women emigrating to Miami and starting over in a new country with less help and fewer resources to feed their families, the one guide they all shared was Nitza Villapol’s Cocina Criolla.

Known as the Cuban Julia Child (if those two things aren’t in fact mutually exclusive), her book became the center of every cuban kitchen in exile, providing a way for them to see their family’s through a difficult transition and begin recreating what they’d left behind. A controversial figure, whenever I have a basic question about Cuban cooking the first suggestion is always to check el libro de Nitza. Reading through it now, I find all kinds of idiosyncrasies. Cubans are unrepentant Francophiles so while they’re french terms sprinkled throughout, there’s an entire section that puts “pie” in quotes and names ingredients by their American brand names. Only available in a slight, paperback edition that looks dog-eared even when it’s new, it’s a popular gift even now for Cuban women who are either getting married or leaving home, whichever comes first. My own copy found me when I was helping to pack my grandmother’s belongings after she’d passed. I was shocked. First, that she owned a cookbook and second that it had clearly been used.

img_14931Now that I have decided to focus my blog on anything and everything to do with Latin food, it seemed only right to make a fresh start with what I know and love best, Cuban food in exile.  I decided to begin with Nitza’s Ropa Vieja, a traditional shredded beef stew.  I remember the first time I saw my grandmother making it.  Unable to see over the counter, when she told me with a wink that it was Ropa Vieja or “Old Clothes”, I imagined the enormous pot she was stirring full of torn t-shirts, missing socks and tattered shoelaces.  Given her spotty culinary history, this was not entirely unreasonable.  Despite this, I didn’t hesitate to try it that night or any other.  Not thinking I’d been wrong and that the stew was actually delicious slow cooked beef with spicy tomato sauce poured over fluffy white rice, but that old clothes and torn shoelaces tasted great when carefully prepared with whatever was on hand.  It’s still one of my favorites.

Ropa Vieja/Shredded Beef
This recipe is adapted from Nitza Villapol’s Cocina Criolla.

2 lbs. flank steak cooked (cooked beforehand in it’s own juices-recipe to follow)
1/3 cup of vegetable oil
1 large onion cut in fine rings
2 garlic cloves, mashed into a paste
1 large green bell pepper cut in thin strips
1 cup tomato sauce
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Ac’cent *
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup roasted red peppers

Shred the meat into thin strips and set aside.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add the onions and mashed garlic and saute about 3 minutes until translucent.  Add the green pepper and saute an additional 2 minutes.  Add the remaining ingredients except the red peppers and simmer covered over low heat for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Garnish with the red peppers and serve over white rice.

Makes 8 servings.

*This ingredient like many american brands was left off later editions without substitution.  I included it here to stay as close to the original recipe as possible, but it could be omitted.

Cooked Flank Steak for Ropa Vieja
The original recipe did not specify how to prepare the flank steak so I’m including a recipe adapted from A Taste of Old Cuba by Maria Josefa Lluria de O’Higgins.

2 lbs. flank steak
1 sprig parsley
1 bay leaf
3 large onions, peeled and quartered
1 garlic clove, peeled
1 carrot, peeled and cut into chunks
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon peppercorns

Place the meat in a large pot and add water to cover.  Add remaining ingredients and bring to a boil over high heat.  Reduce heat to low and cover.  Simmer for 2 hours.

Remove meat and set aside to cool.  Strain and reserve broth for another use.

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7 Comments Post a comment
  1. cami #

    I used to think the same exact thing when I was little and anybody mentioned ‘ropa vieja’.

    13 May 2009
  2. Gladys #

    On a lark I googled Nitza Villapol not expecting any results. Well, lo and behold I was astounded to find so much info on her. Back in the late sixties, when I was in high school, I found a copy of a Cuban cookbook by a Nitza Villapol. Quite frankly I had no idea who she was since I left Cuba in 1961 at an age when cooking was the least of my concerns. Through the rest of high school and college I kept the book tucked away and forgotten. I had the good fortune of marrying an America who loves Cuban food so I pulled my book and started cooking. Here I am 34 years later thumbing through my no yellowed and falling apart Nitza Villapol book. I would never consider replacing it! It’s one of my prized possesions!

    24 March 2010
  3. Lizbeth #

    i remember seeing that book in our house!!

    i used to call it “ropa sucia” lol… same concept of imagining old clothes for dinner.

    i sure hope i can find the book on amazon.
    thank you for bringing me back to my childhood

    28 January 2011
  4. i just bought Nitza’s Cocina al Minuto cookbook. soo many familiar and UNfamiliar recipes to try!! i’m going to make ropa vieja this week by melding this recipe with the crockpot ropa vieja recipe from Marta’s My Big Fat Cuban Family blog. :]

    5 September 2012
  5. thank you

    27 November 2014

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