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Ropa Vieja: Old Clothes, Big Flavor!


Facebook, I think most listeners know, has a larger population than, well, possibly Earth. It is too big to contemplate or—probably-- trust.

But there is one small colony on Facebook I have come to find haven and even sense in. It is a sub-community called, “I remember Key West when.” I go there to remember, savor and taste the roots of my cooking all over again. Other memory treasure salvers who still live full time down there, (or at least seem to) post pictures of the places I wandered into as I came to know my adopted home town.

Those fellow ‘Facebookers’ help blow on the tiny sparks of recollection until they become a blazing inferno in my mind and take me to the first moments and flavors of the South Florida I was loving.

Key West Connection

Ropa Vieja was one of the first dishes I tried and instantly loved in Key West in the 1970's. Somewhat incongruously, I was introduced to it via two gentlemen from Detroit named George and Tony. The happy couple had come down somewhere around 1976 and bought a restaurant of longstanding Cuban family ownership on Duval Street named “El Cacique.” Those men may have been newcomers to town, but they had the good sense of letting the Cuban family members continue the cooking and serving and keeping the décor as it always was.

George and Tony loved the party lifestyle of their newly adopted island, as so many of us did. George, the more jovial and larger man, would regale us with gossipy pretenses of shock and bawdy laughter while recapping the previous night’s revelries at some legendary bar of the times. While Tony, the quieter one, would shake his head and hold it gently as if it were a cracked egg in danger of bursting. Of course, maybe he held his head due to the extra shots of rum George could handle but the slender Tony could not.

"Old Clothes"

Anyway, Ropa Vieja literally translates as "old clothes," as George informed us with a wry smile and a 'hey, it tastes great!' shrug. He was right. The slowly braised flavor of less expensive but more tasty cuts of beef have always been the most interesting of all to me. The meat is cooked until it is "in tatters" ,hence the ragged sartorial reference.

My chef friends José Garcia of Philadelphia and the great Douglas Rodriguez from here in Miami both reach back to their mother’s methods and cook the meat in a pressure cooker. I also love the results that the pressure cooker yields. I wish I had grown up learning how to deal more intuitively with that effective but volatile device!

An egg garnishes a good many dishes of Spanish origin and, although it's not traditional for Ropa Vieja, I included one in my Ropa Vieja recipe when I wrote my third cookbook, “New World Cuisine.” The egg also came from my memories of the rum-damaged Tony and his habit of cradling his own noggin when George first set the dishes of the tomatoey, beefy stew before us back at “El Cacique.” Artistic license is a wonderful thing!

Going back even further in my life is my Illinois home town. It is named Mundelein. I’m not advocating anyone joins Facebook. But there is a sub community there called, “I Remember Mundelein when Mundelein was cool.” I remember that too. But I hardly ever see anyone on that page raving about the foods we ate back then. Maybe that is part of why I ran off to Florida.


In my mind’s eye I can see a million eyebrows in our large area code go way the hell up when folks read this version of a time honored dish with a chuck roast versus skirt or flank steak. I like it fine when I have it made that way. But we love the added richness of the chuck in the braise and what it does for the sauce. I’m as much of sauce lover as I am a meat eater. And the Van Aken family all is in on this breach with tradition and potential Cardinal Sin...and that is a comfort. Serve with rice and any vegetable that won’t crush the nice red wine you deserve for cooking so well. Yes Ropa Vieja means ‘old clothes’. And you might want to wear some when you lustily spill some on the front of your shirt.


Serves 6 as a dinner with side dishes.

5 pounds beef chuck 7-bone roast, bone in

4 teaspoons Escabeche Spice Rub

1/2 Cup olive oil

2 tablespoons butter

2 Spanish onions, sliced medium

6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced; kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 cups Beef Stock

2 cups of water

2 Bay Leaves

2 8oz. can plum tomatoes, peeled

3 tablespoons light brown sugar, packed

1 teaspoon mustard powder

1⁄2 cup lemon juice

1⁄2 cup Spanish sherry wine vinegar

1⁄2 cup ketchup

1 1⁄2 tablespoons zest of orange

8 piquillo peppers, cut into thin strips

Preheat an oven to 250 degrees.

Place the steak on a work surface and rub evenly on each side with the escabeche spice rub. Over medium-high heat half of the oil in a large, heavy saucepan or Dutch oven and sear the meat on all sides. Transfer the meat to a pan and set aside.

Turn the heat down to medium.

Add the butter and additional olive oil to the pan and when it begins to foam, add the onions and garlic.  Now season with salt and pepper.  Stir well.  Cook until caramelized, about 8 to 10 minutes.

Deglaze the pan with the Beef Stock and water, stirring well to lift any collected bits of meat off the bottom of the pan. Turn the heat to low and add the meat back in. Squeeze  the tomato between your fingers into the pot an bring to  a simmer. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and place in a 250 degree oven and cook for two hours, turning the meat once.

Meanwhile, combine the brown sugar, mustard powder, lemon juice, vinegar, ketchup and orange zest in a small bowl. Cover and set aside.

Once the meat has simmered two hours add the brown sugar mixture, cover and cook one more hour.

Now remove the meat from the pot and set aside in a perforated pan with a drip pan underneath to cool a bit. When it is cool enough to handle shred it apart along its natural seams and reserve the meat in a clean bowl. Discard the bones.

Meanwhile strain the sauce through a medium-holed strainer into a tall pitcher like container. Allow it to settle about 15 minutes or so and then skim the fat off the top and discard.

Return the sauce to a large, clean sauce pan. Raise the heat to high and reduce the liquid until it equals about 1 quart. Pour the sauce over the meat. Add the piquillo peppers. Stir

Season with salt and black pepper, to taste. Stir again.

This is a dish that improves if made a day or more in advance. Reheat slowly if so.

Norman Van Aken has been described as legendary, visionary and a trailblazer. He is known as “the founding father of New World Cuisine,” a celebration of Latin, Caribbean, Asian, African and American flavors. He is also known internationally for introducing the concept of “Fusion” to the culinary world.