Despite it being now officially spring, it’s been cold (and snowy!) in Brooklyn this week, and the winter weather has us dreaming of our recent trip to Miami. Scrolling through the photos of sunshine and empanadas, we were reminded of another dish we’d spent much time with — ropa vieja.
The dish is everywhere in Miami. It’s not surprising — it is, according to popular lore, the National Dish of Cuba. Still, to this day I’m always amused to find such a simple staple exalted on restaurant menus. It’s not much more than a decent way to dress up leftovers (perhaps the origin of its nickname?) — some shredded meat, a few vegetables, something saucy, maybe a little spice.
Growing up, we ate ropa vieja on the regular, and I dreaded it (so much so that I even had it in my head that we called it ropa sucia – dirty clothes! – but neither my mother nor my brothers can confirm this is true.) The pattern was set: first, Mama would make puchero — essentially, a potful of boiled meat and vegetables, consisting of whatever you have on hand — another simple staple popular in Argentina. The resulting broth would be re-purposed for real soup, we’d dine on what we could stomach of the boiled remnants (any real flavor having been sacrificed to the stock) and then, we’d find the leftovers of the leftovers on the table the next day — as ropa vieja.
Ah, puchero — even just thinking about it now makes my mouth pucker. I looked through Así Cocinan Los Argentinos — one of the few actual Argentinean cookbooks on our shelf in Brooklyn — and was not surprised to find the very first chapter dedicated entirely to puchero. The description is interesting, and accurate to my memory. First, the author notes that “there is no established formula for making puchero, as such. Each region, and every season of the year, comes up with its own variations. However it may be said that all Argentine pucheros have in common a number of related peculiarities which will always help in distinguishing it from other similar preparations found all over the Americas.” Two of these “peculiarities” refer to its enforced mild taste, and the last peculiarity is particularly striking: “Should there be any puchero leftovers, these will not be taken again to the table unless thoroughly modified, or reworked into another dish.” Aha! The “reason” behind roja vieja ?
(The best part of the whole puchero ordeal was the ladle-full of stock I always managed to skim off the top before of the pot before it was dispatched for some other dish: dotted with fat, and flavored with freshly ground pepper and some Parmesan, it was delicious. How I savored my mugfull!)
Our weekend in Miami brought back memories of evenings at home in Cowtown, eating ropa vieja, and as I dug into Puerto Sagua’s now-famous version, I began to think I should give my Mama more credit. While puchero remains to this day nothing more than a good way to make stock (and no amount of salsa golf will fix the eating of it), when you peel back layers of child-clouded memory, the ropa vieja she’d make was actually pretty good. It’s an ingenious way to use up the bits and pieces that might otherwise get thrown out in the stock-making process, and endlessly variable — reflecting the season and whims of the maker. So out of nostalgia, and because the cold weather makes us want restock our frozen stock of stock (he!) we set out making ropa vieja, Patty-style (skipping eating-of-puchero step, of course.)
In Cuba, ropa vieja is more typically made with beef, and as far as I can tell, it’s not only made from leftovers. Sometimes, it’s actually just made. (I stand willing to be corrected!) This version is, instead, typically Argentinean — it’s made with the leftovers from a good puchero, using the vegetables in season, and it’s not soupy like the Cuban version. It’s also made with chicken, as Mama would always make hers. But, unlike Mama, I served mine with a side of Dan’s new obsession, fried plantains. Miami inspiration, let’s say.
ropa vieja, à la argentina (or, à la patty).
the day before: make puchero
In a large pot combine four pounds of chicken — either a whole one, or meaty pieces — a few extra bones, and as many vegetables and herbs as you have on hand. [Mama would typically include a sweet onion, quartered, some celery ribs, a few large carrots and potatoes. Depending on the season and how many people she was feeding, she’d add sweet potatoes, or other root vegetables, a leek, zucchini, even green beans or a few cobs of corn if she had them on hand. To that she’d add a whole peppercorns, and herbs, fresh or dried: parsley, basil, oregano, sage, rosemary and thyme.] Cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer about about an hour and a half, until the meat and vegetables are cooked through, but not falling apart.
When done, strain, reserving the meat and veggies for your ropa vieja and saving the stock for soup. (You can of course eat this as puchero at this point if you’d like!) If you’re not using the stock in the next two or three days, freeze it.
the day of
Shred the chicken and dice the usable vegetables (some bits might be too mushy for your liking). Toss together in a bowl. Add a two or three hard-boiled eggs for creaminess and whatever fresh herbs you like or have on hand — fresh parsley works especially well here. Add enough olive oil to add some fat and moisture back into the chicken (you’ll have to be generous), a good splash of red wine vinegar, salt, and pepper. If you’re feeling extra-Argentinean, mix in a few tablespoons of mayo, or a dollop of plain yogurt to tie it all together. If you’re feeling Cuban, add a side of fried plantains and some hot sauce!
Take a ripe plantain — and I mean ripe, so ripe the skin’s gone black and you’re convinced it’s past its prime — and slice into rounds, about 2 cm thick. Heat canola or another neutral oil in a wide skillet over medium heat, enough so the plantains will be mostly covered but not submerged. When the oil is hot, turn the heat down to low, add the plantains, and fry them slowly, a few minutes on each side, until they’re golden and beginning to caramelize. You want the plantains to heat through and caramelize; if the heat is too hot, the outsides will burn but the insides will be cold. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel. Sprinkle with salt and a squeeze of lime juice and eat plain or with some yogurt!