String Theory, Or Ropa Vieja

ropa vieja

So good I can't even tell you--you'll just have to make some yourself!

When I was in my Must-Get-Every-Niche-Cookbook-Known-to-Man phase, I acquired a wonderful little book called The Chili Cookbook, by Norman Kolpas.  Between its unpretentious soft covers, I discovered such gems as Day-After-Thanksgiving Chili, a chile-fied take on Cioppino and Ropa Vieja-Style Chili.  The Beloved and I made the latter a couple of times several years ago.  Maybe even as long ago as the Last Century.  Anyhow, it was a delight, and I've dreamed about revisiting ropa vieja ever since.

Ropa vieja is Spanish for old clothes and is named for its ragged, tattered appearance.  While it can be made with a combination of meats, it is most often made with beef flank steak.  In most preparations, to render flank steak--a very Stringy piece of meat--tender, we are told to cook it hot and fast and cut it against the grain.  In ropa vieja, however, the idea is to Capitalize upon the stringiness by cooking the flank steak low and slow and then shredding the meat up along the grain.  What you end up with is long muscle fibers that are chewy but not tough because they've been separated.  Plus, it has a really beefy flavor. Plus one, it looks really cool.

Most ropa vieja recipes are tomato-based.  Some call for potatoes and chickpeas.  That sounds great to me--I am a Fan of both of those guys.  But Monday night, due to Lack of Planning and a general sense of Malaise, I had to use what was already in the house--a pantry ropa vieja.  We had purchased some happy grass-fed flank steak from Rare Earth Farms a couple of weeks ago, so that was our base.  I remembered the general idea for the ropa vieja style chili, but didn't bother to look at the book because it was Up--16 steps Up--and I was already fighting malaise.  At any rate, this is what I came up with.  And it was G.U.D. Good.  And it was even better last night.  It'll probably be even better tonight, and for that I am thankful.

Pantry Ropa Vieja

  • 1 pound flank steak
  • juice of two juicy limes, divided
  • 2 Tablespoons of your favorite chili powder blend (I used Penzey's Chili 3000, which should be read with reverb)
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • handful of dried chiles of your choice (I used 3ea Guajillo, California and
    Japonés all packaged by the lovely folks at Badia)
  • 1 Tablespoon cumin
  • water or veggie, chicken or beef stock (amount will vary:  see Rules)
  • 1 Tablespoon canola (or other neutral) oil
  • 1 very large sweet onion, chopped
  • 3 bell peppers, chopped
  • 1 can Ro-Tel "Chili Fixin's" (mock not the Ro-Tel)
  • 4 oz malty dark-ish beer, such as Negro Modelo
  • a little sugar, if necessary

The Rules
I admit, these rules are a bit fussy.  If you don't feel like messing around with a bunch of different techniques and appliances and What Not, you are welcome to throw everyone in the slow cooker, turn it to low, and walk away for hours and hours.

Take the flank steak out of the fridge, squirt the juice from half a lime over each side of the meat. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper, and then evenly apply about a tablespoon of Your Preferred Chili Powder to each side.  Cover and let sit out for about 1 1/2 hours, or until the meat comes up to cool room temperature.

Rip the stem ends off of all the dried chiles and scrunch the chiles around to get most of the seeds out.  Rip them into three or four pieces each and toss them into a large heavy-bottomed skillet.  I used my 12" cast iron skillet from the Lodge People.

Turn the heat to medium and toast & stir the peppers until they deepen in color a bit and are fragrant.  During the last 30 seconds or so, add the tablespoon of cumin and keep stirring to prevent burning.  Powdered spices burn Quickly, so be vigilant.  As soon as you can smell the chiles and cumin, pour in enough water/stock to coat the bottom of the pan and keep things from burning.

Push all the peppers to the sides of the pan, and place an 8"-10" flat rack in the pan.  I used a round cake cooling rack.  Add enough extra water or stock to come just below the rack surface.

Place the flank steak on the rack, cover the pan (you can use a lid, some foil or even just put a cookie sheet over the top).  Bring the water to a boil, then reduce heat to medium to medium-low and let the meat steam until cooked through and relatively easy to pull apart with two forks, about an hour. Add water/stock as necessary to keep the pan from boiling dry and burning all your peppers.  Once the meat has cooled off a bit, have someone thoroughly shred it by pulling apart with two forks or any other likely looking implements.  Set the meat aside.

In the meantime, heat a bit of vegetable oil in a Dutch oven and cook down the onion and peppers along with a little salt and pepper over medium-low heat until golden brown and beautiful.  Once the vegetables are done and have given up all their liquid, pour in the can of Ro-Tel and let everything cook down together for another ten minutes or so.  When the mixture is almost dry, pour in the beer and cook for just a couple of minutes.

After the meat is thoroughly cooked, remove it to a plate to cool off a bit.  Carefully pour the cooking liquid, peppers and all into a blender.  Put the lid on but leave it ajar, and cover the lid with a towel--blending hot liquids is a bit Hazardous, so be careful and make sure the liquid doesn't fill the blender jar more than halfway.  Blend the chiles and water/stock until you have a smooth, thick sauce.

Add your beautiful chile sauce to the Dutch oven and stir to combine.  Stir in the reserved stringy-but-tasty meat, cover and cook over medium-low heat for about half an hour.   Taste and adjust seasonings.  Mine needed the juice of another lime and more salt.  Stop adding when you like how it tastes.

Serve over your Rice of Choice.  Refrigerate the leftovers, because it will taste twice as good the next day.

Yes, it sounds like a lot of bother, but I went over and visited the chickens for a half an hour during the Steaming of the Meat.  I just turned the heat down to low and Went Away.  I think from beginning to eating took about 2 hours or so.  Not bad for a dish that tastes like it was cooked all day.

I really do hope you try this--it was wonderful, and The Beloved and I are quite looking forward to devouring the last of the leftovers tonight.

ropa vieja

In the fridge, the flavors have a chance to meld and mellow and deepen. Whatever you do, don't eat it all on the first night.


  1. says

    I love this kind of food and the great thing it is the next days leftovers taste even better than they did when it was first cooked! It looks wonderful.


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