Monday, January 13, 2014

A spring stew ("Ropa Vieja")

It so happens I have a good recipe for "Ropa Vieja," which I made several years ago and kept in draft, accompanied by a dull and rather queasy photograph of the stew, also in Blogger draft. Actually I have many old recipe-and-photo combinations in my own personal Blogger slush pile, waiting for attention. Chantilly potatoes -- salmon chowder -- braised fennel Carrot pudding désastre. And why is it so difficult to photograph meat, in particular, in any appetizing way?

This means that as we prepare Ropa Vieja, Cuban beef and pepper stew from Ruth Reichl's Gourmet cookbook, we will have to content ourselves with pretty and completely unrelated pictures taken on a resplendent spring noon. Here are tulips and plum tree blossoms,




dogwood, maples, and blue sky,


yellow forsythia, and above all, crabapple trees.



I love crabtrees, and have an ambition to one day live in a house that has a crabtree in its yard.


Did you know that the modern apple in all its large and shiny varieties is partly descended from wild apple trees that behave much like the crabapple? That is, they naturally produce many small, hard, sour fruits, all the better for scattering seed and propagating the species, and have had to be coaxed and bred, cultivated and grafted by man for many centuries in order to change that habit and bear just the handfuls of large sweet apples that people want to eat. The Oxford Companion to Food gives us the further delightful information that grafting especially is needed to maintain reliable apple production because, if growers merely planted the seed of an apple expecting it to sprout into a replica of the parent tree, they would be disappointed. "Apple seeds grow into trees resembling their parents no more than human daughters resemble their mothers. ... and there is a natural tendency for offspring to revert to the wild state. As Behr (Edward Behr, The Artful Eater, 1992) puts it: 'Without the techniques of grafting (or rooting of a branch), each tree in the world would constitute its own variety, distinct from every other.' " Imagine, apple trees as unique as people. (And perhaps, just as full of tiny, hard, sour fruit? We wax over- poetic.) Delightful.     

Now we must cook Ropa Vieja. We are going to adapt this recipe, even acknowledging with a gulp of trepidation that it comes from so lofty a source as Gourmet, because -- because while it may be authentically Cuban to simmer the piece of beef for hours in a seasoned vegetable broth, then take it out and tear it into bite size pieces by hand while reducing the cooking liquid, having discarded the first batch of aromatics, all of this also represents a tremendous and tedious amount of work. Far simpler to braise. We will sear the meat in oil, add all the vegetables and spices and some water, and simmer it all very gently for the several hours that we can then spend doing something else. Briefly sautéeing a fresh handful of sweet peppers and onions in a separate pot and tipping them into the stew half an hour before dinner is all that is needed to finish things off. As Beethoven scribbled into the margin of a music instruction book, just at the place where the author had said "such and such a musical thing is not allowed" -- "I allow it, you ass." 

Ropa Vieja, or Cuban beef and pepper stew, adapted from Gourmet.

In a large stewpot or Dutch oven, sear over high heat, in a few tablespoons of olive oil: 

3 pounds of skirt, flank, or chuck steak

Remove the meat to a plate, and to the drippings add:

2 carrots, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 bay leaf
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 and 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 green bell peppers, sliced

 After stirring and cooking the vegetables until they soften a little, add

1 (14 ounce) can whole tomatoes
2 to 3 cups water

Return the meat to the pot, bring everything to a boil and then lower the heat and simmer gently, either on the stove or in a slow (225 F) oven, for 3-4 hours until the beef is fork-tender. About half an hour before serving, heat a few more tablespoons olive oil in a saucepan. Add and sauté:

1 red onion, sliced
2 red bell peppers, sliced
2 yellow bell peppers, sliced
3 more cloves garlic, sliced

When these vegetables are softened but not browned, put them in the stew along with 1 cup frozen peas and 1/2 cup green olives, halved. Heat through, adding another teaspoon salt, a teaspoon cumin, and a half teaspoon ground black pepper, if desired.

Serve over rice.

Ropa vieja (the name means "old clothes," and is said to refer to the colorful dish's resemblance to a pile of old rags) is rather heavy as you can tell, but this weekend's spring weather has turned chilly and so perhaps a new beef stew would be welcome.

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