I fell in love with ropa vieja, a staple of Cuban cuisine, years after I took a trip to Havana. After tasting the slow-braised chicken and peppers served with sweet fried plantain back in the States, I could see how the flavors could originate in a place as culturally vibrant as Cuba.
To my surprise, during my trip, I found simpler, less remarkable fare. The tastiest thing I ate the week I traveled there as a journalist, more than 15 years ago, was served the morning after I arrived by Mercedes, a woman with shoulder length silver hair who ran a ‘casa particular’ or special house for tourists. She served a plate of spicy scrambled eggs, perfectly moist and gooey, on fine China from the Batista era. She poured orange juice from a vintage whiskey bottle and brought me a teacup filled with strong black coffee. I sat in her dim living room with heavy curtains drawn to keep the sun from overheating the home, and ate on a vinyl, spill-proof tablecloth.
I lingered over those eggs, and the heat of the pepper mingling with the sweet orange juice on my tongue before heading out for the day, knowing that the city sites may dazzle me more than my next plate of food. I wondered if the lack of culinary highlights had to do with the economic embargo, strangling its resources, or if maybe low wages held back a burgeoning cadre of chefs. Or perhaps, on my Lonely Planet budget, I just missed the good stuff.
Ropa vieja is a dish that matches the pace of the island: slow, like the sultry walks of young couples along the Malecon, Havana's sea wall, as the sun sinks into the Gulf. Preparing it, even with my speedy pressure cooker, takes several hours. It requires cooking the meat (beef or chicken), and then braising it into ropa vieja (“old clothes") in tomatoes, onions, peppers, and spices for another hour. The pressure cooker method has the dual purpose of cooking an entire chicken with fall-off-the-bone meat in about 25 minutes while also producing homemade chicken stock, which enhances the ropa vieja flavor. The result is everything I imagined Cuban food would be during my trip, if only I had found the right place.
Chicken and stock
1 large chicken (about 4 pounds)
1 carrot, roughly chopped
1 stalk of celery, roughly chopped
1 onion, quartered
1 tablespoon of peppercorns
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
2 cups water
½ teaspoon salt
Place all ingredients in a large pressure cooker. Close and lock the lid and bring the pressure cooker up to pressure. Cook for 22 minutes on high. Let the pressure release naturally for 5 minutes and then release the rest. Remove the chicken (reserving the stock at the bottom of the pot), let cool, and then remove the meat from the bones, shredding the meat as you go with your fingers.
Meat from one pressure-cooked chicken, pulled from the bones and shredded (see above)
1-1/2 cups reserved stock from the pressure-cooked chicken
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 Cubanelle peppers, thinly sliced
3 Anaheim peppers, thinly sliced
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
2 tablespoons oregano
3 tablespoons paprika
1 pinch cayenne
1 pinch ground cloves
1 tsp salt
½ tsp pepper
2 bay leaves
2 tsp honey
1-1/2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1-1/2 cups chopped Pomi (or canned) tomatoes in their juices
Stock from pressure cooker pan (about 1 – 1-1/2 cup)
1-1/2 cup whole green olives (preferably Sicilian Castelvetrano green olives)
2 tablespoons capers
1 (or more) ripe plantain or slightly green banana, split lengthwise and fried in butter until golden brown (a cast iron pan works great for this)
In a large pot, heat the olive oil over a medium flame until hot. Add the onions and peppers and saute until soft. Add the onion powder, garlic powder, oregano, paprika, ground cloves, and bay leaves, and stir and let simmer for two minutes. Add the chicken and tomatoes and salt and pepper. Simmer on the stove top for 40 minutes. Add the green olives, capers, sherry vinegar, and honey, and simmer for another five minutes. Serve with the fried plantains.