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A&E >  Food

Cuban

‘Old clothes’ dish brings back delicious memories of Old Havana

By Story And Photos Adriana Janovich The Spokesman-Review

Mojitos, daiquiris and old clothes are ubiquitous in Old Havana.

Ernest Hemingway helped make the two drinks famous, supposedly saying “Mi mojito en La Bodeguita, mi daiquiri en El Floridita.”

Today, at La Bodeguita del Medio, bartenders line up glasses full of mint – stems and all – to make multiple mojitos at a time. At El Floridita, which still looks much like it did during Hemingway’s day, customers can have a drink at the bar next to a sculpture of the famous American author, who lived in Cuba from 1939 to 1960.

While old clothes don’t sound particularly appetizing, they’re a staple of Cuban cuisine. Ropa vieja is a classic, slow-cooked dish of shredded steak soaked in a tomato-based sauce with onions and peppers. To some, the entrée apparently resembles its namesake: a pile of torn, worn-out clothes.

I like the romantic legend behind its name better: A poor man who didn’t have money to feed his family cut his clothes into strips and cooked them. His love for his family and desire to nourish them transformed the rags into a savory beef stew.

Ropa vieja is often served with rice, beans and fried plantains. It’s on the menu at the smallest, privately owned paladares and at famous, long-established eateries like La Bodeguita. And even though I didn’t have it for dinner every night during my visit, the dish – along with mojitos and daiquiris – stands out the most in my food-and-drink memories of that trip.

I visited Cuba more than two years ago as a graduate student shortly after President Barack Obama loosened travel restrictions for students and other groups. In mid-December, Obama said he plans to work toward restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba and ending the longtime economic embargo.

The U.S. began imposing sanctions on Cuba after former President Fidel Castro seized power in 1959 and began expropriating major industries – including those owned by Americans and other foreigners – and nationalizing businesses.

When he stepped aside for health reasons in 2006, his younger brother, current President Raúl Castro, began cutting back on government subsidies as well as pushing for more – albeit limited – private enterprise.

I was there during some of the early days of the economic reform to study politics, economics and a country in transition. Our group of international relations, journalism, public relations and public diplomacy students attended lectures at the University of Havana and visited sites like the Museum of the Revolution, Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual, artist Eduardo “Choco” Roca’s studio, and local fruit and vegetable markets. The itinerary was tightly scheduled.

But in between required course outings, there was time to take in a concert – and mojito or two – at the historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba; cool off at Coppelia, the ice cream parlor in the heart of Old Havana; and ride in a 1950s cab to Finca Vigía, Hemingway’s former estate in San Francisco de Paula, about 7 miles from the city.

The week-and-a-half trip took place in late spring 2012, but the recent announcement from the Obama administration – as well as the arrival of a recent cookbook – brought back those experiences. I will never forget them – as well as, or maybe especially, the mojitos at La Bodeguita, daiquiris at El Floridita and flavorful ropa vieja at oh-so-many establishments.

I had never tried to make ropa vieja until I perused a copy of John Verlinden’s “To Cook is to Love.” (See related review.) While it took a while, the dish was surprisingly easy to prepare and the simmering sauce filled the kitchen with the scent of garlic, tomatoes, onions, peppers and plenty of memories.

Red wine in this recipe added an undertone of sweetness to the dish, which is more savory than spicy. And it was particularly warming and comforting on a wintry Spokane day.

Ropa Vieja

From “To Cook is to Love” by John Verlinden

3 pounds flank steak

2 bay leaves

Salt and pepper to taste, plus 1 teaspoon of each for the sauce

1/4 cup olive oil

1 large onion, cut into thin strips

1 large green pepper, cut into thin strips

1/2 large red bell pepper, cut into thin strips

6 cloves garlic, minced and crushed

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon dried leaf oregano

1 (29-ounce) can tomato sauce

1 cup dry red wine

Parsley, finely chopped, for garnish (optional)

Place beef and bay leaf in a large saucepan, cover with water and season with salt and pepper. Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and continue cooking until the beef is tender, about 1 ½ hours. Remove meat from stock, cut meat across the grain into pieces about 3 inches wide, and allow to cool (save stock for future use).

Meanwhile, in a large pot, heat oil over low heat until fragrant. Add onion and peppers and cook for about 3 minutes. Reduce heat to low and stir in garlic and dry spices, including salt and pepper, and sauté for about 2 more minutes or until onion is translucent and tender. Add tomato sauce and wine, stir to combine and heat thoroughly.

When meat is cool enough to handle, shred it with fingers into strands. Stir meat into sauce, add a little of reserved broth, if desired, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Transfer to a serving platter, garnish with finely chopped parsley, if desired, and serve.

Yield: 8 servings

Wordcount: 955

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