Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Ropa Vieja

I've tried a couple of different recipes for ropa vieja over the last couple of years. It's a Cuban flank steak, braised until the meat is falling apart, with bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, and spices. The name comes from a poetic way of looking at the finished dish; the shredded beef and veggies DO look a bit like the tattered ends of a piece of old cloth (those of us who remember our high school Spanish might remember that ropa vieja means "old clothes").

Sara Moulton has a pretty good recipe for it in Sara's Secrets for Weeknight Meals. It's a "quicker" version, taking 3 hours from start to finish (and for this dish, yes, 3 hours is quick). Theoretically, you could get home at 5:30, start cooking, and have a late dinner around 8:30. My only complaint is that Sara Moulton's recipe calls for olives and some of the olive jar liquid, and all I could taste in the finished dish was OLIVE (and I LIKE olives, folks). Cut back on the olive flavor... it's a winner. Her recipe does a really nice job of making this time-consuming dish into something that someone COULD make during the week after work.

On the other hand, there's Daniel Boulud's recipe in Braise, which I made on Monday night/Tuesday morning. This cookbook is exactly what the title suggests: nothing but slow-cooked, braised dishes. His ropa vieja recipe calls for the meat to marinate overnight in a garlic and oregano rub, and then cook for 4 hours the next day. I ended up futzing with the schedule for it a bit. The meat marinated while I was at work Monday, and instead of cooking it for 4 hours in a 275-degree oven, I cooked it overnight in a 200-degree oven (which, yes, meant that I was getting up every couple of hours to flip the meat and make sure I hadn't accidentally lit the kitchen on fire). The meat fell apart as soon as I touched it Tuesday morning, and the sauce flavor is deep and rich. It's filling and satisfying without being heavy. I had white rice with mine, mixing the shredded beef and vegetables in with the rice.

ropa vieja

Ropa Vieja (the extra-long version)
serves 4

3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 lb flank steak
1-2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 green bell pepper, cored, seeded, and thinly sliced
1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and thinly sliced
1/2 cup sherry
1 14.5 oz can crushed tomatoes (low sodium or no salt added, if possible)
2 bay leaves
Fresh ground black pepper

Combine the garlic, oregano, and salt. Place the meat in a nonreactive container and rub on both sides with the garlic mixture. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 6 hours to overnight.

Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 200 degrees F.

Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large ovensafe pot or Dutch oven over high heat. Scrape the rub off the meat and reserve. Sear the meat on both sides until browned, 5-7 minutes. Transfer the meat to a plate and set aside.

Add another tablespoon of oil to the pot if needed. Add the onions to the pot and cook until light brown, 8-10 minutes. Add the bell peppers and cook for 5 minutes. Add the sherry (away from the heat!), bring to a simmer, and scrape any browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Add the tomatoes, 1 cup of water, the reserved rub, and the cayenne pepper. Return the meat to the pot, nestling it in with the vegetables. Add the bay leaves and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer.

Cover the pot and transfer it to the oven. Cook until the meat is tender, 6-8 hours, turning the meat every 1.5-2 hours. (If the liquid level gets too low, add more water; the sauce should be thick, but not a paste.)

Remove the bay leaves from the pot, shred the meat, and serve.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


The sacaduros were a bit of a process, but well worth the effort. Would I make them for a huge party? No. But for Thanksgiving dinner for 5 of us, making a dozen rolls wasn't a problem.

The recipe comes from The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum. It calls for a batch of the Basic Hearth Bread dough from the same book. The Hearth Bread has become my standard crusty bread recipe, so even though this was a new recipe, I was familiar with the basic dough.

Once the dough is made, you tear off pieces that are about 2 tablespoons (or, if you're me, "that-looks-roll-sized" pieces... very precise). Roll them into a ball, then flatten into a disc. You then fold the dough around a cube of butter, making a sealed package. The recipe calls for 1/2" cubes, but I thought that would be overkill, so I used a 1/2" cube for every 2 rolls, cutting the butter in half. Knowing my family, I figured that even if I told them repeatedly that the rolls had butter in them, they'd still add more butter (which is exactly what happened).

Once the roll is shaped, you place it sealed-end down into a bed of flour, and continue shaping the remaining rolls. The recipe and I differed hugely on the next point. According to the recipe, you're NOT supposed to brush the excess flour off of the rolls before baking. However, my rolls were absolutely covered in flour, so much so that they resembled powdered sugar doughnuts. I brushed most of the excess off, leaving just a dusting of flour on the tops.


They came out great. Nice chewy crust, and very moist inside thanks to the butter.

And every time I page through this book, I'm reminded of exactly how many things I still have to try out...

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

My Thanksgiving baking schedule

For the last couple of years, my Thanksgiving food responsibilities have been the baked goods: bread and dessert. I have a 3-hour drive up to my parents' house, so I need to bring something that's easily portable and won't suffer too much from a ride in the car. Also, I'm the baker in the family, and not to puff myself up too much, but if I didn't make fresh baked goods, we wouldn't have them. Thanksgiving dessert when I was growing up was usually an Entenmann's or Pepperidge Farm cake with Ready-Wip (not that there's anything wrong with that). Now, dessert is something that I've made from scratch... with Ready-Wip. Some things are TRADITION, people.

For the bread, I decided to make sacaduros, rolls that have a cube of butter enclosed in the middle. You pretty much cover them in flour before baking, and the sealed ends come apart a bit during baking. The recipe comes from Rose Levy Beranbaum's Bread Bible, and uses her Basic Hearth Bread as a base. The Basic Hearth Bread is my standard "crusty bread" recipe, so I'm already familiar with the dough. The new part for me is the shaping and folding of the dough to create little packages around the butter.

The dessert is a gingerbread-cider cake, which has never gotten anything less than raves the other times I've made it. Yesterday at work, everyone was talking about their plans and the dishes they were making for Thanksgiving... everyone that heard about this cake said that it sounds very much like something I need to bring in. (They're very fond of cake). The cake part is a standard gingerbread, and as it bakes, it makes a caramel sauce on the bottom of the pan. The recipe was the winner of the Boston Herald's holiday baking contest a couple of years ago, and came to me via the Best American Recipes 2003-2004. I can't say enough about the Best American Recipes series of cookbooks. There's a new one each year, and the editors go through countless sources to find a cross-section of the year's best recipes. They test each and every dish that's in the book, and there truly is a bit of everything (hearty family meals next to elegant gourmet offerings). I haven't had a recipe from this series come out badly; I'm eagerly awaiting the 2006-2007 edition, probably out early next year.

So, I thought, for fun, I'd share my baking schedule. I didn't want to make anything really far in advance and freeze it, so I decided to do all my work Tuesday night and Wednesday morning before leaving for my parents' house.

Tuesday, 12:30 pm - 9 pm: Work

9:30 pm : Go to Giant for more bread flour and other baking necessities. Grumble at Giant for only having whole cloves, not ground cloves. Decide that the cake will be acceptable without cloves (there's only 1/4 tsp to begin with, and plenty of other flavorings going on).

10:00 pm: Get home, check e-mail.

10:30 pm: Pour self glass of sherry. Assemble sponge for sacaduros.

12:30 am: Mix bread dough and knead it. Let dough rest for 20 minutes, then knead more until it's the correct texture.

1:00 am: Put dough in refrigerator to rise overnight. Go to bed.

Wednesday, 8:00 am: Get dough out of the refrigerator. Discover that it's nowhere near doubled in volume because it only had 7 hours in the fridge, not 12 like I normally give it. Give it time to come up to room temperature, and let it finish rising.

9:30 am: Once bread dough has finished rising. Make cake batter.

9:45 am: Put cake in the oven. Shape rolls while the cake bakes.

10:45 am: Pull finished cake out of the oven. Crank up oven heat for rolls, set cake aside to cool.

11:00 am: Put rolls in the oven.

11:20 am: Take finished rolls out of the oven, set aside to cool.

12:00 noon: Leave for parents' house.

I'll try to get pictures up later in the week, but for now: Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Posole-Inspired Chicken and Rice Soup

I'm a big fan of posole, a Mexican soup using hominy. Of course, I rarely have hominy on hand, and I wanted something with those flavors that could be made with ingredients that I usually have on hand. Thus, this recipe.

To make this with hominy, leave out the rice, and add two drained 15-oz cans of white hominy.

Posole-Inspired Chicken and Rice Soup
serves 4

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
2 cups chicken broth
2 cups water
1 cup uncooked rice
3 cups shredded or cubed cooked chicken (about 1 pound)
1/2 cup frozen corn kernels
1/2 cup frozen peas
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan or stockpot over medium heat. Add the chopped onions and cook until translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic, tomato paste, cumin, cayenne, and oregano. Cook, stirring, until the ingredients are evenly distributed.

2. Add broth, water, and rice. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the rice is tender, 18 to 20 minutes. If you would like the soup to be thinner, add additional broth or water.

3. Stir in the chicken, corn, and peas. Cook until the chicken and vegetables are heated through. Add salt and pepper to taste, and serve. For something more like an "authentic" posole, also serve diced avocado, chopped lettuce, sliced radishes, tortilla strips, cilantro, grated cheese, and/or onions on the side so everyone can garnish their bowls.