For the second time in five days, I got to make a home-cooked meal for my son. The occasion? He and his girlfriend, Nicole, were coming up to attend the MS Walk which we try to participate in annually. My friend Sarah has organized a team for the walk for the past 12 years to raise funds for the disease which her husband Vern lives with. Nicole’s mother also has MS, so both kids wanted to come for the walk. Keller also wanted to introduce Nicole to my friends who we consider to be our extended family.
Although his school is a mere two hours away, it’s always good to have a home-cooked meal at the end of a journey, especially when the trip is home to mom. I knew exactly what to make him, Ropa Vieja served with basmati rice and Goya® black beans (the red label, always). It’s one of his favorite dishes that I make.
During his 19 years, Keller has spent a lot of time away from home—more than I had at that age. Beginning with sleepovers at my parents, where he first was introduced to Cuban food, through week-long stints at Boy Scout camps and finally trips to Europe, the time he spent away from us was marked by personal growth. But his return home was nearly always feted with a good meal.
On his last trip to Europe, before the start of his junior year, I remember the email exchange I had with him shortly before he was to return home. Kel had been traveling for 20 days performing in a band as part of the American Music Abroad program. His meals included streusel in Austria, linguine in Venice, and beer and sauerbraten in Germany—a culinary tour of the best that Europe has to offer. But even the best meals could not ease time away from home. In my email to him I asked, what he would like me to make him for dinner when he came home. His answer, an American cheeseburger. I make an okay burger, but it’s not a specialty of mine. Still I understood wanting something familiar, something to ease a little homesickness for the U.S. even though he was having the time of his life.
I had a similar longing when Bruce and I visited Ecuador for three weeks. At age 25, it was the first time I had been out of the country. My mother’s family, with whom I was visiting with in Guayaquil, ate their heaviest meal midday, like most Ecuadorian. The multi-course feast started with fresh fruit and moved on to hot soup.
Let’s pause and contemplate that for a moment. Hot soup in the middle of day, when the sun is at its peak in a region of the country where the climate is humid and tropical. Consuming hot soup, midday in the tropics in an apartment with no central air for two of the three weeks I was in Ecuador. I’ve been told by people who grew up in tropical area that hot soups are known to cool the body by inducing sweat. It induced discomfort in me and it was a long while before I enjoyed soup again.
The soup course was followed by the main course which typically consisted of rice (plain or with lentil beans), meat and vegetables. While very, delicious, the lack of variety in food made the novelty of foreign dining wear thin quickly. During our travels in Ecuador, we ran across a Pizza Hut and a Burger King. It was like an oasis in the desert, a beacon from home. Neither Bruce nor I dined much at either establishment stateside, but we made a point at eating at both in Ecuador. In part we were curious about the differences between the restaurants in the two countries. But we were also a little homesick and found solace in American fast food.
When I was younger, my concept of home was strictly a residence—a house that preferably was owned by me or another family member. As the years have gone on, I’ve come to believe that home is where the people that you love are, and how we express our affection. Food, a shared meal, is one way. It is, after all, why generations of immigrants recreate the foods of their homeland, to make what’s foreign more familiar, more homelike.
For me and Keller, the Ropa Vieja was key in recreating a homey feel, which is especially important as I am living in an apartment and still transitioning into my new life. More importantly, the meal served as a welcome to Nicole and to share with her a dish that means a lot to us. By preparing and sharing Ropa Vieja, we let her know that she should feel at home with us, no matter where that is.
Slow Cooker Ropa Vieja
In a nation where most people are driving around in souped-up Cadillacs from the 1950s, I find it hard to believe that anyone would have a Crock-Pot® within reach. Most recipes for Ropa Vieja, require boiling the meat in liquid until it falls apart. I found the basis for this recipe at AllRecipes.com but altered it slightly since the online version called for a chuck roast. Ropa Vieja is best made with flank or skirt steak, a cut of meat that is thready.
1 -2 pound flank or skirt steak
3 cloves garlic
2 red bell peppers, cut into large wedges
2 green bell peppers, cut into large wedges
1 yellow onion, cut into wedges
1 sweet onion, cut into wedges
6-ounce can tomato paste
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
1/8 teaspoon seasoned salt
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
- Pierce the steak to tenderize it and let the flavors in and place it into a slow cooker with the garlic, red bell peppers, green bell peppers, yellow onions and sweet onions.
- Stir the red wine vinegar, tomato paste, garlic powder, seasoned salt, salt, and ground black pepper together with a whisk.
- Cover and cook on low until the beef is tender, 7 to 8 hours. Remove steak, and shred into long strands using two forks.
- Return the meat to the slow cooker and combine with the vegetables.
- Cook on low until the meat and vegetables are very tender, about 30 minutes.