Eating arepas last week got me thinking about the cheap and delicious Latin food that used to sustain me when I lived in New York. I ate a lot of Cuban food, especially the ropa vieja from National Cafe, a great little neighbourhood place on First Avenue, now sadly closed. They also made plantains fried in pork fat, stuffed with ground beef and topped with crema. I could cry just thinking about them but it truly wasn’t a place for the diet-conscious. My other favourite haunt was Brisas del Caribe in SoHo – also now tragically gone – which in addition to mouth-watering Cuban sandwiches made amazing maduros, or fried ripe plantains. It was more or less impossible to finish both at one sitting, but there was no way not to order the sweet sweet plantains on the side.

While it’s probably a good thing that my lunches these days tend to involve less deep frying in lard, I do find myself craving Cuban flavours when it’s warm outside. Thus, I’ve been spending the last few days impatiently waiting for the plantains I bought in Brixton market to ripen. To make maduros, you need the plantains to be completely blackened, on the edge of fermenting really. If they were bananas, you’d be giving up on eating them and deciding to make some banana bread instead. But they’re not bananas and they are, at this point, perfect.

Cooking maduros is really easy. Peel the plantains – if it’s difficult to peel them, they may not be quite ripe enough – and slice into chunky slices. In a non-stick frying pan, heat up about a centimetre of sunflower oil (or lard!) to medium heat till a little bit of plantain thrown in sizzles. Carefully place the slices in the pan and cook each side till it is a rich caramel brown. Turn frequently till all sides are browned. Some people sprinkle salt on at the end but it’s not really necessary.

To go with the plantains, I tried to recreate National Café’s ropa vieja. Ropa vieja (literally old clothes) is a classic Cuban dish of braised beef with sweet peppers. Many traditional Cuban recipes use sofrito as a flavouring base: since I’m not going to be cooking Cuban all week and don’t need jars of the stuff, I integrated the sofrito flavours into the recipe rather than cook it separately.

Ropa vieja

  • 1 tsp of sazón seasoning (mix salt, ground annato seed, oregano, garlic, pepper)
  • juice of 1 lime
  • a smallish piece flank steak, brisket or other braising beef
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 medium onions, 1 and 1/2 diced and 1/2 sliced
  • 1 green pepper diced
  • 1 red pepper sliced thin
  • a glug of sherry
  • 2/3 cup of passata or chopped tomatoes
  • 1 cup beef stock
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 tsp sherry vinegar

First mix the sazón with the lime juice and marinade the meat for an hour or so. (You can buy commercial sazón seasoning or mix it up yourself. The key parts are salt and annato seed, since the other ingredients are going into the dish anyhow.)

In a large, heavy pot, brown the meat all over (reserving the marinade) in vegetable oil and then remove to a plate. In the same pot, fry the diced onion and green pepper. When the onions are golden, add garlic, oregano and cumin and fry till the garlic doesn’t smell raw. Add the sliced onion and red pepper and put the meat back into the pot.

Add the reserved marinade and the sherry, then the tomatoes, beef stock and bay leaf. Bring to the boil and then simmer gently, almost covered, for 90 minutes, until the meat is tender.

Now take the meat out of the pot and pull it into strings with two forks. Be very careful not to pull meat so forcefully that it shoots off the counter and into the waiting jaws of your cat. Not that I’d know anything about that.

Pop the meat back into the pot, add some more water if it’s a bit thick, and cook for another 15 minutes or so. Finally, add a little sherry vinegar and taste for salt.

Serves 4 with rice, maduros and maybe some avocado or green salad.

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