Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre
Our Lady of Charity is the patroness of Cuba, her Basilica is situated in the village of El Cobre, near Santiago del Cuba. She may not be as well known in American culture as Our Lady of Guadalupe, but her feast day on September 8th is celebrated where ever Cuban refugees have resettled. You can now find her image in churches around the world. She is a powerful force in Cuban culture, one that has not been eroded by Castro’s long regime.
Her story, I discovered, actually has somewhat of a culinary background. Around 1600, three boys were sent to gather salt needed to preserve the meat of the town’s slaughter house, which supplied food for the workers of the Spanish copper mines near Santiago, Cuba. On their way back from this labor, their frail boat was almost destroyed by a terrible storm. The boys feared for theirs lives. But then suddenly the waters became calm and they saw, in the distance, a white bundle floating on a piece of wood. It soon became apparent that it was a small statue of the Mother Mary holding the infant Jesus in her left arm and a gold cross in her right. Inscribed on the wooden boards below her were the words, “You soy la Virgen de la Caridad” (I am the Virgin of Charity).
So it seems only natural, given the initial reason for the boys’ journey, to celebrate Our Lady of Charity’s feast day with one of Cuba’s most famous and beloved beef dishes, Ropa Vieja. Here’s an easy and very traditional recipe. The meat needs to cook for several hours, but you can, after assembling everything, just put it in the oven and leave it unattended. After some lengthy cooking, the aroma of this stew, with its flavorings of roasted chilies, cumin, garlic, and sherry, will amaze you. Serve it with rice and fried sweet plantains and you’ll have a beautiful Cuban meal in honor of ‘La Caridad’.
2 pounds flank steak, cut into 2 pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
1 Poblano chili, roasted, peeled, and cut into strips
1 red bell pepper, roasted, peeled, and cut into strips
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/2 cup dry sherry
1 cup light beef broth
1 small can of chopped tomatoes, with juice
2 bay leaves, fresh if possible
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
A handful of cilantro, lightly chopped
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
In a large casserole fitted with a lid, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Salt the flank steak well on both sides and then brown it in the oil, turning it once. Now add the onion, the Poblano and bell pepper strips, and the garlic, and sauté for a few minutes. Add the sherry and let it boil away. Add the beef broth and the tomatoes, the bay leaves, cumin, and lime juice. Bring to a boil.
Cover the casserole and transfer it to the oven. Let it slow simmer for at least 3 hours (longer is even better). The meat should be very tender and falling apart. Now, using two forks, shred the meat into very thin strips. Add the cilantro and a drizzle of fresh olive oil, mixing it into the sauce. Taste to see if it needs a little more salt.
Erica De Mane is a writer and chef, check out her column at EricaDeMane.com).