Good food brings people together, and there’s nothing like a hearty, slow-cooked ropa vieja to bring people to the table. A feast for the senses from start to finish, ropa vieja begins with the appearance of ripe local produce on your countertop, continues with rich aromas as it simmers away all day, to end in a satisfying plateful of meat so tender it melts off your fork and into your mouth.
This traditional dish is enjoyed in Panama, Cuba, and throughout the Caribbean. Recipes differ regionally, and the dish responds well to improvisation (in fact, ropa vieja originally often included leftovers), but while variations abound, all of them rely on two essential processes: preparing the sofrito, and braising the beef.
Sofrito: a sauté of vegetables and spices that serves as the base in a lot of Latin American cuisine.
Like mirepoix, sofrito melds the flavors of vegetables, herbs, and other seasonings to create a foundation for the rich flavor in a meaty dish such as ropa vieja. Fresh herbs add mellow depth to the braising liquids, and 15-20 minutes of sautéing softens the vegetables to create the perfect textural complement to the tender beef.
Braising: stewing tough meat until it falls apart.
In the process of braising beef for ropa vieja, the tough meat of tropically-raised cattle transforms into a tender, juicy main course. Similar to the preparation of Milanese ossobuco and French beef bourguignon, the meat is first lightly browned, then covered in beef broth to stew for hours on end. The braising process removes every trace of toughness from the beef, and in the small Latin American towns where ropa vieja originated, wide open windows allow the tantalizing aroma of slow-cooking beef to take care of the dinner-bell duties, too. The rich smell of the meat and spices commingling in the pot grows more irresistible by the hour. You begin to understand why mealtime often turns into a village affair in these welcoming districts, and the warmth of the people comes through in the local cuisine.
Ropa vieja is a great fall favorite to gather around – try our recipe for Panama-style ropa vieja, or tweak the recipe according to your taste. Even if you don’t have every last ingredient, go ahead and make it anyway. The dish still tastes great with a few missing ingredients, or with some impromptu substitutions: you can give it more bite by adding apple cider vinegar, culantro or cilantro, jalapeños, even capers – or keep things warm and mellow by adding bacon and a couple dashes more cumin.
- In Panama, ropa vieja is typically served alongside arroz con guandú (rice with pigeon peas), but ropa vieja is also delicious inside warm flour tortillas or with slices of crusty bread to sop up the delicious juices with.
- From our sommelier: I recommend pairing ropa vieja with a Carménère. The late harvest grape has ripe fruit aromas and a spicy note. The sweet tannins, rich structure and strong body of this Chilean wine will enhance the taste of beef and complement the mixture of fresh vegetables. A nice pairing that won’t overwhelm your dish.
Recipe for Panama-Style Ropa Vieja
Prep time: about 30 minutes
Cooking time: 2-3 hours
Prepare the Sofrito
- 2 red onions, finely chopped
- 2 green bell peppers, coarsely chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 tbsp. olive or annatto oil
- 1 tsp. ground cumin
- ½ tsp. fresh ground black pepper or ½ tsp. minced ají chombo pepper (optional)
- 1 red bell pepper, coarsely chopped
- 1 yellow bell pepper, coarsely chopped
- 1 cup peas, fresh or thawed from frozen
- 1 cup coarsely chopped ripe tomato
- 1/3 tsp. salt, or to taste
- 1 tsp. fresh oregano, finely chopped
- ½ cup pimiento-stuffed Spanish olives, drained, halved
In a large saucepan, fry the onion in 2 tbsp. of oil until tender. Add garlic and green pepper and sauté 5-10 minutes to soften. Add another tbsp. oil and the tomato, red and yellow bell peppers, peas, cumin, and black or hot pepper: sauté another 5-10 minutes, stirring often. Stir in oregano and salt if desired; garnish with stuffed olives.
Braise the Beef
- 3 pounds skirt or flank steak, trimmed and pierced to let the juices soak in
- 2 tbsp. olive or annatto oil
- 2 quarts water or beef stock
- 2 carrots, coarsely chopped
- 1 large onion, coarsely chopped
- 2 celery ribs, coarsely chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced or lightly crushed
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tbsp. fresh oregano, finely chopped
- 1 tsp. ground cumin
- 1 tsp. salt
- ¼ tsp. whole black peppercorns
Heat 2 tbsp. oil in a large saucepan and brown meat on all sides. Cover meat with beef stock and simmer 2 hours until tender. After the meat has been stewing, skim off any excess fat off the top. Remove beef to a platter and shred with a pair of forks to pull the strands of tender seasoned beef away. Once you’re all shredded up, return the meat to the pot and add the carrots, onion, celery, garlic, herbs and spices, and sofrito – add a little water if needed to marry the flavors, and cook together on low for another half-hour.
What’s With the Name?
Ropa vieja translates to “old clothes” or alternately “dirty laundry.” According to legend, a poor man preparing to host his relatives found himself without a scrap of meat, and so he raided his closet to fashion a stew. Infused with his love, the stew of old clothes turned into a hearty beef dish.
Tales invoking magical realism are prevalent in Latin American culture – Como Agua Para Chocolate, Jorge Luis Borges’ poetry and short stories, the novels of Gabriel García Márquez – and it’s easy to understand why magical realism so often enters the kitchen. The sense of community and love to be found through a great meal among friends can sometimes cause almost supernatural levels of bliss.
Love Ropa Vieja Enough to Eat it For Breakfast? (You’re Not Alone)
Ropa Vieja is the sophisticated cousin of the bistec picado commonly eaten at breakfast alongside hojaldres and coffee. There are similarities – both ropa vieja and bistec picado give the tough steak an adequate tenderizing treatment and incorporate spices from Creole cuisine – but ropa vieja earns rights to the dining room table with a recipe that calls for a longer stewing period, whereas bistec picado is prepared more like Italian braciola (beef pan-fried in its own juices). The quicker, easier bistec picado may be the breakfast of Central American champions, but ropa vieja is what they savor at suppertime.
This is actually true of Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte, a native of Cuba who reportedly indulges in his grandmother’s ropa vieja as part of his Olympic training regimen. Cuba’s ropa vieja recipe varies slightly from Panama’s, but any way you stew it, you’re bound to get a dish worthy of a crowd of competitive eaters.
Start your ropa vieja on a lazy Sunday, perhaps as you tackle a couple loads of laundry or settle in with the newspaper, and invite plenty of friends. It’s an effortless end-of-the-week reward for you and your dinner companions to unwind over.
Finding Great Ropa Vieja in Panama
Ropa vieja made with Chiriqui-raised beef is best, so indulge your cravings in this Western province. In the capital, you can’t go wrong with El Trapiche for a delicious traditional ropa vieja.
Edén at Isla Palenque
Our tropical paradise in Panama’s Gulf of Chiriquí might not witness the changing of the leaves, but we celebrate autumn in our own way with savory recipes like ropa vieja featuring seasonal vegetables from our organic farm. Check out other uses for our locally-grown produce with fresh inspiration from the island grill.