You might not think of pumpkin at this time of year with anything but “pumpkin spice,” – or served in any form other than a latte or a pie. But we’ve been hard at work on a few recipes that will not only excite your taste buds but give a fresh flavor profile to your family celebrations.
Not everybody thinks of Cuba when they go searching for holiday recipes – unless you happen to be Cuban or Cuban American, of course. Pumpkin belongs, front and center, to an All-American autumn tradition going back to the Thanksgiving with Pilgrims. And, at least here in Texas, Hispanic or Latin most often points us to food traditions of Mexico. The border fusion cuisine known as Tex-Mex features quite a few classics, led off by the tradition of making tamales.
On the island of Cuba, where the population long blended a proud heritage from imperial Spain with the soulful tastes of Africa, an entirely different set of flavors comes out to welcome this special time of year. And we think the dish called ropa vieja, given an unexpected twist by our Mom’s brand Smokey Pumpkin & Chipotle Sauce, is a perfect departure from now-standard holiday fare. And never more so than when slow-cooked and shredded beef classic is sided with Cuban-style yellow rice and black beans.
Ropa vieja carries its name because this shredded beef reminded someone of “old clothes” tossed in a pile. As such, it retains a special place among Cubans in modern Cuba, when they can afford or find the essential ingredients. But it’s ten times more important among the Cubans who escaped as Fidel Castro made his way down from the mountains into the city of Havana. It is literally and figuratively a taste of home, with a protest vote included among its layers of Spanish-Arab-African spices.
It’s worth acknowledging that Cuba is perhaps the “most Spanish” Spanish colony in the New World, at least partly a function of not combining for centuries with Aztec, Mayan and other “Indian” populations found in Mexico and the rest of Latin America. Thus, the heritage of Spain comes through clearly, even if that does include the legacy of nearly eight centuries of Spain’s occupation by Arab Moorish invaders.
Spices and citrus are two of the most important reminders that this period took place, ending only with the expulsion of the last Moors by the Catholic royalty in 1492 – just as Columbus began the process of spreading all things Spanish into the New World. I couldn’t have planned the timeline more perfectly had I been around back then.
And as if the story needed to be any more multi-cultural, ropa vieja is believed a creation of Sephardic Jews who populated the Iberian peninsula until they themselves were driven out beginning in the same time period. Not allowed to work in the kitchen on the Sabbath, these Jews prepared a slow-cooked beef dish they could enjoy without breaking the rules on the Lord’s day of rest. As Sephardic Jews spread throughout Europe and especially to Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean, they took the basic idea of ropa vieja with them.
Toss in the pumpkin handed down to us by a long-ago feast of native Americans and English Pilgrims, and it’s clear the dish has traveled a very long road.
SMOKEY PUMPKIN & CHIPOTLE ROPA VIEJA
In a really intriguing holiday flourish, feel empowered to prepare this soul-satisfying dish beloved by Cubans everywhere. It’s known as “old clothes” – ropa vieja – because the shredded beef must have reminded somebody of that, or those, long ago.
3 pounds flank or skirt steak
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, roughly chopped
2 carrots, roughly chopped
2 stalks celery with leaves, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, lightly crushed
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon whole black peppercorns
2 cups beef broth
6 cups water
1 green bell pepper, sliced
1 red bell pepper, sliced
1 yellow bell pepper, sliced
1 red onion, sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ large jar Mom’s brand Smokey Pumpkin & Chipotle Sauce
4 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
¼ teaspoon dried oregano
½ cup pimento-stuffed Spanish olives, sliced in half
Prepared yellow rice
Prepared black beans
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. In a large pot or Dutch oven, brown the beef on both sides in the olive oil, then add the onion, carrot and celery, stirring until lightly caramelized. Stir in the garlic and bay leaf for only a minute. Add the oregano, cumin, salt and peppercorns, follows by the broth and water. Set pot in oven and cook until beef is tender, 90 minutes to 2 hours, covering for about half the time. Remove beef from liquid when tender and let cool enough to handle. Strain pot liquid for use in next step. Discard braising vegetables.
In the same pot or Dutch oven, lightly caramelize the peppers and onion in the olive oil. Shred the beef using a fork and add to the pot, along with the Mom’s sauce, tomato paste and about 2 cups of the braising liquid. Add more liquid if a “brothier” sauce is desired. Season with cumin, paprika and oregano. Stir in the olives. Let simmer for at least 20 minutes to let flavors combine. Serve with yellow rice and black beans. Serves 8.