Ropa Vieja: A Jewban Family Tradition


I am often asked whether I feel more Cuban-American than Jewish, or vice versa, and it has always struck me as an odd question. That’s like asking whether I like my right eye better than my left. Sure, if you close one eye, you can still see, but the world looks so much better with both eyes open. That is sort of how I feel about my two cultures. On the surface, it may seem like my Cuban culture is in direct conflict with my Jewish one, particularly when it comes to the pork-friendly nature of Cuban cuisine and the dietary laws of the Jewish faith, but just like seeing the world with both eyes open, I feel most comfortable when my cultures work in conjunction with each other.

As featured on My Jewish Learning and Be’chol Lashon.

Fortunately, there is plenty of common ground between the two. Given the fact that both place a high priority on family and tradition, and get-togethers almost always revolve around food, my family has been blurring the cultural dividing lines for decades. This melting pot approach jumps into high gear around the holidays and other family gatherings. My “Jewban” family has been known to serve a creamy flan during Shavuot, a citrus and garlic-infused Cuban-style chicken for Shabbat, and minty Mojito-scented quinoa during Passover. These incredible dishes aside, nothing holds a candle to my family’s recipe for Ropa Vieja, Cuban comfort food at its very best.

Ropa Vieja, which literally translates to “old clothes,” or as my paternal grandmother would call them, “shmatas,” is the Cuban answer to a traditional Jewish brisket. Both use inexpensive cuts of meat that are slow-roasted until tender and falling apart, but Ropa Vieja takes it a step further, and actually calls for the chunks of meat to be shredded to resemble rags. This may seem like it would diminish the allure of the dish, but as Jewish brisket is usually reserved for the holiday table, a good Ropa Vieja is truly cause for celebration. Additionally, as it is important in the Jewish culture to pass our traditions from generation to generation, most Cuban families have had a recipe for Ropa Vieja for ages.

The recipe I feature originated with my Abuela (maternal grandmother), but was passed to me by my Tia Pipa (Aunt Felipa), both seriously tough culinary acts to follow. And while I have the added benefit of modern kitchen electrics like the slow-cooker, the spirit of the recipe remains the same. The perfume of a traditionally Cuban sofrito, made from garlic, onions, and sweet bell peppers, marries beautifully with the warm smokiness from the cumin. And while the brine-y capers that adorn the meat and add a splash of color may seem like a distinctly Mediterranean choice, they act as a nod to the migration of Spaniards that made their way to Cuba and the other Caribbean islands in days of old.

One bite may make you want to close your eyes and savor the moment, but I challenge you to resist the urge. See the world with both eyes open, and celebrate the diversity that makes Cuban-Jewish families unique.

Ropa Vieja
Recipe type: Main
Cuisine: Cuban
Serves: 6-8
Prep time:
Cook time:
Total time:
The ultimate in Cuban comfort food.
  • 5-7 lbs. Brisket, trimmed of most visible fat
  • 2 onions, divided
  • 6 cloves of garlic, divided
  • 2 large red bell peppers, divided
  • 2 bay leaves, divided
  • 4 cups beef stock
  • 3 tsp. Olive oil
  • 1 Tbs dried oregano
  • 1 Tbs ground cumin
  • 1 14 oz can diced tomatoes
  • 1 8 oz can tomato sauce
  • 10 stuffed green olives, sliced in thin rounds
  • 2 Tbs capers, plus 1 Tbs. of the brine.
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
  1. Cut your brisket into 2-inch wide strips.
  2. The night before you want to serve, add the brisket, 1 onion, roughly chopped, 2 whole cloves of garlic, ½ a bell pepper, 1 bay leaf, and beef stock to a slow-cooker, and set to cook on low for 6-7 hours.
  3. Remove the beef and set aside. Once the beef is cool enough to be handled, use 2 forks to shred the beef.
  4. Strain the cooking liquid, and reserve for later use in a medium bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and refrigerate long enough for the fat to solidify on top (about 20-30 minutes). Skim the fat from the liquid.
  5. Discard the rest of the contents from the slow cooker.
  6. Meanwhile, finely dice the remainder of the onions and half of the remaining bell pepper. The rest of the bell pepper should be sliced in short, thin slices.
  7. Mince the remaining garlic.
  8. Heat a large pot (dutch oven style) over medium-high heat. Add olive oil.
  9. Add the diced onions and both diced and sliced bell peppers, and cook for 5-10 minutes, or until onions become translucent. Add the garlic, and cook for 2 more minutes.
  10. Add the shredded beef to the pot, as well as ½ of the now-skimmed stock, the oregano, the cumin, the diced tomatoes, and the tomato sauce. Stir to combine.
  11. Lower the heat, cover the pot, and simmer for 30 minutes, or until liquid reduces and thickens a bit.
  12. Add the olives, brine, and capers, and cook for 15 more minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  13. Leave simmering on low on the stove until ready to serve.
  14. Serve with white rice.


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Saturday Night Dinner Party: Cuban Themed!


This past weekend, Kenny and I hosted some friends for a casual Cuban-themed dinner party at our home. Despite never having met each other, we thought that the two pairs might find some common ground for a couple of reasons.  First, they are both active leaders within the global Jewish community, and second, they share our appreciation for all things food. As their token Cuban friend, I felt a great responsibility to present the best of the best that my family has to offer, and my plan was to pull out all the stops. After all, when each individually asked me where they could find the best Cuban food in town, I boasted that no restaurant could produce the dishes made with love by any of the cooks in my family. So the bar was set pretty high.

As our date approached, I thought long and hard about what I might include on the menu. The Cubans in my family, much like the Jewish people at large, are known for cooking in abundance. It’s as if we’re incapable of cooking just enough. There must be plenty in case people want seconds. With this in mind, I knew which staple was not to be missed for my Cuban feast: Black Beans. Although a bit labor-intensive and time consuming to prepare, a single bag of beans makes a pot big enough to feed a small, hungry army. Also, the flavor you get from popping the top off a can of beans is no match for the slow-cooked, smokey, warm bite from the made-from-scratch variety. That being said, making beans from scratch is a serious commitment. To do them right, it takes two days of prep, which isn’t ordinarily my deal. But trust me when I tell you that if you’ve got the time, it’s totally worth it.

Contents of the pressure cooker, before I added the liquid.
Contents of the pressure cooker, before I added the liquid.

The evening before the dinner party, Kenny got to work organizing the perfect soundtrack for the night, while I soaked the beans in a giant bowl of water. I left them to soak overnight, and in the morning, my beans had softened a bit, making it easier to pick out any rocks that made their way into the bag. My handy dandy upper-cabinet-reacher, also known as my husband, graciously pulled down my pressure cooker, and I filled it with classic Cuban aromatics: garlic, onions, and bell pepper. I covered the beans with chicken stock, and threw in some bay leaves for extra love. Next, I let the pressure cooker do its thing, and awaited it’s solo. Once the cooker started to sing to me, I started the clock. Forty minutes later, the beans were ready for the next step.

Pressure cooker hard at work
Pressure cooker hard at work

I am really good about doing the bulk of my prep work ahead of time on dinner party nights, mostly because I want to be able to enjoy myself with my guests. So, I had already prepared the sofrito that would be the base of the flavor profile in the beans. I let the sofrito of finely chopped garlic, onions, and bell pepper sweat, and then added the soft beans. You can’t have a pot of Cuban beans without the star: cumin. Cumin is what gives it that warm, smokey flavor without the kick of heat. After adding in a little oregano, salt and pepper, I was almost done. Cuban cuisine, much like its culture, is very much influenced both by the African and the Spanish people who inhabited the island long ago. This cross-section is ever apparent, particularly in beans, when we add sliced green olives. I could be wrong, but I don’t know of any other cultures that do that.

Making mojitos for the group.
Making mojitos for the group.

Once the beans were simmering, I was free to move on to some of the other offerings of the night, and I wrapped up just as the guests started to arrive. Our home is sometimes hard to find, but they followed the scents of garlic and cumin wafting through the air, and the sounds of Arturo Sandoval and Celia Cruz serenading in the background. Dahlia and Elan brought us some fragrant mint from their garden, and with that, the mojitos were flowing.

Some of the other tasty bites I served.
Some of the other tasty bites I served.

Like the good hostess my matriarchs taught me to be, I wore a flower in my hair for good measure, and set out some appetizers while I finished up in the kitchen. As they got to know each other, Dahlia and Elan learned that they shared many more things in common with Jill and Ely than initially expected, and I could hear their stories and laughter from the kitchen. Shortly thereafter, I set out the dinner spread, and we sat down to eat. The feast included appetizers of sweet and savory pastelitos de pollo and Cuban crackers with guava paste and cheese. The main course featured my Cuban black beans with white rice,  slow-cooked Ropa Vieja, succulent rotisserie Pollo Criollo with Mojo sauce, crisp, twice-fried tostones, and a salad layered with avocado, flower-shaped cucumber, thin slices of tomato and mixed greens. To cap off the evening, I served my famous flan.

Happy dinner guests
Happy dinner guests

Each bite of the meal was met with happy sounds of appreciation, the kind that make my heart sing. I taught my friends that Cubans eat their rice and beans the way Americans eat their mashed potatoes and gravy. That’s how we can tell the real Cubans from the impostors at the Cuban restaurants. That night, my friends learned a little something new about me, too.The food I served was indicative of my unique family history. I love to cook, but the part I love most is sharing that passion with my friends and loved ones.

Elan, the clown
Elan, the clown

Especially when they’re as fun and goofy as these party guests.


Cuban black beans
Recipe type: Side Dish
Cuisine: Cuban
Serves: 16+
Prep time:
Cook time:
Total time:
  • 1 16 oz bag of dried black beans
  • 2 large yellow onions, divided
  • 2 heads of garlic, divided
  • 2 red bell peppers, divided
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 4+ cups low sodium chicken stock
  • 1 tbs olive oil
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 2 tbs cumin (plus more, to taste)
  • 1 tbs sugar
  • 2 tbs fresh oregano, finely chopped
  • 10 green olives, sliced (plus the brine from the bottle)
(This recipe is done in 3 distinct steps)
Step 1:
  1. Soak the beans in a bowl of water overnight, so that they have time to soften slightly. Drain and set aside.
Step 2:
  1. In a pressure cooker, add the drained beans, 1 onion chopped in large chunks, 1 bell pepper, chopped in large chunks, 1 head of garlic, peeled and left whole, 2 bay leaves, and enough chicken stock to cover the mixture with about 2 inches of excess liquid on top.
  2. Seal the pressure cooker according to the directions on your model, and cook on medium. When the pressure cooker starts making the “pressure” sound, cook for 40-45 minutes. Turn off the stove, and let the pressure cooker cool down before you open it.
  3. Once you open the pressure cooker, discard the large chunks of bell pepper, onion, and garlic, as well as the 2 bay leaves.
  4. Use a potato masher to slightly mash the beans, leaving some still whole. Set aside the beans.
Step 3:
  1. Create your “sofrito” by chopping the rest of the onion, pepper, and garlic into very fine pieces.
  2. In another large pot, heat the olive oil and add the sofrito. Once the onions in the sofrito are translucent, add the beans.
  3. Add sliced green olives, including some of the liquid from the olive jar. Add salt, pepper, cumin, oregano and sugar to taste, and let simmer until the liquid reduces and desired creaminess is achieved.
  4. Serve with steamed white rice.
If you do not own a pressure cooker, use a regular big pot, and cook on the stove for 3+ hours, until the beans are soft.


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