That, and a handrolled Corona

March 26, 2011

Havana daydreamin’

Boy, he’s just schemin’

His life away….

Vaca frita, coconut rice, fried plantains and black bean/white corn salad. Can I have a steel drum riff, here?

We felt Cuban tonight. So we had vaca frita, fried plantains, coconut rice, and black bean and white corn salad. And while it’ ain’t Key West — several degrees of latitude and temperature away — it wasn’t half bad.

 A year or so ago, I was in South Beach on business (I was, I swear, it was business) for three days. I found me a little Cuban diner, and I ate vaca frita and plantains every day. By the third day, they’d stopped being curious about the gringa who kept showing up and speaking execrable Spanish, and started bringing me samples of stuff out of the kitchen to try.

And then I had to leave. Damn sure didn’t want to. Me and the A1A had a thing goin’ on.

Vaca frita — literally, “fried cow” —  is one of those dishes that requires at least a little bit of forethought. Because you have to cook that round steak (or, canonically, flank steak, but round works just as well) once, then let it cool enough to handle it, then cook it again. I commenced to think about it earlier this week, when I found round steak on sale at Kroger.  I brought it home and plopped it in the freezer, and last night, I got it out for Part 1 of the meal prep.

You get you a big dutch oven or stock pot, and you put about a half-gallon of water, a healthy helping of salt and pepper, a couple of bay leaves, a quartered onion, and three or four cloves of garlic, whacked with the flat side of a knife to flatten them a little but not to crushed stage, in it. And when it comes to a boil, you grit your teeth and you drop that raw round steak (about two pounds’ worth) right down in there.

That just feels WRONG. One ought not to put beef, particularly round steak, in liquid without browning it first. Where’s my Mailliard reaction? Where’s my nice fond on the bottom of my pan? This stuff is going to be GREY. Ick!

Shut up, and go on and do it. Trust me on this.

Boil it until it’s done. And if you’ve had half a bottle of red wine, like I had last night, just let it cool and slap the whole thing in the fridge until the next day, when you can bring it back to a quick boil and start over.

When the meat has cooled a little, fish it out of the stock and flop it onto a cutting board. Let it cool enough to handle. Yep, it’s grey. Don’t sweat it. It won’t be for long. Shred it up with a couple of forks, feeding the fatty pieces and the gristly bits to your dog who is lurking hopefully about your feet.

(You can also, if you are thinking about it, drain the resultant stock through a strainer and stick it in the freezer. Beef stock for some time later on!)

Then, put the shredded beef in a bowl. In another small bowl, squeeze a couple of limes. Curse because they are the dryest limes in Christendom, and add enough lime juice out of the plastic lime in your fridge to make about 1/4 cup. Shake a little cumin, and a little garlic powder, into the lime juice, and drizzle it over the shredded, grey steak. Toss it a little to make sure it distributes reasonably well.

Shift gears. Put a couple of cups of rice in your rice cooker. Add a can of unsweetened coconut milk, and a can of water. Shake a little salt, and a little cumin (maybe 1/4 tsp. cumin, maybe 1/2 tsp. salt) in there with it. Flip the rice cooker on.

Take your biggest non-stick pan, and put about 3 tablespoons of vegetable or canola oil in it. Peel a couple of ripe plaintains — the ones with big black blotches all over them — and slice them on the diagonal. Once the oil gets good and hot over medium high heat, put a single layer of plaintains in it; fry them until they’re brown on one side, flip, and brown the other. Drain them on a paper-towel-lined plate, and while they’re draining, sprinkle them with just a bit of turbinado sugar. Stick them in the oven to keep warm.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, at some point in this process you have taken a big sweet onion, sliced him in half and peeled him, and sliced him in very thin slices. In that same skillet, in the oil that’s left over from frying plaintains, toss those onions. Leave the heat on medium high, and let those onions sizzle away until they’re starting to brown and look a little crispy in spots. Then throw that grey steak that’s been soaking up your lime juice in there with it.

Let it fry away, still on medium high heat, stirring and flipping with a spatula occasionally, until it starts to get nice brown-not-gray crispy bits all through it. Think corned beef hash. That’s the kind of finish you want on this. Go as crispy or as soft as you want.

Plop a big spoonful of coconut rice, a big spatula-full of vaca frita, and a healthy collection of plantains on your plate. If you have industrious, as I was, spoon a serving of black bean and corn salad (see recipe two or three days ago) on there with it.

It ain’t Havana — it ain’t even Key West or South Beach or Tampa — but it ain’t bad, not bad at all. Particularly if you are having it with a Red Stripe beer. The sweet onion is the key in this; it’s cooked quickly enough that the onion strips still have a bit of al dente to them, and a mouthful of that good sweet flavor with none of the raw oniony sting. Serve it with some lime wedges alongside to squeeze over, to up the tart factor.

Oh. And be sure you’ve got Jimmy Buffett on the stereo.

Ceilin’ fan it stirs the air

Cigar smoke does swirl

Fragrance on the pillowcase

And he thinks about the girl

Havana daydreamin’

Boy, he’s just dreamin’

His life away….

You and y’mama ‘n ’em go mix you a margarita and enjoy your weekend.


2 Responses to “That, and a handrolled Corona”

  1. ReneeD Says:

    That looks so good.

  2. kayatthekeyboard Says:

    And Renee, as Len says, it’s easy!

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