My husband eats lunch like this on most workdays – what is colloquially known in Puerto Rico as a mixta: a combination of rice, beans, and meat. The flavors of this particular mixta are distinctively Cuban: the savory black beans cooked with onions, peppers, garlic and a little vinegar, vaca frita with pepper and onions, and a couple of fried plantains on the side. Preparing vaca frita was a definite first for me, and I hadn’t made black beans this way since college. I don’t like beans too much. That makes me a terrible Puerto Rican and NOLA-phile although I do cook them for DH at least every other month. He does get his fix regularly!
Vaca frita is essentially a twice-cooked flank steak. The first stage involves poaching the meat for about an hour with water, peppercorns, and bay leaves. After the meat is cooked and cooled, it is sliced into small pieces, tossed with a couple of tablespoons of sherry and seasonings, and then pan-fried with onions and green peppers until crispy outside. While researching recipes, I came across what seems to be a point of conflict between vaca frita purists and others – whether the meat should be shredded or sliced. Another extremely popular Cuban dish, ropa vieja (‘old clothes’) also consists of flank steak, but shredded and simmered in a tomato based sauce until tender. Purists say that the flank steak for vaca frita should not be shredded, but cut into small pieces. I went with the purists this time, even though DH’s favorite version, the one served in Miami institution Versailles, is shredded. I have a hunch that has to do more with restaurant logistics than actual tradition.
My favorite part of making vaca frita was seeing the meat slices crisp up. The sherry not only tendererized the meat but the sugars were crucial in getting that crunchy exterior. The spice blend used after the meat is strong, so feel free to cut back on the spices if you are watching your salt intake.
Adapted from Taste of Cuba
The Flank Steak
- 1 pound flank steak, trimmed of visible fat
- 2 dried bay leaves
- 6 peppercorns
Poach the flank steak, with enough water to cover the meat and spices for 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Remove the meat from the poaching liquid and allow to cool.
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin
- 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
- Dry sherry
Slice the flank steak in small, bite sized slices, cutting against the grain. Pound these slices with a meat mallet to increase the surface area by at least 25%. Toss the spices together in a bowl, and add the steak pieces. Add a couple of splashes of sherry and let the meat rest for at least twenty minutes.
Bringing it Together
- One small onion, thinly sliced
- 1/2 cubanelle or bell pepper, thinly sliced
- Canola or grapeseed oil
Heat a skillet to medium high heat, and add about two tablespoons of cooking oil. Working in batches, lightly fry the meat with onions and peppers until the meat crisps and the vegetables soften, about four minutes.
I served the meat rice with black beans – modifying slightly the recipe from the back of the Goya can – and tostones, twice fried green plantains. Cubans normally serve these savory dishes with the ripe, sweet plantains but we got green ones in the market earlier that day.