Is there such a thing as too much fun? Too much wonder? Too much euphoria? What about too much flavor? It’s easy to assume you can’t have too much of a good thing, but with flavor, at least, that’s an idea that can lead you straight off a cliff.
Several years ago, I dubbed a phenomenon that I’d been observing in the restaurant world the “Flavor Arms Race.” In a never-ending attempt to one-up all the recipes that had come before, chefs were throwing more and more flavor at a dish. More salt, more acid, more funk, more umami. Everyone is unleashing umami “bombs” left and right these days, a word choice that speaks to the assault our tongues are sometimes under. A simple roast chicken seasoned with salt and pepper gets a fistful of herbs shoved in it, then 40 cloves of garlic. Eventually, we dump fish sauce and lime juice on top and claim victory. Maybe the result is delicious, but maybe we’re at risk of losing sight of the chicken in the process.
This is the question I wrestled with as I worked on my own recipe for ropa vieja, the Cuban dish of tender shredded beef in a sauce with tomatoes, onions, and peppers. I started my testing by making the dish the way most recipes say to: simmering the beef in water with aromatic vegetables, then making a quick sauce of onions, peppers, and tomatoes on the side. When the beef is tender, you take it out of its poaching broth, shred it, and add it to the sauce with just enough of the broth to moisten things up.
When made with that method, the dish has a lighter, sweeter, and more delicate flavor than one might expect from such a hearty-looking beef stew. That’s largely due to the fact that it’s not really a stew, at least not in the traditional sense. The meat isn’t cooked with the liquid and vegetables that it’s going to be served with—it’s poached, shredded, and then bathed in a sauce.
What I had to decide was whether this was an approach that needed to be changed. Was it a mistake to poach the beef separately, then not use most of that beefy broth? Could I switch to a more flavorful cut of beef? And would smacking the dish with some umami bombs improve it?
The result is a recipe that strikes a balance between capturing as much built-in flavor as possible, while not straying too far from the spirit of the dish simply because we can. This is a ropa vieja that’s as rich and beefy as it should be, without going for the nuclear option.
Ropa vieja is usually made with flank steak, a lean cut with long, thick strands of muscle fiber that can quickly dry out when overcooked. It’s at its best when briefly seared, then sliced thinly across the grain to minimize the chewiness of those fibers. The preparatory approach for ropa vieja includes neither of those steps. Instead, it’s the opposite: The beef is cooked until well-done, and the fibers are then shredded so that they’re long and whole (hence the dish’s name, which translates as “old clothes”).
On its face, this seems like an absolutely terrible idea. Why not switch to a cut marbled with collagen and fat, one that’s better suited to long cooking? Well, you could. You could use skirt steak, or, better yet, brisket, which has long muscle fibers similar to flank. Or go straight for the kill with a truly stew-worthy cut, like beef chuck or short ribs.
The truth, though, is that you don’t need to. I wouldn’t object to a ropa vieja made with brisket, but it’s not a necessary improvement, and the reason has everything to do with the fact that the recipe has you shred the beef.
Muscle fibers contract and squeeze out moisture as they cook; by the time a piece of meat is well-done, much of its juices have been pushed out. Cuts that are high in fat and collagen are able to mask this effect, thanks to the way fat melts and coats the meat and collagen breaks down into tender gelatin. It’s an illusion of sorts, with the fat and gelatin obscuring the loss of water.