Yes, friends, Vaca Frita. I held off on posting this during Lent because I couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t fall on a Friday, and since Catholics are not supposed to eat meat on Fridays, I didn’t want to torture any of my readers. Seriously, Vaca Frita on a Lenten Friday, that could be cruel and unusual punishment! Afterwards I got caught up in my dissertation and before I knew it a week went by and no posts on my part! Yikes! :-0
No one ever made Vaca Frita in my household, though we did eat a lot of Ropa Vieja (recipe to come soon!). Believe it or not my first encounter with vaca frita was watching the Frugal Gourmet (remember him? I think I just dated myself) while in college and he was making vaca frita. How cool is that? The Frugal Gourmet showcasing Cuban food in 1992! Ever since then I started tinkering with different recipes, and trying vaca frita at different restaurants.
Who serves the best vaca frita in Miami? From 2000-2004 I can tell you that Lario’s by Mall of the Americas was by far the BEST vaca frita in Miami (they also had the best congrí oriental but that’s an entirely different post), followed closely by Havana Harry’s and Havana Miami. Most of the other places I tried the dish, it was either too greasy, too shredded or not enough lemon and garlic. See there are two ways of serving vaca frita – the steak form and the shredded form. I’ll eat both, but I overwhelmingly prefer the former: steak form. And of course, wouldn’t you know it, es la más difícil de hacer de las dos!
Here is what you will need:
- Flank Steak – about a 1.5lb for 4 people.
- Sliced medium onion
- 8 fat garlic cloves – smashed en el pilón
- 4 green lemons (or in proper English limes) juiced
- 2 tbs extra virgin olive oil
- salt, pepper and cumin to taste
You might be tempted to boil the meat in a crockpot; however, for bistec style vaca frita this is not recommended because the vaca frita will shred into ropa vieja, in Spanish se va a desmoronar. However if this is how you like vaca frita more power to you. But this is my bistec de vaca frita recipe, so no crockpot! Start by soft boiling, in very low heat (simmer), the flank steak. Usually I season with some onion, salt, a bit of cumin and some bay leaves.
Watch while it boils, so you can take it out at the right time. The idea is to have it close to medium; if you overcook it the meat will harden and get a bit gummy. Not a major problem, you’ll just have to masonearla to get it to shred! But first you should cut the steak into the four portions. You want to make sure you cut across or against the grain, so that you can shred it.
In any case I do use a masón, and open the steak for easier shredding. However, I wait for it to cool. Don’t hit it too hard; you want to separate it enough so that you can shred by hand but still manage to keep it all together. Confused? Don’t be. See? It’s not that hard!
Be very careful when you shred the steaks. The idea is to separate it but keep it together at the same time. However, this separation will allow for the marinade to get through. Don’t marinate too long either; about an hour. For the marinade there are various things you can do. What I do is take a lemon per steak (limon criollo so in English that would be a lime). Squeeze all the juice out. OJO: If you don’t like it too lemony then just use two lemons. Add a bit of olive oil. Take the garlic cloves and mash them in a pilón. Find a deep dish to put the steaks in; even better if it has a lid. I use a square pyrex with lid. Add some salt to the lemon oil mixture, and then add all of it to the garlic in the pilón. Yes, its almost like making mojo. Pour it over the steaks, cover and shake shake shake señora! Let it sit for at least an hour.
Now it is time to add the FRITA in Vaca Frita. In other words it is time to fry those steaks! Slice the onions and then cut them in half, so they are half moons. Heat up the olive oil in a skillet in medium heat. You want it hot enough to fry the steak and not allow any juices to start boiling. When the oil is hot enough, fork the steaks out and put on the skillet. Add the sliced onions.
Here you need to velar la vaca frita, so it doesn’t burn and more importantly, so the garlic doesn’t burn. And you’ll have to turn it at least twice. When the strings start getting brownish and toasty, then you are almost there. At that time, whatever was left in the pyrex (the lemon garlic mixture) throw it in! You want the Vaca Frita to be sort of crispy crunchy on the outside, but inside you want it to be like traditional ropa vieja – meaning soft and moist. That’s el truco de la vaca frita! When you are done, serve with white rice and black beans.
Like I said before, it’s up to you to manage the amount of lemon and garlic you want according to your liking. Personally I like it really REALLY garlicky, which is why I loved the Lario’s vaca frita. I like some cumin, a bit of salt and a pinch of pepper. But those you can manage to taste. The trick here again, is the crunchy in the outside, moist in the inside.