cuban-vaca-friat
Journal

Ingredients For a Better Life and a Surprisingly Great Dinner

When my family arrived in Miami we were among 650,000 Cubans who passed through a place considered the “Ellis Island of the South–” a National Historic Landmark called the Freedom Tower. Located in downtown Miami, it was the site of the Cuban Assistance Center. We knew it simply as El Refugio, ‘the place of refuge’ or ‘the haven.’ Here, in this 17-story tower that once headquartered the daily Miami News, is where most of our food came from.

The Freedom Tower in Miami, “El Refugio”

The Freedom Tower in Miami, “El Refugio”

My parents felt extremely grateful that the U.S. welcomed us with open arms and helped rebuild our lives with medical and financial relief programs. They were constantly reminding my brothers and me that America was generous to us and we should think of the gesture as a gift, an immigrant’s heavenly head start. No wonder so many Cuban-Americans went on to become highly successful! Our prayer time always included saying thanks to the U.S.A.

Years later, my cousin Raul Murciano and his fellow composer Rey Sanchez, wrote and produced a music video spoofing Fidel Castro, “thanking him,” (wink, wink) for our newfound opportunities in the U.S. It’s a family affair. My brother, Rafael, edited the piece. My parents are in the video and if you don’t blink you’ll see a few frames of my mother and me at Varadero Beach, at 2:46 into the video.

In the early sixties, one of the biggest sources of help was food. Once a month my mom and grandmother went to El Refugio to pick up a 20-pound loaf of Velveeta cheese, cans of spam, pork and beef, powdered milk, huge tubs of butter, peanut butter and mashed potato flakes. They whipped up our dinner and packed the leftovers into our bags for school the next day.

Carlos, My Brother, and Me Carrying Our Lunch First Day of School at Sts. Peter & Paul, Miami, 1964

Carlos, My Brother, and Me Carrying Our Lunch
First Day of School at Sts. Peter & Paul, Miami, 1964

My mom said U.S. soldiers ate this very food and if it was good enough for them it was good enough for us. She was 21-years old with three children in tow including an infant, and had no idea how to cook since it had all been done for her in Havana. When these staples began to arrive my grandmother got creative and began teaching my mom how to use them. These tasty foods became the base of what are still my favorite dishes.

My number one choice was always Vaca Frita. This delicious crispy shredded beef dish literally translates to “fried cow.” Since we received both canned beef and pork, my mother used both meats to make the Vaca Frita, which turned the whole thing into a joke. You’ve heard of Chicken-Fried Steak, well my mom created Cow-Fried Pork, or Vaca Frita de Puerco. As soon as we could afford to buy our meat at the carniceria, the butcher shop, she began making my beloved dish from beef. This is her original recipe.

cuban-vaca-friat
cuban-vaca-friat

Cuban Vaca Frita

  

November 9, 2015

My number one choice was always Vaca Frita. This delicious crispy shredded beef dish literally translates to “fried cow.” Since we received both canned beef and pork, my mother used both meats to make the Vaca Frita, which turned the whole thing into a joke. You’ve heard of Chicken-Fried Steak, well my mom created Cow-Fried Pork, or Vaca Frita de Puerco. As soon as we could afford to buy our meat at the carniceria, the butcher shop, she began making my beloved dish from beef. This is her original recipe.

  • Prep: 10 mins
  • Cook: 1 hr 30 mins
  • 10 mins

    1 hr 30 mins

    1 hr 40 mins

  • Yields: Serves 4 - 6

Ingredients

2 pounds flank steak

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium yellow onions, sliced

6 garlic cloves, chopped

Juice from 1 lime

2 limes cut into wedges

2 whole bay leaves

1-teaspoon garlic powder

½ teaspoon black pepper

1-teaspoon ground cumin

1-teaspoon onion powder

2 teaspoons salt

Directions

1Place the flank steak in a deep pot and fill with water until it’s covered. Add the bay leaves and cover. Let it simmer for an hour. If you’re using a pressure cooker, follow the appliance directions and cook approximately 20 minutes. Remove from heat, take the meat out and let it rest and cool. While the steak is still warm, shred the beef using two forks, or your fingers if it’s cool enough to handle. Set it aside while you make the sofrito.

Sofrito:

1Place two tablespoons of olive oil into a large pan over medium heat. Add onions and half the garlic. Sauté for 2 minutes. Add the spices. Sauté for another 5 minutes.

2Turn the heat up to medium high and add the beef. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes until crispy. Remove from heat.

3Add the rest of the raw garlic to the beef along with the lime juice and mix it in. Top with parsley and lime wedges and serve with a spatula. This dish can be served by itself, or with white rice and black beans for a truly Cuban experience.

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