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Norman Van Aken's A Word On Food
Sat July 19, 2014
Before I looked at him I heard his voice. He was ordering from the blackboard menu.
''Vaca Frita please with moros" he added. American accent all the way. But he knew he was going to be
getting rice and beans when he requested those items. Confidence all the way. He was told in Spanglish, "you get y una mas 'Side'."
He responded. "Do you have Maduro Plantains?"
The order taking worker in a clean but rumpled guayabera spun to face the kitchen workers and jabb ed the new order ticket for Vaca Frita with Moros and Plantains onto the area where the cooks kept such information in order.
The man ordering the early morning staple of Miami was dressed in his pilots uniform. He was young and muscular but thin. Like a baseball player.
I turned to him and asked, "Do you always get Vaca Frita?"
"I do when I come to Miami,” he answered pleasantly. "My girlfriend up in New York only eats hamburgers and pasta. Wherever I fly I always try and find new things to eat because I know when I go home it's going to be the same food with her".
A Latina flight attendant in her uniform wearing too much make up pushed her food tray near his. She had a plain salad and a bottle of water. She eyed the pilot's just delivered meal with obvious longing. Her eyes grew moist. The tight bun she'd pulled her streaked hair into a punishing tightness on top of her head reminded me of the pincushion my mother used when sewing. The only thing missing were the steel, shiny pins bt they seemed to arrive internally to the hungry lady.
My mind drilled and then I heard the music playing in the cafeteria. It was Jimmy Cliff singing "Sitting in Limbo".
"Sitting here in limbo
But I know it won be long.
Sitting here in limbo,
Like a bird without a song."
The lyrics seemed to be written just for the woman I nodded to the "Gods of Coincidence". Vaca Frita is a dish I learned of early on in living here in South Florida. There were a host of
dishes that schooled me as I made way in the Cuban, Bahamian, Haitian, Black and Southern restaurants that were scattered across Key West where I lived at first.
Norman Van Aken, © 2001
Cuban people may make Vaca Frita out of leftover pot roast from a Sunday dinner. It’s another example of their creativity and thrift. Here we begin with a very savory mixture of spices, bacon, vegetables and forge a foundation for the under utilized “skirt steak”. Skirt steak is less tender than cuts from the loin but it is deeply flavorful and after you braise them, as we do here tenderness is at hand.
Yield: 4 Servings
- 2 Tablespoons Escabeche Spice Rub, or salt and pepper
- 3 Tablespoons roasted garlic oil
- 2 ½ pounds skirt steak, cut into 4-5 inch wide pieces with the grain
- 2 ounces smoked bacon, rind removed, diced medium
- 2 Tablespoons butter
- 1 head of garlic, cut in half crosswise
- 1 large red onion, peeled and diced medium
- 1 large carrot, peeled and diced medium
- 2 stalks celery, washed and diced medium
- 1 bay leaf, broken
- 2 quarts warm water
- 8-10 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
- ½ Cup fresh lime juice
- 2 Tablespoons canola oil for frying
- 1 recipe Caramelized Red Onions, (optional)
Lay the pieces of skirt steak on your cutting board and sprinkle them all over with the spice rub.
Heat a large soup pot over medium-high heat and add the garlic oil. Quickly sear the flank steak pieces until nicely browned on all sides. Do this in batches so that you don’t crowd the meat. Set the meat on to a plate and reserve.
Add the bacon to the pot and when it is almost cooked add the butter. When it begins to foam, add the garlic, red onion, carrot, celery and bay leaf. Cook about 8 minutes until the vegetables begin to caramelize. Now add the water and the skirt steak. Bring to simmer. Skim off any impurities and then reduce the heat to medium low. Cook for about 1½ hours and the meat is very tender. Take the meat out of the broth and allow to cool. Strain the braising liquid and chill.
Mix the marinade ingredients together to let the flavors marry. When the meat is cool put it in a quart sized zip lock bag and pour the marinade over it and move it around so that the marinade coats the meat. Marinade a few hours or over night.
When you are ready to finish the dish, take the broth out and discard any accumulated fat. Put the broth in a pot, and, over high heat, reduce to about ½ Cup. Reserve.
Allow the meat to come to room temperature before crisping it. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the 2 Tablespoons of canola oil and fry the meat on both sides until crispy and golden brown. Season with salt and pepper.
Now shred half of the meat apart into somewhat thick “strands”. Place some of the meat in small sections (without shredding) in the bottom of warm bowls. Now add some of the shredded meat on top of that. Pour the sauce over and cover with caramelized onions. Serve with a wedge of lime for each guest.
Serving Suggestion: You might like to prepare the Tostones and/or Basic White Rice with this.