Getting this recipe over the phone would not have been possible. The women in my family, particularly my Mom, my Tia Romy, and my Abuelita, cook by instinct and experience. To get one of their recipes, I have to act like I’m interviewing a source and question everything. I have to remind them to stop and measure the salt and everything else, which they never do. I have to be in Miami.
This recipe for vaca frita is the first one I’ve managed to write down. I’ll have to catch the arroz aguado, gallopinto, carne con papa, and arroz con pollo some time. But none of these have become as political as the vaca frita.
My Tia Romy, also my godmother, learned this Cuban recipe from her husband’s grandmother. We made plans to spend Saturday cooking it at her house so I could write down the recipe and take pictures. By coincidence (ha, not!) my mom made her version of vaca frita for dinner when I got in on Thursday night. She claims this was not intentional.
On Friday, I had leftovers for lunch and we made tortillas and turned the rest into tacos for dinner. On Saturday, I had my tia’s version and took the leftovers home on Sunday to share with Danny in Tampa. By the end of the weekend, and perhaps at the height of this rivalry, I was half vaca frita.
I, of course, can not pick a side between food made by mom and my madrina. I like both versions of the vaca frita, which translates to fried cow. My madrina showed my mom how to make it, and now they both make it often and serve it proudly, always with an impish smile and quip about hers being better than her sister’s.
My Tia Romy finely chops her onion so it’s almost hidden behind the meat, and she has a lighter hand on the garlic and lime to suit Tio John’s taste. This time she served it with fresh pineapple juice. My mom cuts her onion into long, thin strips to match the shape of the shredded meat, and the lime in her version is more intense.
Their homes are only five minutes apart, and there should really be a taste test with the two versions side by side or some kind of cooking competition. This great schism between two schools of thought on Cuban crispy, shredded beef, especially coming from two Nicaraguans, is all very amusing to my padrino. He’s agreed to be a judge on a future home cooking version of “Chopped” that would make for a truly hilarious home video.
This should also tell you that this is a forgiving recipe with a lot of room for tweaking it to your taste. My aunt used 1 and 3/4 pounds of skirt steak to show me the recipe step by step, but you’d be fine with anywhere from 1 1/2 to 2 pounds of meat. Use the cooking time as a guideline (as you should with any recipe, really, because all kitchens are different) and trust yourself to know when the meat is tender enough and later when it’s crispy enough. Add more garlic or lime if you’d like, and later play around with mixing in spices or fresh herbs. Definitely try turning the vaca frita into tacos and serve those with pico de gallo.
As for what else to serve it with, both my mom and my aunt usually serve this with rice and platanitos (or mariquitas), thinly sliced and fried plantain chips. No disagreement there.
My madrina learned how to make this Cuban dish from her husband’s grandmother. My Tia Romy then taught my mom how to make it, and it’s been a bit of a rivalry ever since. My mom tends to add more lime and garlic, and she fries the meat until it’s very crispy; my godmother chops the onion very finely rather than into long, thin strips. These are simple variations you can tweak according to your taste. This crispy, shredded meat is great for tacos. Vaca Frita (fried cow) will keep in the fridge up to a few days and this recipe can easily be doubled.
1 1/2 to 2 pounds skirt or flank steak, fat removed and cut into 3-inch pieces
1 medium onion, half sliced and half finely chopped
1/2 green bell pepper
1 tablespoon salt, plus more (incl 1/2 tsp sea salt)
7 garlic cloves, minced
3 to 4 limes
3 tablespoons olive oil
Place the meat, the sliced half of the onion, bell pepper, and 1 tablespoon salt in a pressure cooker with just enough water to cover the meat. Cook on high for 20 minutes, letting the pressure cooker whistle. If you don’t have a pressure cooker (which is simply faster), place the meat in a large pot and bring to a boil, then simmer over medium heat until the meat is tender.
Remove the pressure cooker from the heat and let rest for 5 minutes. Do not try to open a pressure cooker when it’s still hot and under, you know, pressure because it will explode on you. After a few minutes of resting, speed things up by placing the pressure cooker in the sink and running cold water over the top for a minute or so. Nothing spectacular should happen here, but my madrina advises to stand back just in case. Running water over the pressure cooker will make the safety valves on the side drop down pretty quickly, and then you know it’ll be safe to open.
Drain the meat. Discard the onion and bell pepper. Let the meat cool until you can shred it with your hands. Squeeze the juice of 3 to 4 limes over the meat. Season with 1/2 teaspoon sea salt.
Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Stir in the finely chopped onion and garlic and cook for 1 minute. Stir in the meat and fry until it’s as crispy as you like, 10 to 15 minutes. Serve warm with rice or tortillas and fried plantain.