Flat Iron Vaca Frita Grande with Red Onion Mojo

Before I get to the food, there’s a lot of buzz in the foodie blogsphere about the experience Melissa at Alosha’s Kitchen had recently concerning recipe copyrights, especially when it comes to adapting, or being inspired by, someone else’s recipe. The whole post is here: http://aloshaskitchen.blogspot.com/2008/07/illegal-or-not.html

It’s an interesting read. Many of us foodies, as well as professional chefs, are constantly inspired by the works of others, from professional chefs to an ancient grandmother in some remote patch of the globe. If we post someone’s recipe or adaptation, with or without changes of our own, does it violate copyright law? After all, not only can I not post an MP3 of a popular song on my blog, I can’t even post an MP3 of me performing a popular song, even if I changed it up a bit.

However, copyright law in the States specifically excludes lists of ingredients from protection, and unless there’s something uniquely personal or unique in the description, the “process” of cooking is usually not covered, either. In fact, an idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery is specifically not copyrightable (though some of these may be covered by patent). The idea is that works of art, such as music, is the work itself — the song is the product. A recipe, on the other hand, creates something else — a generic recipe isn’t the product, the dish the recipe creates is the product. A slightly legalese description, with good examples, can be found here: http://smallbusiness.findlaw.com/copyright/copyright-realworld/recipe-copyrighting.html

If reposting recipes is relatively legal, there does seem to be a balance in that there seems to be a communal culinary etiquette which generously tries to attribute the original concept or inspiration (and comes down pretty hard on those cooks who don’t). Personally, I try to link back to the original recipe, or at least name the city and restaurant that inspired me, if not the name of the chef. To me, the only recourse Melissa’s nemesis would have is to ask her to remove the attribution, lest it “pollute” the reputation of their “perfected” recipe. Instead, many of us in the foodie blogosphere are now considering our current and future subscriptions.


Okay, on to more palatable subjects: Cuban Steak. One of Christey’s favorite Disney meals is the steak mojo at Bongos (Gloria Estefan’s place) in Downtown Disney. I was looking up mojo recipes when I happened upon an recipe from Bon App├ętit magazine. I was intrigued by a recipe that takes two days (yes, two days) to make a steak. So, here is my adaptation of Chef Rodriguez’s riff on vaca frita, which can be found right here at Epicurious.

A traditional vaca frita is shredded. It also uses skirt or flank steak. Rodriguez chose to serve his steak whole, which I liked. While shopping for flank steak, I happened on some flat iron that was actually a buck a pound cheaper than flank steak, so I pounced on that, because I love flat iron.

A little over a decade ago, flat iron steak didn’t exist. The front, top shoulder of beef was just ground into hamburger with the rest of the chuck that couldn’t sell as steaks on its own. A couple universities and beef trade groups decided to take a look at cattle anatomy to see if there were any unknown muscle cuts that might be sold as steaks — that is, a cut for which they could charge more than hamburger. Hidden in the top shoulder/blade was meat more tender than any muscle but the tenderloin. Unfortunately, there was a inedible chunk of connective tissue running right down the middle of it. Some carving research developed a method for removing the connective tissue and the almost triangular flat iron cut was born. It’s a tender cut, yet more beefy flavored than tenderloin, and restaurants have begun to snap it up.

Man, I’m chatty today. Okay, on to the specifics.

Day 1. For the marinade, gather: An entire bunch of cilantro. Four cloves of garlic. Red wine vinegar. Kosher salt, black pepper. Cumin, mustard seed, black peppercorns, white peppercorns.

Rough chop the cilantro and garlic and throw into a food processor

Add cumin, mustard seed, black peppercorns, and white peppercorns. Add in about 1/4 cup red wine vinegar and a good slug of kosher.

Add in a cup of water, then process…but it’s a marinade, so it doesn’t have to be liquefied. Some chunks are good.

I trimmed the last bits of junk off the flat iron, then put it in a roasting pan and covered with the marinade. It didn’t quite cover the steak, so I added a cup more water.

This gets covered with foil, and is put into a preheated 350 degree oven for an hour, where it will simmer gently, sorta doing a quick-braise.

After an hour, the pan is taken out and uncovered, and everything sits out at room temperature for an hour — liquid, steak, and all — to cool off. I was surprised to see the steak had shrunk to half it’s size, but flat iron has a nice marbling, a lot of which rendered out.

Once cool, the whole pan — liquid, steak, and all, is covered with foil again and tossed into the fridge until the next day.

It was an easy prep, but I’m glad Christey and I ate beforehand (I made Roasted Chicken with Feta Almond Green Beans). A filling meal is recommended, because the steak simmering in that garlic cilantro mixture smells really tasty…and the recipe still has 24 hours before it can be eaten.

Day 2. The red onion mojo is more of a side dish than the marinade that a true steak mojo would have, but it’s still worth it.

I found some key limes and used those instead of persians. A dozen or so provided 1/4 cup of lime juice.

A giant red onion was sliced thinly, then tossed in a medium-high pan with a few tablespoons of olive oil and cooked until transluscent:

Once soft, the lime juice is added, along with kosher salt and black pepper. The lime juice was added and reduced almost a sec — thick and almost nothing left. The onions are removed from the heat.

Even more cilantro is chopped, a good fistful before chopping finely, and tossed into the cooling onions.

The steak is removed from the fridge and patted dry. This is going to be fried in oil, so excess moisture will spit all over the place and prevent browning. The steak is then generously salted and peppered.

I whipped out the cast iron skillet, heated it, added a few tablespoons of olive oil almost until smoking, and added the steak. After about 2-3 minutes of browning, I turned it to brown on the other side. I pushed down in spots to help the steak contact the pan — I was looking for a nice crusty flavor.

Plating was half the steak, covered with some red onions, with more on the side. A bit of key lime to garnish is nice:

Post Mortem: I was worried about this one. Not just the 2-day cooking process, but the substitution flat iron for flank steak, and I had changed some of the spices around. I was worried more when I saw how much the steak had shrunk, and that it looked like it was shoe leather. Same thing the next day when I first took it out and patted it dry — it was slightly twisted and stayed that way. After it warmed up from the sear, however, it turned out very nice. It wasn’t like medium-rare filet mignon, it was nice and beefy in the right way. Almost like braised spare-ribs, which makes sense in hindsight, given the time in the marinade liquid. There was a pronounced cilantro taste, but not as overpowering as it would seem with a bunch and a half of cilantro. Those sensitive to the taste might not like it, but I thought it was just right.

I’d make this again, no question. I’d like to try it with flank steak to see if it would shrink less, and if it would be just as good as the flat iron. The two day thing makes some prior planning necessary, but then again, it’s just a couple days. Peter over at Kalofagas just finished a month and a half epic raising a basket of snails, all for a single meal. Now that’s what I call prep work!


  1. bee says:

    the mojo is somthing i definitely have to try. lovely pics.

  2. http://thefoodmonsterblog.blogspot.com
    I absolutely love your photography, and step by step cooking photos. That is why I have nominated you for the Brillante Weblog Award.

    The copyright recipe bit is also interesting.

  3. Peter says:

    You got every inch of flavour out of that meat and the frame by frame pics capture it all.

    Was this inspiration from ATK? lol

  4. love those 2-days-to-make meals. i think i’d rather have the perfect cassoulet, though – but, don’t get me wrong, this looks amazing. when we do our pickled red onions, we usually soaked in vinegar (cider or white) with added spiced (cumin, oregano, etc.). some may find that easier than using a bunch of limes, but i gotta say, that sounds like it would be very tasty.

    as always, amazing pictures.

  5. petermarcus says:

    Bee — Thanks! I’m definitely making it again.

    Monster — Thank you very much for the nomination! We love cooking and photography, and have a lot of fun trying to blend them, but it’s always great to hear that someone else enjoys our attempts!

    Peter — Yep, it was tasty! And no ATK — it was a competing culinary conglomerate!

    WANF — I want to try Bourdain’s 3-day cassoulet, but I think I’ll wait for cooler weather. A stew like that might kill any Floridian this time of year ;)

    I’ve had onions pickled like that with Northern European dishes, but the lime juice cooked down to almost a glaze and made them taste so wonderfully tropical. Went well with the cuban-style beef!

  6. Esi says:

    This looks absolutely wonderful and your pictures are stunning!

  7. kalva says:

    Wow lovely pics… Tossing the red onions.. and u clicked it.. awesome

  8. Nate says:

    Dang, nice series again! You really like those “flying out of the frying pan shots”, eh?

    The red onion mojo looks good but my first thought was, “beets! Ew.” Would it work just as well with white onions?

  9. petermarcus says:

    Esi — Thanks! It was tasty!

    Kalva — Yeah, the tossing thing is just playing around a bit. Christey usually takes a half dozen shots or so and usually one turns out pretty good.

    Nate — Thanks! Yeah, in the pics, they look to me like red cabbage (German dad, Polish mom, I had a lot of that growing up). Sure, white onions would work, or I like to use sweet/Vidalea onions a lot, too.

  10. nina says:

    This looks so amazing. The colors are beautiful!!!

  11. Amy says:

    I’ve got to tell you that I just tried this recipe and it’s AMAZING. Waiting overnight damn near killed me, but it was SO worth it. (even if my family is picky and didn’t like the onions, I wouldn’t change a single thing about this).

    I’ve never used flat iron steak before, but it was so tender and delicious.

  12. will says:

    I’m making flatiron steak tonight, with a smoky/spicy rub and clementine, chayote, red onion salsa. However, now that I see this, i think I’m going to have to go buy another flat iron and make this on Saturday. Looks amazing. Great photos, too. What kind of camera?

    Did the steak turn out super tender?


  13. petermarcus says:

    Will — It was pretty tender, but not in a normal grilled steak/half rare kinda way. Sort of like a braise, but not falling apart. I think the marinade really tenderized it more than cooking. A steak ceviche, maybe ;) Definitely worth making it, if you can wait a couple days to eat!

    The “About Us” page above has a list of Christey’s camera equipment, I barely understand photography, she’s the expert. But, she uses a Canon 10D with a variety of strobes and lights.

  14. Roy Hall says:

    A roommate encoraged me to check out this site, nice post, fascinating read… keep up the nice work!

  15. Bobbie Palmer says:

    Oh, my God! What great pictures – - step by step!