Most Texans see a brisket and think: barbecue. Monica Greene, the legendary Dallas restaurateur, sees a brisket and thinks: ropa vieja.
Everyone in town knows Monica, who visited Cooks Without Borders headquarters (my kitchen!) recently as an honored guest cook. She's no longer in the business; her last (and short-lived) restaurant – Monica's Nueva Cocina – closed in 2012. Nevertheless, her impact on Dallas' vibrant modern Mexican cooking culture is undeniable and indelible. A pioneer of the movement, she and chef Joanne Bondy introduced the city to dishes like cabrito tacos with apple-plum butter and veal shortribs braised in mole rojo when they opened their ground-breaking restaurant Ciudad in 2000. Her long-running Deep Ellum place Monica's Aca y Alla introduced a generation of Dallasites to the joys of Mexican eating.
What her fans might not know is that Monica, who grew up in Mexico City, also loves to cook.
"Cooking is my favorite thing in the world," she tells me as she slices onions, chops carrots and celery, fills my giant stockpot with water. She's here to make ropa vieja, a shredded cold beef salad that evokes her Mexico City childhood.
Warm and gregarious as she is, she established her reputation as the face of her restaurants, running dining rooms. "From the very beginning, people told me 'you stay up front.' So when I opened my restaurant, I was a door person. But whenever I had a chance, I'd go work in the kitchen."
The first order of business is getting the brisket trimmed and simmering: It will need nearly three hours to cook to tenderness. Once Monica cuts it in half and drops it into the stockpot of simmering onions, carrots, celery, garlic, herbs and cumin seeds, we take our time and put together all the components of the salad. And yes, we talk – and talk and talk.
She tells me about her childhood in Mexico City, where she was the seventh of eight children: four boys and four girls. Their mother died when she was three, but she has fond memories of gathering with her siblings every evening around the big butcher block in the center of the family kitchen, where their cook would prepare dinner. All eight kids, and inevitably their friends as well.
"Every once in a while," she says, "you got to choose what we had. I wanted to eat two dishes. One was a chicken breast wrapped in an apple. I've never seen it anywhere else in my entire life. You boil the apple to take off the skin, wrap a pounded chicken breast around it and roast it. The other was ropa vieja."
The dish, which translates as "old clothes,"takes a different form than the well-known Cuban version, in which the braised shredded beef is served warm, like a stew. Monica's Mexico City iteration is a cold salad. "In the north, they pan-sear and brown and seal the meat, then put it in the oven." In the south, you boil it; the beef serves as a vehicle to the other flavors: pickled onions and tomatoes and avocado and cilantro. "It’s more of a symphony."
She talks, too, over the course of an afternoon – the kind of lazy, cooking afternoon I love – about some of the challenges she has faced in her life. How hard it was to find a job after making the transition from Eduardo Greene more than 20 years ago to Monica Greene, at a time when people didn't know what to make of such an evolution. At that point she had become a beautiful woman (she shows me photos on her phone) and she felt like a woman, but the way she looked and felt didn't match the name on her drivers' license or social security card.
Now she's reinventing herself once again, taking time off to travel – she has just returned from Mexico (where she reconnected with one of her brothers) and then Bali. She's in Dallas for a week, spending as much time as possible with her grandchildren, and then she's off to her second home, in Aspen, Colorado for a month – or five. "I realized I'd been working 41 years," she says, "and I wanted to take a sabbatical and pursue my passions. I have to travel – before there's a time I cannot walk up the pyramid."
She's also writing. "I took a couple of classes at the Aspen Writers Foundation," she tells me. "They were workshops, basically. And I found I have a lot of passion for it." One project is a Mexican cookbook. "I've been working on it for two years." She's also working on a children's book ("I'm an illustrator also") and a book of fiction. "It's partly the story of my life," she says. "I think when most writers write fiction, they're writing about themselves."
Between anecdotes and bons mots, memories of her aging father succumbing to Alzheimer's and a fabulous reunion with a cherished brother, everything starts to come together for the salad. Rounds of purple-edged Bermuda onions turn to tangy pickles, perfumed with allspice and kicked with habanero chile. A cactus paddle is declawed, sliced, boiled till it taste like desert green beans. Eggs are boiled ("We're going to overcook them a little," she says, "because we're going to do the yolks in powder and the whites in strips.") Lime juice, jalapeño, vinegar, oil and a whole lot of cilantro get whirred up into a dressing that will pull all the flavors together. Rosé is poured, with predictions of tequila flowing in the near future.
"I don't use technique," she says; "I use tradition." Still, it's fun watching her slice Roma tomatoes, using her knife to liberate their hearts full of sees and coax them into flat obedience on the cutting board, ready to be sliced into even strips. "Yes, I can cut fast, but that's like making love too fast."
Monica pushes the egg yolks through a strainer, crumbles queso fresco, as I slice avocados to her specs. Neighbors show up, hungry and excited. Monica tosses the ropa vieja, then arranges it on a platter.
It's got everything: richness, depth, wonderful tang, the prodigious perfume of cilantro. You can serve it just like that, Monica says, or spoon some onto round, fried tostadas for some crunch.
Dinner is just as relaxed as the cooking was. "It's even better with tequila," Monica suggests, and wow! She has brought a bottle of Casa Dragones. Out come the shot glasses, but this is special, for sipping.
She's right. Tequila and ropa vieja is a match made in heaven.
Her gift to you: This recipe. Hope for leftovers, but don't expect them.