For all the fancy dishes I learned to make in culinary school, for all the perfectly constructed little towers of food I’ve tasted at celeb-chef restaurants, for all the heirloom ingredients I’ve bought at farmer’s markets across the country, there is still nothing—and I mean nothing!—like a humble, simple homemade picadillo. The ultimate Latino comfort food, picadillo is a simmered blend that often perplexes non-Latinos. “What do you mean you add raisins to your beef?” my college roommate, a sweet southern girl from Alabama, asked me incredulously the first time I made it more than 20 years ago. I was away from home and this was the first dish I learned to concoct on my own, a dish that transported me back to Mami’s dinner table no matter how far I was.
Like arroz con pollo and frijoles, picadillo is one of those dishes that’s popular throughout Latin America, with each country offering up its own variations. In Cuba (where my family is from) picadillo is made either of ground beef or a blend of ground beef, pork and ham and it includes Spanish olives, raisins and capers to give it a briny undertone. It’s most typically served over fluffy white rice, and topped with fried potatoes. (How’s that for a double carb fiesta?)
In Mexico, picadillo is most often used as a stuffing for poblano chiles. Which is exactly what the venerable Diana Kennedy did in her book “The Essential Cuisine of Mexico.” As is traditionally done there, the picadillo is made with pork flavored with cinnamon, cloves and dried fruits for a sweet contrast. (Here is another traditional Mexican recipe that also calls for calabacitas.)
In Puerto Rico, where picadillo is found in many a cuchifrito, the raisins are often soaked in rum first. In the Dominican Republic, a bouillon cube is tossed in for extra beefiness. In Costa Rica, potatoes are simmered with the beef, like the one at the Mi Querida Cocina blog. You get the point.
Below is my recipe, which I’ve tweaked and adjusted over and over since that day in college when I first made it. It turns out my roommate came around to liking raisins in her beef, and a convert was born. Tell us, how do you like your picadillo?
3 T olive oil
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 medium Cubanelle (or green bell) pepper, finely diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 pounds lean ground beef (I used ground sirloin)
2 T tomato paste
1 14-oz can of crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup red wine
1 T Worcestershire sauce
1 T tabasco
1/3 cup Spanish green olives, chopped
1/3 cup raisins
3 T canned roasted red peppers, chopped
2 T capers
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp dried oregano leaves
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 medium red potato, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch dice and fried until golden (for garnish)
1. In a medium dutch oven or caldero, heat the oil over medium heat. Add onions, peppers. Sauté until the onion is translucent and soft, but not browned, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another 2 minutes, until fragrant.
2. Add the ground beef to the pot and cook until browned, using a wooden spoon to break up the chunks. Add the remaining ingredients, except the salt and pepper. Reduce heat to low, cover and let simmer for 20 to 30 minutes until the liquids thicken slightly.
3. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve over white rice, topped with fried potatoes. Or reserve and use for empanada filling.