Last week, I was seeking inspiration for dinner. The weather had changed a bit. After months of hot and dry days, it was crisp and cool, and I couldn’t shake the yearning for a pot of stew or chili. Browsing through some of my old favorites, I remembered a dish I’d always loved but hadn’t made in years, picadillo. A smile hit my face, and I knew right then and there that picadillo would be on my plate that night.
Picadillo is a traditional dish usually centered around ground beef and spices.
In fact, the word “picadillo” stems from the Spanish word picar, loosely translated as to chop or mince. It’s enjoyed by cultures all over Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Philippines, with each region contributing its own little twist on the basic recipe. Some cultures embellish it with potatoes, some add hard boiled eggs, and some use a different meat (or even use fish instead). I haven’t tried all of these variations, but of the dishes I have tried, the Cuban version is my favorite.
It’s tough to explain Cuban-style picadillo. Salty, tangy, spicy, and sweet, the multitude of seemingly dissimilar ingredients harmonize in an unexpected and delightful way. My version contains familiar Latin spices such as cumin and oregano, but I also add some that are less obvious. A warming burst of cinnamon. Salty bites of green olives and capers. The lovely texture and sweetness of plump raisins. This melding of flavors might sound strange to some, but it originates from regions of Spain and neighboring Morocco. The end result is truly delicious comfort food that manages to be humble, complex, and exotic all at once.
In Cuba, picadillo is traditionally served with rice and beans, and these have certainly graced my plate in the past. But I’ve since discovered how much I enjoy spooning it over a baked russet or sweet potato. Less conventional, but I’m not trying to please the purists here. In fact, I’ll scoff at tradition even more by adding a sprinkling of grated cheese, a dollop of sour cream, or a beautiful chopped avocado.
I always say there are no real rules in cooking or eating. Both are ripe with opportunities for experimentation and artistic creativity—so have fun, and bon appetit!
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
1 tablespoon olive oil, beef tallow, bacon grease (for some yummy smokiness), or other cooking fat of choice
1 onion, diced
1½ lbs. ground beef
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 bell pepper, diced
1 tablespoon cumin
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 pinch ground cloves
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
2 bay leaves
Sea salt and pepper
4 tomatoes, chopped
1½ tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons capers
⅔ cup green olives, halved
½ cup raisins
- Heat oil in a large, heavy pan. Add onions and sauté until lightly golden, about 5 minutes.
- Add ground beef and sauté until cooked about halfway through. Add garlic, peppers, spices, herbs, salt, and pepper.
- Cook until beef is no longer pink. Add tomatoes and vinegar. Simmer 5–10 minutes.
- Add capers, olives, and raisins. Simmer another 10–15 minutes, until flavors meld and raisins are soft and plump. Serve hot.
Image from Briana Goodall.