Over labor day weekend, I flew to Los Angeles to visit my friend, Melissa Clark, the novelist (not the food writer). You can read her book about a girl impregnated by a lazy sperm or catch up with her on her blog. Melissa is one of those friends you thank the world for every day. She has kept me sane over many years, and as her blog attests, she is apparently connected to everything in the best way. Every time I see her, no matter in what city or state, she’s always finding fun things to do, great places to eat, and amazing people to hang out with. She’s also the one who connected me to my husband. And on this, long-awaited, much-needed trip, she not only re-connected me to myself, but connected me to picadillo, a classic Cuban dish of highly spiced, savory-sweet ground beef, with which I fell immediately, irrevocably in love.
Now, this is a little strange, because Melissa is a vegetarian. But she lives on the beach, in Marina del Rey (please don’t stalk her) and we walked to Venice for breakfast at a Cuban inspired restaurant, where I had Huevos con Picadillo. Aside from the fact that we had a lingering, adult breakfast (imagine…), in the sun, on the Saturday of a long weekend, the picadillo was like nothing I had ever tasted before. It doesn’t look like much on the plate, but the flavors are rich and complex.
When I came home, I scoured the internet for recipes, emailed my friend Richard Fleming who wrote an amazing book about walking across Cuba. If anyone had an authentic picadillo recipe, it would be him. But alas, he did not (which is not, I promise you, a reason not to read his book, you should.)
Rich did write to me that regarding Cuban black beans, in the “Oriente, in the Santiago region, they are made “more flavorful” by the addition of a tablespoon or so of sugar near the end of cooking…” I used this bit of information to adapt one of the many recipes I found to come up with one that approximated what I had eaten in Los Angeles. Almost all recipes call for raisins, but my husband hates raisins, so to add some sweetness, I used ketchup. This also seemed in line with Rich’s advice to add sugar, and answered the complaint aimed at several recipes that called for the apparently inauthentic tomato paste.
The first night I served the picadillo, the kids stared at it with a ho-hum sort of chagrin. Then they tasted it. Now, picadillo is one of those dinners that commands universal adoration. I love it because it has introduced new flavors to our table. I love it because it is fast, fast, fast to make. I’ve had trouble getting through the week without making it…
If you prechop the ingredients, you can get from stove to table in under 15 minutes. (Especially if you have your kids set that table for you. ) Also, because we treat the meat more like a delicious side dish/accompaniment and less like the center of the meal (even though it really is the reason to sit down at the table) we can get at least a meal and a half out of a pound of meat. We eat it with tortillas, rice, black beans, or under fried eggs…
I don’t know how authentic my version is, nor what part of Cuba it might represent, but I can vouch that it will not disappoint.
- Olive oil
- 1 lb ground beef
- 1 medium onion
- 6-8 garlic cloves
- 1 small tomato
- 1/2 cup pimento stuffed olives
- 1 tablespoon capers, drained
- 1/4 cup ketchup
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/4 cup white wine
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- freshly ground pepper, to taste
In a mini-food processor, finely chop the onions and garlic. Set aside. Then finely chop the olives, capers, and tomato.
You can do this ahead of time and refrigerate until you’re ready to cook. While many recipes will leave the olives whole, the dish I first had was of uniform texture...
In a saucepan cook onion, garlic, and bay leaves over medium heat until the onion is soft and translucent. Add the ground beef and stir, breaking up clumps with a fork.
Okay, there are 3 bay leaves here….experiment
When the meat is cooked through, add the white wine and let simmer down, then add the olives, capers, ketchup, cumin and pepper and simmer until the picadillo thickens.
Discard the bay leaves and serve warm.
I cannot seem to do justice to the food styling on this one…a pile of ground beef looks like, well…so you will just have to take my word. Just try it. If you eat meat, you will count the ways, too.