In many cultures around the world it is said that to get to a man’s heart you first have to get to his stomach, so when I got married 12 years ago I set a goal for myself to learn to cook cuban food like a cuban. My husband Emilio is the son of cuban immigrants that moved to Puerto Rico in the late 1960’s. Puerto Rican and Cuban food have many similarities since they are both a fusion of mainly Spanish and African influences along with the ingredients the tropical climate of the Caribbean region has to offer. However, the cuban staple dish of white rice (long grain), black beans, breaded beefsteak (carne empanada) and yuca al mojo (boiled yuca with a dressing made of garlic, onions, oil and lime juice) is different form the Puerto Rican staple dish of white rice (medium grain), red beans, sauted beefsteak with onions and tostones (fried green plantains). Probably these differences come from availability of the products or varying tastes from immigrants from different regions, but in order to impress my husband with the food he grew up with I had to give it try.
Of course, the first step was getting a cuban cooking cookbook. My mother in law, Doña Martha gave me Nitza Villapol’s Cocina Criolla (not to be confused with Puerto Rico’s Mrs. Carmen Valdejully Cocina Criolla). In this book, which has no pictures and is printed in old fashioned type writer font, I have found all of the recipes that are trademarks of cuban cuisine and more. This book along with cooking tips from dear cuban family and friends like Doña Martha, Nene, Lilly, and of course Emilio, have been the wind beneath my wings to discover the pleasures and savour of cuban cuisine. Arroz con leche, frijoles negros, yuca al mojo, arroz con pollo, maduros, ropa vieja, picadillo, carne empanada, mojito, congri and cafe batido have become part of my recipe repertoire and in my family’s dinner table for many years. I must mention there is another version of cuban picadillo which has raisins and or cubed potatoes if you like it. It is also delicious!
Picadillo, which means to cut or mince in spanish, is the best way to make ground beef in my opinion. As I have mentioned before in other blog posts, I don’t eat a lot of meat but I like to make Picadillo with organic ground beef and use as a filling for tacos, burritos, empanadillas, empanada gallega, relleno de papa (potato fritters filled with ground beef), pastelón, lasagna, alcapurrias, ravioli, Bolognese Sauce or just as a side dish with white rice. Some people like to add Bijol powder or annato oil to give it more color but I don’t think its necessary. This recipe makes a large amount because it is generous enough to make a meat lasagna but if I only need half of it I have the option of freezing it or using it as a filling for argentinian oven empanadillas (which can also be frozen once assembled) or whatever dish comes to my mind. I also use it for my mother’s recipe of one-pot-spaghetti in which the pasta is cooked in the meat sauce. Super delicious! Here is my version of Picadillo.
Picadillo (cuban style ground beef)
1/2 cup canola or vegetable oil
1 cup of yellow onion finely chopped
1/2 cup of green cubanel pepper (pimiento de cocinar)
3 cloves of garlic minced
2 pounds approximately of organic ground beef (lean)
8 oz. tomato sauce
2 tsp fine sea salt
1 tsp homemade adobo (if you don’t have then use salt with a pinch of cumin)
1/4 tsp pepper
1/4 tsp dried thyme
2 recaito “ice cubes” = 3 tbsps
4 dried bay leaves
3 tbsp “alcaparrado” (mixture of capers and manzanilla olives) or just manzanilla olives
1/4 cup dry white wine
1. In a heavy bottom sauce pan heat oil (med or med-low depending on your stove) and add onions, cubanel pepper and garlic. Saute for about 5 minutes until transluscent (not browned or burned).
2. Add rest of ingredients, except ground beef, and let simmer to make “sofrito”. Stir occasionally.
3. Add ground beef. Mix well and cook uncovered for approximately 20 minutes stirring frequently so that the beef doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. Take out excess fat with spoon.