Karl’s Cuban Picadillo

Adapted from a Cook’s Illustrated recipe

I get these emails from Cook’s Illustrated as they put up their videos. This week’s video included a recipe for Cuban Picadillo. I was inspired to make it for this Sunday night’s dinner.

Karl’s Cuban Picadillo

Karl’s Cuban Picadillo

After looking at several authentic recipes, I had to change the one from Cook’s Illustrated—it wasn’t really very “Cuban.” The CI chef had several good techniques that I could use, but the ingredients list needed work. One of the advantages of living in multicultural San Jose is that there is an ethnic market, just around the corner, that will carry just about any ingredient you desire.

One follower of Cook’s Illustrated had made this dish according to their recipe and found that the lack of browning the meat was a significant flavor loss. The CI chef had wanted tender meat and she found that browning it left the meat tough and chewy. How do you get both the flavorful Maillard reaction  and tender meat? My solution was to brown only a bit of the beef, before adding the rest of the meat, raw, to the stew.

I wanted to use fresh tomatoes, rather than canned, but again there is too much liquid in them to develop their flavor without cooking them for hours. Adding a tablespoon of tomato paste to brown with the garlic solved this problem. Toasting the cumin seeds was also a given flavor enhancer.

On several of the recipes for this dish, they cut up large Spanish olives and stirred them in. This scatters the pimento and the bits of olive throughout the dish. Spanish olives come in two sizes, Queens, about an inch across—used mainly for decoration and martinis— and Manzanillas, about a half an inch across— used for snacking and most other cooking. There are two advantages to using the smaller olives in this dish. It saves the step of chopping up the olives and it keeps the pimento with the olives for a flavor burst while you are eating.

Several of the authentic recipes for this dish called for using culantro—a different plant than cilantro, but with a similar taste. I was not able to find it fresh, but Chavez Market had it in a jar as a sauce starter, a Recaíto.

Recaíto is a sauce made from culantro and/or cilantro, bell peppers, onion, garlic, oregano and sometimes chili and spices. It was originally a way of preserving herbs that spoil quickly in the Caribbean heat. It is used as a starter sauce or sofrito for a variety of Cuban and Porto Rican dishes.

Note: To complete my Cuban meal I made  Moros y Cristianos (black beans and rice), a green salad and roasted pears for dessert

After Dinner Note: This dish was very little like a chili, but it was really good and distinctive. Everyone had seconds and there was little left for second day lunches.

Karl’s Cuban Picadillo


1 lb. ground beef, separate uses
¾ lb. coarsely ground pork
½ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. black pepper, separate uses
1 tsp. Kosher salt, separate uses

3 Tbs. olive oil, separate uses
1 medium white onion, minced
1 green bell pepper, minced
8 garlic cloves, minced
1 Tbs. tomato paste

3 beefsteak tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
3 bay leaves
1 Tbs. dried oregano
1 Tbs. cumin seeds, toasted and ground to a powder
½ tsp. cinnamon, ground
⅛ tsp. cayenne
¾ cup dry white wine

½ cup beef broth
⅓ cup raisins

½ cup Spanish green olives with pimento
2 Tbs. capers
2 Tbs. Goya’s Recaíto Culantro cooking sauce

2 Tbs. fresh lime juice


1. Reserve one quarter pound of the beef and put the rest into a large bowl.

2. Add the coarsely ground pork, baking soda, ½ teaspoon of black pepper, ½ teaspoon of salt and two tablespoons of water to the beef. Mix the contents of the bowl thoroughly. Let the meat rest for 20-30 minutes in the refrigerator.

Tip: Although on a cooking show they will always do this with a spatula, there is nothing more effective than using your hands.

3. Flatten the remaining beef into a very thin patty.

Tip: Think a hamburger as thin as you can make it.

4. Add one tablespoon of olive oil to a large pot, and heat on high until shimmering.

Tip: I prefer using a cast iron Dutch oven.

5. When the oil is hot fry the beef patty on both sides until very well browned.

Tip: Keeping the meat in a solid patty, rather than breaking the meat up, makes it easier to get even browning, without some bits getting burned and makes removing the meat from the pot much easier.

6. Remove the beef patty and add the onions and the remaining salt.

Tip: Set the beef patty aside to cool and then mince it into tiny pieces. This meat is less a piece of meat, it is more of a seasoning. Reserve until later.

7. Sauté the onions until just starting to pick up some color, about 5-6 minutes.

Tip: The salt will help release the moisture in the onions and hasten browning. Use the moisture released by the onions to deglaze the beef fond stuck to the bottom of the pot.

8. Add the bell peppers and continue sautéing until the vegetables are soft, about another five minutes.

Tip: While you are cooking the onions and bell peppers is a good time to toast and grind the cumin. I actually put all of the spices (except the bay leaves) together in the grinder and process them into a well-mixed powder.

9. Pull the onions and peppers to the side of the pot and add the garlic and tomato paste. Cook, stirring constantly, until the garlic is fragrant and the tomato paste has darkened, about two minutes.

10. Add the chopped tomatoes and use the tomatoes’ released liquid to deglaze the pot again.

Tip: I knew I was going to have to parboil the tomatoes to peel them. To avoid the energy cost of boiling yet another pot of water, I multitasked. When I added the liquid to cook my black beans for my Moros y Cristianos I waited until the beans came to a boil and then I added my prepared  tomatoes to the pot for one or two minutes.

Note: To prepare the tomatoes: Wash them and remove any stems. Leave the tomatoes whole, but cut an X across the tomato, on the side away from the stem—this gives you an easy starting point to peel the skin away from the fruit. If you prefer de-seeded tomatoes, scrape the seeds into a sieve over a bowl after you have peeled them. Press the “jelly” through the sieve and add the chopped tomatoes to the bowl. Discard the seeds.

11. Stir in the minced beef, bay leaves, oregano, cumin, cinnamon, cayenne, and white wine.

Note: I used a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but I am not sure if a dry red Spanish wine might have been better.

12, Cook uncovered, stirring frequently, until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 10-15 minutes.

Tip: The pot should seem a bit dry at this point. Don’t worry—the meat will be releasing a lot of moisture as it cooks.

13. Stir in the raisins and beef broth.

14. Take the bowl of meat and use tongs to tear off two inch chunks of the meat. Add them to the pot.

Tip: Pam the griping end of the tongs, so that the meat doesn’t stick. Stir in the chunks of meat so that they are submerged in the sauce, but do not try to break them up at this point.

Note: By cooking the meat in large chunks they will cook but also remain tender. If you break them into small bits, the meat will overcook and become tough and chewy.

15. Cover the pot and simmer, stirring occasionally, for twenty minutes.

16. Use the tongs and a fork to break the large chunks of meat into bite sized pieces.

17. Stir in the olives, capers, and Recaíto Culantro cooking sauce. Continue cooking for 4-5 minutes until the olives are heated through.

18. . Stir the lime juice into the Picadillo and serve.

Tip: The reason I prefer to use a cast iron pot is because it makes a better “rustic” presentation than transferring the stew to an ornamental serving bowl. Traditional dishes should be served “traditionally.”

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Filed under Beef, Main Dishes, Pork, Stews

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