Going to public school in the 80s and 90s I had one thing over the whipper snappers going today - made from scratch lunches. That's right, next to the pop tart shaped pizza, chicken nuggets or mystery meat burgers were selections like southern fried chicken with scratch made cornbread, arroz con pollo and picadillo over rice. For this picky eater who refused to eat cold sandwiches and was on free lunch, knowing that some southern or cuban grandma type was behind the cafeteria counter cooking something with real ingredients was reassuring. Not to mention tasty.
The hot, from-scratch lunches weren't limited to just school. During summers, I attended vacation bible school at my church where Aide, a gentle older cuban lady would add to her daily load of cooking for the church daycare kids and cook piping hot lunches for us shrieking daycamp kids. Oh Aide had the touch. My little brother, then three, subsisted on a daily diet of white rice and fried eggs which drove my mother nuts. Yet at daycare my mom would hear from the teachers that "oh B. ate well today, he had black beans and rice, or fricasse de pollo, etc." Yes, Aide's cooking was that good and the one that just tugs at this foodie's heartstrings and instantly takes me back is her picadillo.
Oh how I tried to recreate Aide's picadillo (pee-kah-dee-jo). It's not just sauteeing some meat and adding some spices. No, while easy to throw together, picadillo has some hidden techniques that are second nature for the seasoned cook. This week I finally decided to tackle recreating it again and did some sleuthing on the 'net. See picadillo is different in each latin american country. For dominicans picadillo is usually encased in a pastelito/empanada and does not include cumin (a must in the cuban version). Even cuban picadillo varies depending on the cook, some add nuts, raisins, and potatoes and yet others declare all of the above sacrelege. So this is my idea of the ideal picadillo based on that culinary memory imprint of a little old lady with a pretty big heart.
*note: This makes a lot. I usually make the full amount since the flavors get better with time and picadillo reheats beautifully.
3lbs ground beef
4 medium onions, minced
2 red bell peppers, minced - if you can find them, cubanelle peppers with their intense "real aji" flavor like my mom says, are a bonus
6-8 large cloves of garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
6-8 tablespoons tomato paste - I measure out plops with a large soup spoon so it's closer to the higher end of the range.
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar - apple cider vinegar works well too. This is to simulate the cooking wine so popular in latin cooking but is usually filled with salt.
3/4 cup white wine - any dry white will do.
4 whole bay leaves
2 scant tablespoons ground cumin - scant because I tend to just pour out of my tins
2 scant tablespoons ground oregano
2 pinches ground cloves, about 1/8 teaspoon - this is not an overt flavor, just something that gives this simple dish a more complex flavor.
3/4 cup sliced spanish green olives - traditionally, whole olives are used but we prefer sliced in our home.
2 tablespoons capers
several cups of cold water
Place the pan and oil over medium high heat. Add the onion, pepper and season with salt & black pepper. Saute until softened.
Dump in the ground beef and break it up well with your spoon. If you ask Mr. Maricucu he'll tell you that I'm a bit particular about making sure to break up the ground beef chunks and that he prefers to use a potato masher to keep up with my standards. See, even he knows I run a tight ship. Either that or he's humoring me and cackling behind my back. Hmmm.
Once the ground beef is broken up, add the minced garlic. Yes, I know it's a ton of garlic but this recipe requires it. Don't skimp and you'll be rewarded with flavor.
Now, remember when I said that picadillo is more technique than recipe? Here is one of them. Add the oregano, cumin, bay leaves and ground clove to the meat. Let the spices saute with the meat for 3-5 minutes. By sauteeing the spices you're releasing their volatile oils and intensifying their flavor. Totally different taste than just dumping them into the liquids.
What are these? A while back I mentioned a tip from my mom for freezing tomato paste. These are the tablespoons of tomato paste I keep rolled sausage style in my freezer. No need to thaw, I just cut off however many spoonfuls I need and unwrap, then plop in my pan.
They do look odd though, once plopped but here's another technique. Most people complain that canned tomato products have a tinny taste or are too acidic. In latin america no cook worth their salt would dream of making a dish with tomato sauce or tomato paste without caramelizing them. Not just melting or mixing the paste through but stirring the meat, veggies and tomato paste until the smell changes from an acidic one to a more sweet, caramelized scent and the tomato paste deepens in color. Usually this takes anywhere from 5-8 minutes.
Once the tomato paste is caramelized I deglaze the pan with the liquids. First the red wine vinegar.
Then the white wine. I don't pretend to know anything about liquor but I do know that certain flavor compounds are released by water, some by alcohol, some by acid and some by fats. I try to have a little bit of each in most dishes to maximize the flavor of my recipes. Allow the wine to boil for 3-5 minutes while scraping down the bottom of the pan free of any stuck, caramelized bits.
Add the olives then enough water to cover the picadillo.
Then remember you forgot to add the capers and dump them in. Bring the mixture to a simmer and reduce the heat. Another technique moment - the simmer. Ideally this mixture should simmer at medium low heat for an hour if not an hour and a half. As the cooking time gets closer to the end, stir it every 5-10 minutes to make sure the bottom isn't sticking. The water will evaporate and if it looks too dry, add more water to continue simmering for at least a good hour. Also, during the last 20 minutes taste and adjust the salt. I prefer to salt at the end like this since the capers and olives are pretty salty on their own.
The final product should be about as wet as a sloppy joe mix or a tight bolognese sauce. Be sure to pick out the bay leaves or at least warn your family.
Take a spoonful of that lovely, fragrant, salty, spicey picadillo and toss it on top of, what else, dominican white rice.
This is what happens when I say, "hey boys, do you guys want to taste what's for dinner?" I can't even imagine what it will be like when their appetites reach teenage proportions.