Picadillo: Party in a Pan

by Lucinda Hutson

My late sister Criztina Peabody was a wonderful cook, and everyone cherished an invitation to her table. She had an imaginative knack for mingling sweet, savory and spicy flavors with harmony and surprise. Her picadillo stands out as one such recipe—ground meat simmered in a piquant tomato sauce heady with fragrant spices, sweet raisins, salty olives and crunchy, toasted nuts.

The word picadillo comes from the Spanish word picar—to finely chop—which you will do to many of the ingredients in this recipe. It’s a quick one-pot meal—filling the kitchen with such intriguing aromas that it’s hard to wait for the first spoonful. Since Latin countries around the world claim the origin of this hearty comfort food, various versions and serving suggestions abound.

In El Paso, where my siblings and I were raised, picadillo was a featured dish at fall gatherings. Some served it in Mexican clay cazuelas (casserole dishes) or chafing dishes as a warm, hearty dip for tostada chips. Others presented platters of empanadas (pretty, crescent-shaped pastry turnovers with crimped edges that seal in the savory meat filling). We’d mound picadillo atop chalupas (whole, fried corn tortillas) on a bed of shredded lettuce, or use it as a filling for crispy tacos. And leftover picadillo rolled in a flour tortilla was a favorite burrito. But we especially loved tortas—our Mexican version of Sloppy Joes. We’d slice crusty Mexican bolillo rolls in half, hollow out some of the white bread and fill it with picadillo, then warm it in the oven and eat it with avocado slices…yum!

Criztina took our family’s traditional recipe for picadillo to Pátzcuaro, Michocán, where she lived her last years as an expat artist, but she embellished the recipe with her own exemplary touches. For instance, she’d roast and peel whole poblano peppers (slitting them lengthwise and removing the seeds but leaving the stem intact), then stuff them with picadillo and add festive garnishes. Sometimes she did the same with dried red ancho chilies—marinating them first to soften before stuffing. Once she even hollowed out a big pumpkin and used it as a “pot” for picadillo.

For party fare, picadillo provides filling protein as opposed to the carb-laden standards too often served. From a cast-iron pan or a slow cooker, it’s surely a crowd pleaser! Accompany it with small bowls of condiments, such as toasted nuts and pepitas (pumpkin seeds), sliced Spanish olives, capers, chopped cilantro, green onions, jalapeños and avocado slices. It’s flavorful enough without cheese, but a light touch of crumbled cotija or queso fresco adds color and flavor.

Though my sister now delights dinner guests in the great beyond, she profoundly inspired my own style of cooking. I offer you her recipe for picadillo—recreating this heirloom recipe by memory and heart.

Ideas for variation: 

Nuevo Mundo Picadillo: Celebrate Southwestern flavors in this version. Sandwich it between corn bread, serve atop polenta or pasta (like a rich Bolognese), quinoa or rice, or mound in roasted poblanos. Follow the master recipe but substitute ground bison (I used High Country Bison from the farmers market) for the beef. Add 4 to 6 roasted, peeled and seeded poblano or Hatch chiles, cut into rajas (strips), toward the end of cooking. Substitute dried cranberries for the raisins. Add 1 cup of roasted corn kernels (roast fresh or frozen kernels very lightly drizzled with olive oil in 350° oven) toward the end of cooking, with some extra for garnish. And substitute toasted pepitas, New Mexico pistachios or pine nuts for the almonds.

Picadillo Cubano: Serve the picadillo estilo Cubano (Cuban style) with rice, black beans, fried plantains and slices of hard-boiled eggs. Follow the master recipe but add more chopped/sliced hard sausage or chorizo. While cooking the onions, add a few chopped sweet Cubanelle peppers or 1 large chopped red bell pepper. Omit the crushed red chile powder and chocolate and add crushed cayenne. And omit the nuts and add some capers.

Picadillo al Greco: I love lamb, and came up with this fun recipe. Stuff it into pita pockets or top on pita crisps, or stuff/bake it in red and yellow bell peppers. Garnish with crumbled feta, fresh minced mint, toasted pine nuts or walnuts, baby spinach and pomegranate seeds. Follow the master recipe but omit the sausage and substitute ground lamb for the beef (I used Central Market’s special lean Lava Lake lamb, but you can buy wonderful local Dorper lamb from I.O. Ranch at farmers markets—and now find it fresh at Wheatsville Food Co-op—and Twin County Lamb at farmers markets). When cooking the onions, add 1 large chopped red bell pepper. Substitute fennel seeds for the comino. Omit the chile powder, but add some crushed cayenne. Use golden raisins that have been soaked in sherry. Substitute toasted walnuts or pistachios for the almonds. And add fresh chopped mint in the final 5 minutes of cooking.