Picadillo empanadas are quintessential Cuban fare served in many variations in the homes of Havanans.
Updated: September 2, 2012 6:07AM
The taste of the foreign and exotic doesn’t seem like it should come from a place that is only 90 miles off the southern tip of Florida, but it does.
Except for the rather classic dishes that appear on the menus at restaurants where the chefs do their best to replicate the complex and integrated array of flavors from their motherland, Cuba’s cuisine is alien to most.
Lime-infused and spice-coated, the more common Cuban dishes prepared in the U.S. read like something straight from the pages of a Hemingway novel. And true Cuban comfort food — the stuff that is both timeless in origin and ever-changing with new food fads — unfortunately gets left in the old country.
The elusive Cuban-style picadillo is one that often escapes the lines of kitchen recipe cards, but it should really be a crux in the card catalog. This Cuban sloppy joe is rarely absent from the homes of Havanans, and takes the starring role in everything from eggs sunny-side up to hard-shelled tacos.
A true Cuban dish that has as many variations as dadfad, it represents the essence of Cuban fare, highlighting both the European and Caribbean inspirations, and should be embraced by those on this side of the Gulf looking to extend their Latin American palate.
Skimming over the words on paper, the recipe actually doesn’t look that appetizing. Chopped green olives, capers, raisins and sherry all season this hamburger-y mashup. Yet, the medley doesn’t reveal their presence; instead, they form an allegiance together that creates a unique flavor slightly foreign to our tastes. It isn’t quite Latin and it isn’t quite Spanish, but their roots are both present in the flavor.
Cubans eat picadillo most often over rice and beans with a side of fried plantains, but its resourceful nature doesn’t stop there.
It can be used to fill or top anything and everything — from sopes to breakfast toast with pastelitos (Cuban puffed pastries) and empanadas making a strong presence. An empanada casing is one enterprising way to spotlight the flavors of the picadillo in a easy and portable way for the summer. Wrapped in a circle of pastry and stored for later, the picadillo empanada makes a great snack, appetizer or picnic main course. And even more exciting, it gives the flavors of Cuban comfort food a well-deserved American home.
Makes about 40 mini empanadas
11/2 lbs ground beef (85 percent lean)
5 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1/2 cup chopped red or yellow bell pepper
1 green onion, trimmed and finely chopped, both white and green parts
11 pitted green California olives, finely chopped
1/4 cup golden raisins
1 tablespoon capers, drained
1 bay leaf
3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 cup tomato sauce
1/4 cup dry sherry
1 tablespoon olive oil
refrigerated prepared pie crusts
1 egg, beaten
In a large bowl, mix together all ingredients except the olive oil and salt.
Break up the ground beef so that the wet ingredients can seep in. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Heat olive oil in a large pan or pot over medium heat. Add picadillo and heat, breaking up meat pieces with a wooden spoon for 30 to 40 minutes. Discard bay leaf. Season with salt to taste.
Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Roll out pie crusts and use a large round cookie cutter or a bowl to cut circles. Spoon about 1 tablespoon of picadillo filling onto dough. Baste edges of one side of dough with egg wash and bring other side of dough over to seal it so that it forms a semi-circle. Crimp edges with a fork and baste entire topside with egg wash. Sprinkle with sea salt.
Place on parchment-lined baking sheets and bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown, but not burnt.
Picadillo filling recipe adapted from Saveur Issue No. 42, June 2007.