Saturday, 8 June 2013


There is no point in pretending that picadillo can't, more often than not, be a huge disappointment. What should be sweet, spicy and succulent is actually a soupy grey mess of mince, reminiscent of boarding school dinners, with a couple of cursory bits of potato and carrot winking up at you. It also has some nasty associations with TexMex cooking and people's first encounter with it usually owes more to a food scientist Taco Bell headquarters than Diana Kennedy. Every time I see a ban-marie full of watery grey picadillo I think of Chef in Apocalypse Now... "It was turnig grey man!"

The name picadillo comes from the spanish "picar", to chop, so obviously it is a dish of minced meat. n most parts of Mexico the meat used would be pork, however here in the north minced beef is more regularly seen.

Choices, choices!

There are a couple of forks in the road here. Firstly the meat can be beef or pork, then comes the secondary ingredients. I like the richer version of the dish seasoned with Christmas spices (clove & allspice) and including raisins, almonds and olives, but there is also a plainer version with diced potato and carrot. Finally there is a choice to be made with the technique, do you opt for the slightly strange, but traditional, technique where the meat is cooked first covered in water or do you simply pull out your biggest sautee pan and get cooking.

I'm not going to elaborate on every permutation of the above here (and I'm not going to be a little vague on quantities - once you have an idea of what you are aiming for there is no need to be too precise with the dish).

Sweet Spiced Picadillo

1 lb of minced beef.
About 1/2 cup of diced onion.
A clove or two of garlic finely chopped.
Two or three ripe tomatoes or a tin of chopped tomatoes.
About a half dozen peppercorns.
Two or three cloves.
Two or three allspice berries.
A small piece of cinnamon (a centimeter or two).
1/4 cup of almond slices.
1/4 cup of raisins.
A tablespoon or two of chopped green almonds.
Salt to taste.
Chile if desired.

The technique here is easy. Fry the onion over a medium heat until translucent, add the garlic and fry for a few more moments, then add the meat and fry until cooked through.

If you are using fresh tomatoes place them in a blender with just enough water to get the blades moving and blend them. The additional water won't be necessary of you are using a tin. If you are using chile it can be blended along with the tomatoes. I like a chipotle in the dish, but you could use a jalapeno, a serrano, or even some toasted soaked a de-veined guajillo.

Add the tomato liquid to the dish, along with the finely ground spice mixture and the remaining ingredients and cook out.

Consistency is a matter of taste, however I prefer a slightly dry consistency, especially of the picadillo is being used as a taco filling or as a stuffing, however if it is being served on a toastada a slightly looser consistency won't be too much of a nuisance.

Picadillo de Pobre

This version, as the name suggests, is not as richly spiced and swaps out the expensive ingredients for potato and carrot. It is the version you'll encounter most frequently at taco stands.

1 lb of minced (or finely chopped) pork.
1/2 cup of onion
A clove or two of garlic.
A couple of tomatoes
1/2 cup of waxy potatoes, in small dice, cooked
Less than 1/2 cup of carrot, in small dice, cooked
Salt to taste
A slake of flour (or masa) to thicken.

Place the raw meat in a wide pan and add enough water just to cover. Simmer the meat in the liquid until just cooked. Drain the meat, reserving the liquid and set aside.

Sautee the onion until translucent, add the garlice and continue sauteeing for a few moments and then add the chopped tomato and cook until the liquid has reduced.

Add the drained meat and cook until it has a nice colour then add the remaining ingredients.

Add about a heaped teaspoon of flour to a cup of the reserved poaching liquid and stir ensuring that there are no lumps. Add this slurry to the pan and cook out. The objective is a sauce that is neither too watery or too thick.

So, done right picadillo is a quick and convenient way to turn an everyday ingredient into something tasty and versatile, even elegant, so don't settle for the grey crap anymore.

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