Any of you reading this who are not from Florida or Cuba may be asking yourself, ‘What the heck is picadillo? Isn’t that a sin or naughty habit of some sort? What are you on about?!’ Well the latter is ‘pecadillo’ which is Spanish for a trivial sin, perhaps best described as coveting your neighbour’s lawn mower rather than wife (that would be a proper sin, a ‘pecado’). The former is utterly delicious Cuban-Spanish beef hash – much nicer and eminently more digestible than a lawnmower. In an case, it is not sinful in the least and may just be a perfect weekday meal, using ingredients many of us already have in the cupboard and fridge. I know I have tofu in the title, because I like to encourage its use in traditionally meaty recipes, but as often as not we have it with lean organic beef mince. Really delish either way. Whenever I am stuck for something to make quickly (it does happen) this is my go-to, under 30 minute recipe. Take that, Jamie.
If you have read the ‘About’ section of this blog you may recall that I am from southwest Florida and a bit fond of Cuban food. Living in grey, cool Scotland for the past 20 something years has not diminished my memories of this flavourful Latinate cuisine. Growing up one of our family friends was Cuban and a fabulous home cook. Despite her having two rambunctious sons and a nippy-sweety daughter (we never knew where we stood with her) my sister Julie and I didn’t mind going to Jackie’s house because it invariably meant that we would have some sort of Cuban-Spanish treat. I fondly remember a glistening shrimp-stuffed tortilla de camarones after a scraped knee incident (food always ‘makes it better’). But best of all were sugar-dusted churros, those nuclear-hot long Spanish donuts that often come with an espresso cup of thick melted chocolate for dipping.
Jackie even waved her Cuban culinary magic over our church, organising a popular annual Cuban sandwich fundraiser, where the youth group would, under her kind direction, assemble authentic sandwiches to raise money to see productions of ‘Godspell’ or ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ (you got it, I’m a child of the 70s). She even kitted us out with plastic gloves and hairnets, which looked oh so fabulous with our terrycloth shorts and tie-dyed t-shirts. Her own mother was a very Cuban cook, making the most out of every animal part. Not so fond memories of trying her mondongo alcaparrado (stewed tripe and capers) but it might have been her having a laugh. She was like that.
Although we were primarily a meatloaf and casserole kind of family, when my sister and I were children a big treat for our family would be to go to Ybor City, in Tampa, for a Cuban feast. This tiny city within a city, crammed with lively Cuban-run bars, coffee shops, furniture shops (for the dark wood furniture common in Cuban homes) and cigar factories (with comely women rolling the cigars on bare legs!), was where we would go to stuff ourselves silly on frijoles negros (black bean soup), croquetas de bacalao (codfish croquettes)and boliche asado (Cuban pot roast), followed by flan de leche (milk flan, usually caramelised and served with thin orange slices). Nowadays it’s all a bit upmarket and printed menus, but back then it was linoleum floors, hanging hams and mimeographed sheets, often with the weirdest literal English translations, such as ‘nun’s sighs’ for suspiro de monja. For some reason as 7 and 9 year-olds we thought that was funny.
My blue-eyed, fair-skinned mother was definitely not Cuban but she could cook up a mean picadillo. Always with a pile of fluffy steaming white rice (none of that sappy boil-in-the-bag stuff that was popular at the time) and sometimes with heavenly sticky, sweet, fried plantains. I didn’t get her recipe for it before she passed away but this is my best approximation for what to me is true comfort food. The recipe she made for us may have been Jackie’s, but she will have made it her own. Just as I have done. Just as you should do. Try it with the tofu, or with the beef. Just try it.
This is my version of an immensely popular Cuban dish. Please don’t be put off by the list of ingredients as this is astonishingly easy to make and uses largely store cupboard type things. The raisins, capers and olives give it a unique sweet-sour taste that may be especially nice if your taste buds are a bit jaded. Picadillo is delicious with rice, crusty bread, or even bulgher wheat, and makes great leftovers with a baked white or sweet potato. Cubans would serve this with long grain white rice and a side of ripe, sticky fried plantains.