Thursday, February 26, 2015

Cooking-up Childhood Memories

My sister-in-law has been working on an oral history of my mother so that my niece (her daughter) would have a chance to know her grandmother long after she's gone.  It's an ambitious and challenging project that I admire her for undertaking.  She allowed me to read the narrative she had painstakingly collected,  and as I read about my mother's early life in Cuba, the memories of my own childhood and the food of my childhood flooded my thoughts.  My mother never thought she was a good cook, but her ability to effortlessly create delicious dinners from simple, humble ingredients always seemed like magic and was one of the reasons I fell in love with cooking.

One on the dishes I always associate with my childhood is Picadillo (pronounced peek-ah-dee-yoo).  This simple Cuban specialty is basically a beef hash with wonderful contrasting tastes of salty pimento filled olives and sweet raisins.  The whole stew has a deep, savory backbone of  flavor from the sherry, tomato and Worcestershire sauce that are simmered into it.  Picadillo was something my Dad made exceeding well.  He would grind his own fresh beef chuck, combine it with the other ingredients and slowly cook it all, allowing the flavors to develop and deepen.  I can still recall the swirling scents of simmering beef, onion and garlic, steaming  rice and frying sweet plantains being nearly overwhelming .  Even now those heavenly aromas can take me back to being 6 years old.
Cuban Picadillo
I got so hungry reminiscing as I read my mother's biography that I decided I should whip up a batch of this Cuban perfection for my Academy Awards dinner.  I knew I had made the right choice for a rainy Sunday dinner as the perfume of the cooking food filled the whole house with Caribbean warmth.

I didn't grind my own beef chuck but used a 85% lean to 15% fat packaged chuck.  Going too lean on the meat makes for a less flavorful Picadillo.  15-20% fat is the right balance of fat to lean.
Ingredients for Picadillo
The sofrito is the base of this dish as it is for so many Cuban specialties.  I dice 1 medium sized onion, 1 medium sized pepper and mince 4 or 5 cloves of garlic and saute that in  about 1/4 of a cup of olive oil. Once that vegetables are tender I add 1 lb of ground beef and brown it over medium heat.  I stir and break up the lunps of beef periodically.  Once it's browned I drain off a fair amount of the liquid but not all of it and save the liquid in case I need to add a little in later.
Ground beef added to the sofrito

Browned beef awaiting other ingredients
I return the drained beef to the stove and add 1/4 cup dry Sherry, 2 Tablespoons Worcestershire sauce, 1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce, 1/2 cup crushed tomato and 1 Tablespoon ground Cumin.  I also season it with 1 teaspoon or so of Kosher salt and pepper. 
Beef mixture with tomato, sherry, Worcestershire, Tabasco and Cumin added 

Let this simmer some more.
I simmer this until a fair amount the liquid is absorbed stirring occasionally.  Then I add 1/3 cup sliced green Spanish olives, 1/4 raisins (I used currants this time because I didn't have raisins on hand) and 2 Tablespoons of capers and let this all simmer 10-15 more minutes.  If it gets too dry you can add a little of the reserved liquid.  I adjust the seasonings and drizzle a little more olive oil in.
Picadillo is a fun contrast of flavors: Salty olives ad capers, sweet raisins, along with rich savory notes thanks to the Sherry, Worcestershire and tomato

Simmer the Picadillo until most of the liquid is absorbed
Along with steamed Calrose rice,  I serve the Picadillo with fried ripe plantains
Ripe plantains.  The blacker and softer they get the sweeter they are

Sliced and fried in canola oil until golden brown. Make sure the oil isn't too hot

This is Cuban comfort food at it best.  I serve it with a refreshing salad of cabbage, cilantro, red onion, avocado and tomato with some thinly slice Jalapenos all dressed up with olive oil and lemon.  The Jalapeno isn't very Cuban but I love that it adds a little sass to the savory and sweet flavors of the  Picadillo, rice and plantains.

Homey Cuban Picadillo with rice, fried plantain.

 I had little Picadillo leftover and like any stew it was better the next day.  I served it this time as as appetizer and decided to play a little with the plating.
Fancied plating of Picadillo with Red cabbage salad.  

Childhood food memories are the best because they are so often tied to a happy, far away time.   But these seemingly past moments can easily be brought to the present if you take a moment and cook it up.

This weekend dig down into your adolescent memories and make that chicken pot pie that mom used to make with the perfect flakey crust or the pierogis browned in lots of butter  that Grandma always had on Sundays.  Have fun reliving every scent and flavor and let me know what you make.  Happy cooking!

No comments:

Post a Comment