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Nicole Gimmillaro

Several months back, my partner and I started looking into our next destination for a culinary adventure. We wanted to go somewhere warm, where we could eat delicious food and get a break from winter weather. We settled on Cuba, which had been on our radar since travel restrictions eased up during Obama’s presidency.

We found there was quite a lot of confusion regarding travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens due to changes put forth by our current administration. As a U.S. citizen, one must choose from a list of 12 categories for authorized travel there. One category is “support for the Cuban people.” That sounds a bit ambiguous, but basically the idea is to support their privately run—vs. state run—businesses.

Recent changes in Cuban government have opened up options for entrepreneurs, giving Cubans a better chance of earning money through tourism. Paladares (privately run restaurants) are not new on the scene, but now restrictions on operations have been loosened and food is more easily accessible, so more are thriving.

As chefs, the idea of supporting other chefs appealed to us. So, we checked the appropriate box and got to work researching the paladares of Havana, Vinales and Varadero. What we found—in addition to classic Cuban dishes such as ropa vieja, arroz con pollo and picadillo—was a style of cooking that had developed as a result of chefs being flexible based on what might become unavailable on a given day and creative with whatever ingredients were abundant: sweet potatoes, cabbage, guava, fish, pork, yucca, taro root. We had the opportunity to dine at over 20 different paladares throughout Western Cuba, and we were never disappointed.

One of my all-time favorite Cuban dishes is picadillo. Back home, I recreated my own nourishing version. It’s a versatile recipe and can be enjoyed several ways. Try it over steamed brown rice or quinoa, use it as a filling for roasted peppers or serve it on a whole-grain bun sloppy joe style.

Cuban-American Picadillo

*Four servings 

Ingredients: 

  1. 2 T. olive oil
  2. 1 small white or yellow onion, diced
  3. 3 garlic cloves, minced
  4. 2 bay leaves
  5. 1 lb. grass-fed organic ground beef
  6. ½ tsp. chili powder
  7. ¼ tsp. cayenne
  8. ½ tsp. cumin
  9. ½ tsp. oregano
  10. ½ tsp. salt
  11. ¼ tsp. pepper
  12. 2 T. tomato paste
  13. 1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes
  14. ½ cup raisins
  15. ½ cup sliced green olives
  16. 2 T. capers, drained
  17. 1 tsp. red wine vinegar

Instructions: 

  1. Heat oil in large high-sided saute pan over medium-high heat.
  2. Add onion, garlic and bay leaves and cook until softened about, 5-7 minutes.
  3. Add beef, stirring and breaking up, until cooked through and lightly browned, about 8-10 minutes.
  4. Mix in chili powder, cayenne, cumin, oregano, salt and pepper.
  5. Add tomato paste and cook 2 minutes before adding diced tomatoes, raisins, olives, capers and red wine vinegar.
  6. Simmer until slightly reduced and thickened, about 10 minutes. Discard bay leaves. Season to taste.

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