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LOW-CARB RECIPE: Savor this Latin American classic; tweak as you like

March 3, 2021 at 1:49 a.m.
Picadillo (For The Washington Post/Rey Lopez)

You're invited

  • Who: You
  • When: Tonight (and tomorrow, and the day after, too)
  • Where: Your table, and mine
  • What: Dinner

Hi there, welcome. I'm glad you're here. I wish I could welcome you to my actual table. In this dream scenario, it would be made of sturdy wood, large and round, surrounded by comfortable chairs. I'd light a few candles, tall tapers or tiny tealights, and scatter flowers among the plates and glasses. I'd play Miles Davis and Sade and Elvis Costello and Rose Royce. There would be a pitcher of water, and probably bottles of wine. And in the center, ready for passing, would be the star of the show: dinner.

I grew up in a family that looked forward to dinner as much as a kid might look forward to a trip to Disneyland: We'd start discussing it at breakfast, mulling over the options based on what was in the cupboard and freezer, and through bites of cereal or French toast we'd land on something simple, like boxed macaroni and cheese or rice and beans. If one of my parents had the day off from work, it might be something special, like bistec encebollado (Puerto Rican-style vinegar steak with onions) or my mom's khoresht bademjan (Persian eggplant and chicken stew).

Because my parents both worked full time and had uneven schedules, I learned to cook as soon as I could push a chair up to the counter.

One of my favorite things to make for dinner was and still is picadillo — ground meat sauteed and simmered in a deep red tomato-based sauce, well-seasoned and savory with onions, garlic, cumin and olives.

It's popular throughout Latin America, and can be a meal in itself, but it's also a component in more elaborate dishes, including tacos, empanadas, pastelon, chiles en nogada and alcapurrias. The recipe can change from region to region and cook to cook, and every family puts their own spin on it, adding olives, raisins, potatoes, plantains or squash, depending on whether they like it sweeter or more savory, simple or hearty.

I put raisins and olives in my picadillo — I like the little sweet and salty dance they do in your mouth — but you could omit one or both. The recipe here is a streamlined beef picadillo based on the one I grew up eating. It doesn't require a sofrito, as some picadillos do, but if you have some or want to make it, do: Your picadillo will be even better.

Make it a one-pot meal by adding a few handfuls of shredded spinach or kale and letting them melt into the sauce or tossing in bite-sized pieces of roasted potatoes or squash.


  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 small yellow onion, finely chopped (see note)
  • ½ bell pepper, any color, finely chopped (optional)
  • 5 stems fresh cilantro and their leaves, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced or finely grated
  • 1 pound lean ground beef
  • ½ teaspoon salt, plus more as needed
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon paprika
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano
  • ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 (15-ounce) can crushed or diced tomatoes, preferably with no salt added
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • ¼ cup dark or golden raisins, optional
  • ¼ cup pimento-stuffed green olives, halved, optional

In a wide skillet over high heat, heat the oil until it shimmers. Add the onion and bell pepper, if using, and cook, stirring often, just until they begin to brown, about 3 minutes. Lower the heat to medium and add most of the cilantro — reserving a few leaves for garnish — garlic and ground beef. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, break the ground beef into bits so it cooks evenly. Stir in the salt, cumin, paprika, oregano and black pepper.

Cook the beef until its fat has rendered and it's brown with a few pink spots, 5 to 8 minutes. (Drain excess fat, if desired.) Stir in the tomatoes and tomato paste. Bring to a simmer and cook over medium heat for another 5 minutes, using a spoon or spatula to break up any large chunks of tomato. (If the mixture starts to look dry, add a splash or two of water to loosen it.)

Stir in the raisins and olives, if using, and simmer until they've softened, 3 or 4 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings, keeping in mind that the raisins add a little sweetness and the olives add salinity and a touch of acidity. Garnish with the reserved cilantro leaves and serve the picadillo hot.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Note: You may replace the onion, bell pepper, garlic and cilantro with ¾ cup sofrito.

Nutrition information: Each serving (based on 6) contains approximately 250 calories, 15 g protein, 20 g fat, 8 g carbohydrate (4 g sugar), 54 mg cholesterol, 259 mg sodium and 3 g fiber.

Carbohydrate choices: 1.


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