Picadillo, Let me count the ways…

by Lisa

Over labor day weekend, I flew to Los Angeles to visit my friend, Melissa Clark,  the novelist (not the food writer). You can read her book about a girl impregnated by a lazy sperm or catch up with her on her blog.  Melissa is one of those friends you thank the world for every day.  She has kept me sane over many years, and as her blog attests, she is apparently connected to everything in the best way.  Every time I see her, no matter in what city or state, she’s always finding fun things to do, great places to eat, and amazing people to hang out with.  She’s also the one who connected me to my husband.   And on this, long-awaited, much-needed  trip, she not only re-connected me to myself, but connected me to picadillo, a classic Cuban dish of highly spiced, savory-sweet ground beef, with which I fell immediately, irrevocably in love.

Now, this is a little strange, because Melissa is a vegetarian. But she lives on the beach, in Marina del Rey (please don’t stalk her) and we walked to Venice for breakfast at a Cuban inspired restaurant, where I had Huevos con Picadillo.  Aside from the fact that we had a lingering, adult breakfast (imagine…), in the sun, on the Saturday of a long weekend, the picadillo was like nothing I had ever tasted before. It doesn’t look like much on the plate, but the flavors are rich and complex.

When I came home, I scoured the internet for recipes, emailed my friend Richard Fleming who wrote an amazing book about walking across Cuba. If anyone had an authentic picadillo recipe, it would be him. But alas, he did not (which is not, I promise you, a reason not to read his book, you should.)

Rich did write to me that regarding Cuban black beans, in the “Oriente, in the Santiago region, they are made “more flavorful” by the addition of a tablespoon or so of sugar near the end of cooking…”  I used this bit of information to adapt one of the many recipes I  found to come up with one that approximated what I had eaten in Los Angeles.  Almost all recipes call for raisins, but my husband hates raisins, so to add some sweetness, I used ketchup.  This also seemed in line with Rich’s advice to add sugar, and answered the complaint aimed at several recipes that called for the apparently inauthentic tomato paste.

The first night I served the picadillo, the kids stared at it with a ho-hum sort of chagrin.  Then they tasted it. Now, picadillo is one of those dinners that commands universal adoration.  I love it because it has introduced new flavors to our table.  I love it because it is fast, fast, fast to make.  I’ve had trouble getting through the week without making it…

If you prechop the ingredients, you can get from stove to table in under 15 minutes. (Especially if you have your kids set that table for you. )  Also, because we treat the meat more like a delicious side dish/accompaniment and less like the center of the meal (even though it really is the reason to sit down at the table) we can get at least a meal and a half out of a pound of meat.  We eat it with tortillas, rice, black beans, or under fried eggs…

I don’t know how authentic my version is, nor what part of Cuba it might represent, but I can vouch that it will not disappoint.



  • Olive oil
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 medium onion
  • 6-8 garlic cloves
  • 1 small tomato
  • 1/2 cup pimento stuffed olives
  • 1 tablespoon capers, drained
  • 1/4 cup ketchup
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • freshly ground pepper, to taste

In a mini-food processor, finely chop the onions and garlic. Set aside.  Then finely chop the olives, capers, and tomato.


You can do this ahead of time and refrigerate until you’re ready to cook. While many recipes will leave the olives whole, the dish I first had was of uniform texture...

In a saucepan cook onion, garlic, and bay leaves over medium heat until the onion is soft and translucent.  Add the ground beef and stir, breaking up clumps with a fork.


Okay, there are 3 bay leaves here….experiment

When the meat is cooked through, add the white wine and let simmer down, then add the olives, capers, ketchup, cumin and pepper and simmer until the picadillo thickens.


Discard the bay leaves and serve warm.

I cannot seem to do justice to the food styling on this one…a pile of ground beef looks like, well…so you will just have to take my word. Just try it.  If you eat meat, you will count the ways, too.

Apple Cake, Thanks to Mickey

by Caroline


It was late Sunday afternoon, and Tony was cooking dinner while the boys and I sat on the couch, reading. Ben was buried in his new book, The Mad Scientists’ Club and Eli and I were reading In the Night Kitchen. When I turn to the last page, I always stop reading and even Ben pulled his nose out of his book to sing out with Eli, “And that’s why, thanks to Mickey, we have cake every morning!”

Then came the inevitable epilogue: “Mama, why don’t we have cake every morning?” “Well, we have pancakes a lot,” I answered. But it sounded lame to me, so we made cake.

It needed to be quick, it needed to be something I could make easily with Eli, and it needed (after the recent Halloween orgy) to not be chocolate. I dug through my recipe binder with a dim recollection of a good recipe emailed to me by my sister and, miraculously, found it in less time than it takes to peel 5 apples for cake.

5-6 apples or pears
juice of 1/2 lemon (about a tablespoon)
2 t cinnamon
1 1/2 sticks of butter, melted
3/4 c sugar (brown, granulated, or a combination)
1 c flour
2 eggs

Preheat the oven to 350.


Peel, core, and slice the fruit (I cut the apples into sixteenths) and toss into a pie dish. Sprinkle with the lemon juice and cinnamon. Next stir the sugar, flour and eggs into the melted butter and mix well.


Pour the batter over the fruit and sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. Bake for about 50 minutes, until the cake is browned and the fruit is tender.

It’s the Great Pumpkin Pancake, Charlie Brown

by Caroline

Today after school we will finally carve all the pumpkins that have been sitting on our front stoop this month. I’ll save the seeds, to toast and eat during a post-dinner showing of It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and then I’ll need a quick dinner that doesn’t add much to the general pumpkiny mess. I’m thinking pumpkin pancakes. Breakfast for dinner is a fine quick and healthy meal, and like Lisa’s recent omelette, pancakes are a fine food with which your children can practice their cutlery skills.

Eli eagerly anticipating his pancake

Eli eagerly anticipating his pancake

Ben practicing his cutlery skills on actual food

Ben practicing his cutlery skills on actual food

These pancakes are about the lightest, fluffiest pancakes you’ll ever make (these pictures really don’t do them justice at all), so make them silver dollar size so they bake all the way through.

cooking pumpkin pancakes

cooking pumpkin pancakes

They taste great served with applesauce, yogurt, ricotta cheese, or of course maple syrup.

1 c flour
3 T sugar
1 t baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
1/4 t salt
1 t cinnamon
1/4 t nutmeg

1 egg
1 c plain yogurt
1/4 c pumpkin puree (canned or fresh)
2 T butter, melted and cooled

In a large bowl, beat the egg and then stir in remaining wet ingredients. Blend well. Whisk the dry ingredients together in a separate bowl, then stir into the egg mixture until just combined.

Heat a skillet and add a dab of butter. When the skillet’s hot, pour about 1/8 c batter per pancake. Flip when the tops bubble and the edges seem dry. Cook until the other side is golden brown, 2-3 minutes per side.

Pumpkin Time

by Caroline

the pumpkin wagon

the pumpkin wagon

It happens every year, the clamor for pumpkin treats: pie, cupcakes, pancakes, muffins. Eli, particularly, adores all things pumpkin and thinks it’s quite reasonable to expect a pumpkin pie for dessert an hour after we return from the pumpkin patch. Well, maybe so, but not with the new pumpkins, certainly. In fact, you all probably know this already but it bears repeating: you don’t want a Jack-o-lantern pumpkin for pie and really, you don’t even need pumpkin (shh!). Roast an acorn squash with a cinnamon stick and some cloves, even a knob of fresh ginger, stuck in the cavity, take out the flavorings when the squash is tender, scoop it out of the skin, puree, and then proceed with your recipe as if it were pumpkin. Really, nobody will ever know the difference.

But still, we go to the pumpkin patch every year, because what’s October without pumpkins? And when we are home from the pumpkin patch, one of our favorite quick pumpkin recipes is for muffins.

pumpkin muffins

Preheat the oven to 350.
Combine in a medium sized mixing bowl:

1 1/2 c all-purpose flour
3 T ground flax seed meal (you can skip the flax and replace it with an extra tablespoon of butter if you like)
1 1/2 t ground cinnamon
1 t baking soda
1 t salt
1 t ground ginger
1/2 t ground nutmeg
1/4 t ground cloves
1/4 t baking powder

Combine in a small bowl or measuring cup:
1/3 c water, milk or apple juice
1/2 t vanilla

In a large bowl, beat until creamy
5T unsalted butter

1 c brown sugar
1/3 c granulated sugar

and beat until combined.

Then add
2 large eggs
1 c pumpkin puree

And mix well. Now add the flour mixture to the pumpkin mixture in three parts, alternating with the milk mixture. Stir just until combined. Then add, if you like, chopped walnuts, raisins, or chocolate chips (about 1/2 c each).

Bake in a muffin tin for 30 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean.

Morale-Boosting Banana Coconut Muffins

by Caroline

There comes a time in every child’s illness when the child is still too sick to attend school (he’s got to be fever-free for 24 hours) but is too well to lie docilely on the couch watching videos while his mother catches up on her New Yorkers. And that is the time, in this house, when we make muffins. I know this might appall some of the more germ-conscious of you, but I am just not really an art project kind of mom. Plus, we are not making muffins to distribute to our friends; these muffins stay home, in the family, where we’ve all been exposed to the same germs already for quite some time. And of course we wash our hands before we start to cook, which we do whether we’re sick or not.

So here we were, after another feverish night but with the Tylenol finally taking effect. Eli was hungry for a snack, tired of his usual dry crunchy things, but not yet up for a real meal. He noticed some browning bananas in the fruit bowl. For the most part, I try to stick to local fruits, but in the winter, when I do even more baking than usual and the variety of fruits available is slightly more limited, I make an exception for bananas. And of all the various banana breads and banana muffins that I make, this might just be the simplest. I’m linking to the original version on Epicurious (pause here a moment to mourn Gourmet, but to be grateful that Conde Nast is keeping the website alive), but of course I always tinker a little bit, so here’s how Eli and I made the muffins today.

a potato masher makes quick work of soft bananas

a potato masher makes quick work of soft bananas

slicing the butter for melting is a good time to practice knife skills

slicing the butter for melting is a good time to practice knife skills

1 1/4 c all-purpose flour
½ c ground flaxseed meal
1 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
2 very ripe bananas, mashed (3/4 cup)
5 T unsalted butter, melted
½ cup brown sugar
1 large egg
a splash of vanilla
3/4 cup sweetened flaked coconut

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 375°F. Line muffin cups with liners.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt and flax in a bowl. Whisk together bananas, butter, sugar, egg, vanilla, and 1/2 cup coconut in a large bowl until combined well, then fold in flour mixture until flour is just moistened.

Divide batter among lined muffin cups and sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup coconut. Bake until muffins are puffed and golden, and a tester comes out clean, about 20-25 minutes; keep an eye on them toward the end, as the flax makes them brown more quickly than usual, and you don’t want the flaked coconut to burn. Transfer muffins to a rack and cool slightly.