Picadillo, for much of my life, was simply a pretty, sing-song word that I vaguely associated with Latin food. I knew that pretty much every Latin group that lived around me in New Jersey in the 1980s had a version: Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans… and yes, Mexicans.
Growing up in New Jersey in the 1970s and 1980s, the sum total of Mexican food in my world was the Tico Taco out on Route 22, and hideous, hard-shelled, pre-bent tacos filled with ground beef seasoned with “taco mix,” which, so far as I could tell, was cumin and chile and who-knows-what-else. Meh.
For a long time, I thought tacos = ground meat + seasoning. Even years later, Taco Night at college, or in friends’ homes (and here you can see I had no Mexican friends at the time), always meant “taco meat,” the same ground beef with seasonings.
Well, this concept didn’t spring from nothing. In Mexico, what we know of as “taco meat” is picadillo. And real Mexican picadillo is to “taco meat” what the sun is to a match.
Lots of versions of Mexican picadillo exist, and I am using the country as an adjective because as I mentioned, you can find picadillo in some form all over Latin America and Spain. Interestingly, most versions of picadillo are relics from the Renaissance, when sweet-plus-meat was a thing. You see a lot of raisins and sometimes dates, occasionally actual sugar, plus almonds.
If you are looking for that picadillo, you will find it here in my recipe for chiles rellenos.
Picadillo in concept is something of a mash-up of Italian meat sauce and American chop suey, and Texas chili. Ground meat, with spices, usually some sort of tomato, but also a number of other vegetables tossed in for flavor and bulk.
You see diced carrots and potatoes a lot, peas, zucchini, chayote, green olives, the aforementioned raisins, more or less tomato, more or less soupy, etc., etc. It is a very idiosyncratic dish.
This version comes from Sonora, one of Mexico’s desert states, which borders Arizona. I am basing it off a recipe for venison picadillo in a cool little book called La Cocina Familiar en el Estado de Sonora, which as you might imagine is written in Spanish. (Yo puedo leer español.) The original recipe is credited to Balvanera Gonzalez de Cabrera.
What attracted me to her recipe was that it was a picadillo de venado — venison! I was also attracted by the fact that Gonzalez de Cabrera’s recipe is not sweet, and had far fewer ingredients than the sometimes baroque picadillos you can see in places like, say Oaxaca.
I then read a few other Sonoran picadillo recipes in Spanish, and watched a few videos of Sonorans making picadillo, and talked to a few Sonoran friends about how they make picadillo. This Mexican picadillo is an amalgam of those. Real “taco meat.”
Use it, of course, in tacos, but it is also a fantastic empanada filling, or mixed with eggs and stale tortillas for chilaquiles, stuffed in a burrito (especially a breakfast burrito), or even as the filling for a tamal.
There are a few tricks here for a better picadillo. First is to roast your own green chiles. I prefer to use Hatch chiles or poblanos, but Anaheim or chilaca or the Hungarian light green “wax” chiles will all work. And you can roast and peel red chiles instead. Don’t know how to roast your own chiles? Here’s how.
The other trick is to use roasted tomatoes and crush them yourself. You can sometimes buy pre-roasted tomatoes, and that’s fine so long as they are whole. The picadillo really improves in texture when you have irregularly torn up tomatoes.
You can also slice a paste (Roma) tomato in half lengthwise and set it, cut side down, on a dry skillet until it blackens. By the time this happens, the tomato will be roasted and the skin will peel off easily.
Mexican Picadillo, Sonoran Style
- 3 tablespoons freshly rendered lard, or some other fat
- 2 pounds ground venison or other meat
- 1 large white onion, chopped fine
- 1 carrot, peeled and diced
- 1 cup peeled, diced potato (optional)
- Dried, crushed chiltepin chiles (or any hot chile)
- 4 cloves garlic, chopped fine
- 1 cup roasted green Hatch, Anaheim or poblano chiles, chopped (about 4 to 6 chiles)
- 2 to 4 roasted whole tomatoes, crushed by hand
- 10 green olives, chopped
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano, Mexican if possible
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 cups venison stock, or any other stock
- Heat the lard over high heat in a large skillet; I use a cast iron frying pan. Add the venison, spreading it out in an even layer. Salt it well. Sear this without touching for 2 to 3 minutes. Then stir well and sear some more. You want the meat to get legitimate browning, not just turning gray. Sometimes this takes 10 minutes or so.
- Add the onion, carrot, potato and hot chiles, if using. Mix well and cook these for about 5 minutes, stirring often.
- Add all the remaining ingredients and stir to combine. Turn the heat down to medium and let this simmer for maybe 5 to 10 minutes, until it is as soupy or as dry as you like.