Michael Pollan, who has become one of the best voices reporting on the condition of our food, likes to say, “Food is not the problem, cooking is.” The genesis of this column 14 years ago was to get people in the kitchen again, at least on the weekend, and discover how great home cooking can be for the belly and soul, and I totally agree with Pollan.
Cooking is not an exact science. Ingredients can be the first twist in trying to follow a recipe. Sometimes, you have to punt. Case in point was the last week in February, when grocery stores were the craziest I’ve ever seen them. Shelves and meat and seafood counters quickly emptied, and ingredients for that recipe you might have been clutching in your hand were not available.
Tempers flared. The worst was a shopper who went ballistic with a butcher for not having any pork tenderloins. I mean really nuclear and personal. “You have totally ruined my meal,” the shopper screamed, “and my whole day!” The butcher, whom I know, was very professional and tried the help the shopper find something else that would work with her recipe. No, it had to be the tenderloin, she insisted, continuing to belittle the hapless butcher.
Shame on the shopper, who had no idea that even though he was trying to help, he had more problems than the tenderloin. His wife is dying of cancer. I was horrified to learn that the recipe the shopper wanted to prepare was the one from my last column.
The point is that cooking is more than a series of recipes. It’s also the ability to adapt. I try in my columns to give you some outs, and in the last column gave you four alternatives. I also suggest that you get to know your grocery store folks. They are a great source of help and are always encouraged by people who are really cooking.
OK, enough soapbox. If you are sick of chili and basic tacos, but still need a big batch of something, I encourage you to give this recipe a try. This mixture is a favorite of many Spanish-speaking countries and there are many versions, but most will include a mixture of beef and pork, plus raisins, almonds and olives. Cubans like this over beans and rice, while Mexicans tend to use it as a filling. Either way it’s rich with depth, slightly sweet and very textural. It’s also perfect to have a potful as we get glued to the basketball tournaments over the next few weeks. Ground turkey or chicken can easily be substituted, but add a dash of Worcestershire sauce if you do.
Quick, easy and perfect no matter what color your blood runs. ... Red, Blue or Carolina.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 pounds ground chuck
1 pound ground pork
2 medium yellow onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced
2 jalapeño or Anaheim peppers, seeded and chopped
1 tablespoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup cider vinegar
2 1/2 cup dark raisins
1/4 cup slivered almonds
1/4 cup sliced pitted olives
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
HEAT the oil over medium high heat in a large heavy pot like a Dutch oven. Add the beef and the pork (you may need to do this in two batches), and brown on each side, about 10 minutes. Don’t overcrowd the pot, as this will cause the meat to steam rather than brown.
ADD the onions, garlic and peppers, stir and cook until softened usually about 5 to 6 minutes. Stir in the chili powder, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, water and vinegar. Add the raisins, almonds and olives; salt and pepper to taste. Bring the mixture to a simmer, cover, and cook for about an hour or until the mixture has thickened. You can also do this in a slow-cooker on high for 4 hours.
SEASON the picadillo with salt and pepper to taste and serve.
Serve with: This stuff is great just ladled over a bowl of rice, but you can also use it as a filling for burritos or stuffing for green peppers. A little coleslaw on the side is all you need.
To drink: Beer would certainly work well with this dish, as would a Spanish Rioja.
Yield: 6 servings.