Vegan picadillo made with lentils is warm, filling and flavourful

G Daniela Galarza

THE WASHINGTON POST – Traditionally made with ground or finely chopped meat, picadillo is a tomato-based stew popular in countries that were colonised by the Spanish.

It’s used in dozens and dozens of other dishes, including baked pastries, stuffed fritters, roasted main courses, pastas, soups and more.

You can serve it in a tortilla or between two buns, with potatoes or over greens, in a layered casserole or stuffed into squash, peppers or tomatoes.

The way I like it best, though, is over rice, and these days I’m more likely to make this vegan version, using a can of lentils instead of a pound of ground beef.

Aside from that change, it’s very similar to my beef picadillo. Both start with a flavourful base of onions and garlic, get a boost from a blend of spices and are finished with a few pimento-stuffed Manzanilla olives and raisins. “Raisins are divisive,” Jessica van Dop DeJesus, of the Dining Traveller, told me when I called. “I always start with a sofrito, and add extra onion, because I liked the texture of the chopped onion,” she said. “And I’m team olive.”

“I like a sweet version, with fresh and dried fruit for stuffing chiles en nogada,” my friend Adriana Velez texted me when I asked how she made her picadillo.

“For other dishes, I like it more savoury, with olives, adobo, sazón, cumin seeds and coriander.”

Lentil picadillo. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST
Lentils

A Cozy Kitchen’s Adrianna Adarme, who is Peruvian-Colombian, puts fried potatoes, bay leaves and hard-boiled eggs, in addition to olives and raisins, in her hearty Cuban-style recipe.

Recipe developer Rick Martinez adds a chopped poblano chile to his Mexican-style picadillo.

There’s no wrong way to picadillo. This vegan version starts with a sofrito – a flavour base of onions, garlic and other aromatics – that’s fortified with carrots and mushrooms. This one also calls for aji dulce and culantro, two ingredients that can be hard to find, but are traditional in Puerto Rican-style sofrito, the kind I grew up with. If you don’t have them, don’t worry, this recipe will work without them, too.

The sofrito is really the only finicky part of this recipe, because it’s just much easier and faster if you use your food processor or a blender to make it. (I have never made sofrito by finely chopping all of the ingredients by hand, but that’s an option, albeit a more tedious one.) I know that means one more thing to wash, but it really speeds things up. If you already have homemade sofrito in your fridge or freezer, feel free to use it instead.

After you saute the sofrito for a few minutes, you’ll add soy sauce, tomato paste, brown sugar and spices. This perks up and evens out the flavour of a can of lentils, which go in next with their liquid, followed by a can of diced or crushed tomatoes.

Bring it to a simmer, add olives and raisins if you’d like, taste it for seasoning and, a few minutes later, it’s done.

VEGAN PICADILLO

Picadillo, a popular Latin American dish of seasoned ground meat, comes from the Spanish verb picar, which means to mince or chop.

This version, based on a Puerto Rican-style recipe, eschews the meat for lentils, which provide texture and protein, and absorb the flavours from the sofrito or recaito, the finely minced base of onions, garlic, mild peppers, cilantro, and its perkier sister, culantro.

This sofrito base also contains a carrot and mushrooms, for additional flavour.

If you’d like to cook your own lentils, simmer three-quarter cup dried lentils in two-and-a-half cups water until they’re tender. You’ll get about two cups of cooked lentils.

Storage Notes: Leftovers may be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for up to four days.

INGREDIENTS

For the sofrito

One small carrot, scrubbed and roughly chopped

Half small yellow onion, peeled and roughly chopped

Two cloves garlic, peeled

Two aji dulce chiles or half small yellow or orange bell pepper

Half small green bell pepper, seeded and roughly chopped

Five stems cilantro and their leaves

Five stems fresh culantro leaves and their stems (optional, may substitute with more cilantro)

Four ounces button mushrooms

For the picadillo

Four tablespoons olive oil

Quarter cup low-sodium soy sauce

Two tablespoons tomato paste

One tablespoon dark brown sugar

One teaspoon ground cumin

Half teaspoon paprika

Quarter teaspoon black pepper

Quarter teaspoon garlic powder

Quarter teaspoon dried oregano

One can brown lentils (not drained)

One can crushed or diced tomatoes, preferably with no salt added

Quarter cup raisins (dark or golden)

Quarter cup pimento-stuffed green olives, halved (optional)

Salt (optional)

Steamed rice, for serving (optional)

DIRECTIONS

Make the sofrito

In a food processor, pulse the carrot until finely chopped. Add the onion, garlic, aji dulce, if using, bell pepper, cilantro, culantro, if using, and mushrooms, and pulse, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl every so often, until the mixture is very finely chopped but not totally pureed, 30 seconds to one minute; if you accidentally puree it, it’s okay.

Make the picadillo

In a wide skillet, heat the oil on high. Add the sofrito and cook, stirring often, until it begins to brown, about five minutes. Decrease the heat to medium-low and add the soy sauce, tomato paste, brown sugar, cumin, paprika, black pepper, garlic powder and oregano and stir to combine.

Stir in the lentils, their liquid and the tomatoes. Increase the heat to medium-high, and bring the mixture just to a simmer.

Cook for five minutes, then stir in the raisins and olives, if using, keeping in mind that the olives will add additional saltiness and the raisins will add sweetness. Taste and add more salt, if needed, and serve hot, with cooked rice, if desired.