There are certain dishes we expect to see at a traditional Seder table. Chicken soup dotted with fluffy matzoh balls, moist and slow-roasted brisket, maybe even a crisp potato kugel as a classic side dish. But sometimes, when my family wants to spice things up a bit, we look to our Latin culinary traditions for inspiration. For example, as an alternative to a potato-filled side, we prefer to take a cue from the tropical motherland, and feature dishes using the starchy green plantain banana to mop up the juicy overflow from the meat.
Plantain bananas exhibit the "waste not, want not" mentality that my family has embraced for generations, as different dishes are created depending on the degree of ripeness in which you find your banana. Most people are familiar with the classic fried sweet plantains that accompany many a Cuban dish, called "platanos." Unsurprisingly, these are everyone's favorite, as their sweet flesh caramelizes in the hot oil, making them irresistible. Unfortunately, to get this dish just right, fried platanos require the plantain to be over-ripe, letting the sugars really develop and the peel turn almost black. This process can take weeks, which is why I believe recipes were created for the days between. After all, my family is not known for our patience. When plantains are green, their starchy flesh resembles the consistency of a potato, and its flavor is just as mild. Thus, it is featured in many savory dishes in much the same way as a potato is. Plantain chips and tostones, for instance, are made with green, under-ripe bananas.
Mashed potatoes are a favorite of my meat-and-potatoes Midwestern husband, and in my household growing up, they were a crowd-pleaser, as well. Thus, as an unexpected twist to the classic mash, my family was partial to mashed green plantains, and they often made an appearance on our dinner table. Some cultures call it mofongo, and others call it mangu, but in Santiago de Cuba, where my family is from, the name is simple: Fufú.
As featured on The Jewish Daily Forward.
Traditional fufú is seasoned with specks of roasted meat, but in my family’s history, meat wasn’t always readily available. Fortunately, mashed plantains can easily act as a vehicle for other flavors, making the variations and mix-in possibilities endless. One of my favorite versions of fufú is seasoned with the number one condiment in any Cuban household: mojo sauce. This type takes on a unique flavor profile with hints of citrus, garlic, and onions, making it the perfect pairing for the natural aus jus accompanying a traditional brisket.
As Passover is a holiday in which we commemorate the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt, and as the story goes, they left in such a hurry, that there was no time to let their bread rise, I figured that they probably wouldn’t have had time to let their plantains ripen, either.
Fill a large pot with cold water and the juice of a lemon. Add a generous sprinkle of kosher salt and the plantains. Cook over high heat, and bring to a boil.
Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, add the olive oil and garlic, and cook over medium to low heat. When the garlic reaches a lightly golden color, add the onions, oregano, sour orange juice, and salt and pepper. Lower the heat, and let the sauce simmer until the onions are translucent.
In the large pot with the plantains, prick the bananas with a fork to test their tenderness. When they can easily be pierced, take the pot off the heat.
Reserve 1 cup of the starchy cooking liquid, then drain the plantains.
Return the plantains to the pot, and mash using a potato masher. Thin the mixture with the cooking liquid until it reaches your desired consistency. Mix in some of the mojo sauce, reserving some onions to serve on top.
Like most Cuban food, when picadillo is presented as a main dish, it is usually plated alongside white rice, which serves to mop up the saucy overflow. However, shortly after we got married, I noticed my husband staring uncomfortably at the mound of rice left to eat on his plate at the end of dinner one night. When I asked if there was a problem, he responded that he was “too full” from the rest of the mouthwatering meal I prepared that evening to stomach finishing the rice. As newlyweds, we’re often told that the first year of marriage is the hardest, and it was clear that my husband was trying not to stir the pot. It occurred to me that he might not be a huge fan of plain white rice. The next day, I planned to make picadillo for dinner, and knew he would love it, but wouldn’t give it a fair try if I served it with rice. So I set out to find a more suitable companion for this dish. True to his Midwestern roots, I knew my husband favors a diet rich with meat and potatoes. Also, potato balls, which are essentially a ball of mashed potatoes stuffed with picadillo, breaded and fried, are one of his favorite Cuban snacks. So, if I made a batch of my irresistibly creamy, Garlic Parmesan Mashed Potatoes, and served them alongside my picadillo, it would without a doubt please him. Sure enough, at dinner the next night my husband was inducted into the clean plate club, and I inched closer towards winning the award for wife of the year.
Classic picadillo is made with ground beef, but in an effort to lighten things up, my family swapped in the much more figure friendly turkey long ago. After trying our flavor-packed version, nobody has ever called us on our alternative ways, and for quite some time, this substitution remained a family secret. Even the naturally driest cut of turkey breast surrenders to the tenderizing ways of a low and slow simmering tomato-based bath, making Turkey Picadillo a stand-by, go-to protein in our house while I was a child. It also serves as the filling to many of Cuban cuisine’s most treasured snacks, including empanadas, meat pies, potato balls, and more.
This dish represents the essence of my Cuban influence melding with that of my meat-and-potatoes eating Midwestern husband’s. It’s the meet-me-in-the-middle compromise I was told I’d get used to making when I got married. This peacekeeper, Gandhi-style of cooking is one I particularly love experimenting with, as it presents a fun culinary challenge for me to find perfect pairings for the recipes from our respective sides.
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Turkey Picadillo with Garlic Parmesan Mashed Potatoes