The World of Mexican Picadillos
As noted in the recipe for Picadillo-Ground Beef, one of the major differences between the Mexican cooking on this side of the border and in Mexico’s interior is that, instead of using the shredded meat fillings that are so common in Mexico, cooks in the U.S. often use ground meat fillings. The reason for that is because immigrants from Mexico adapted the least expensive ingredients in their new homes to their recipes.
In Spanish, those ground meat fillings are called picadillos. Unfortunately, in the United States they are usually pretty ordinary, normally made by frying ground beef with a little chile powder, garlic, cumin, oregano and salt for a few minutes. In Mexico, tacos and other antojitos are usually filled with shredded beef, but when a picadillo is used they are typically more elaborate. Examples include the fillings for the classic chiles en nogada and some of the ones used in empanadas. In addition to the more usual ingredients, they will often include aromatics such as cinnamon, cloves and allspice, as well as nuts, raisins, other dried fruits, and olives. Mexican cooks also often add water and slowly simmer until it evaporates. This makes the flavors more subtle and the meat more tender. It’s important to remember that most ground beef is made from tough cuts like the chuck and the round; even though they are finely ground they can still be tough and benefit from the same long simmering that stews made with larger pieces of the the same cuts do.
Interior Mexican cooks, as well as some in the U.S., often include finely chopped potatoes in their picadillos. The starch helps bind the filling, and during the cooking process the bits of potato melt into the other ingredients creating an even smoother texture and additional flavor.While these more elaborate picadillos have found their way into some Mexican-American homes, they rarely end up in restaurants because they require more time and ingredients, and because most customers do not know the difference. Like other fillings, picadillos make for speedy and delicious meals, especially when made ahead and kept in the refrigerator. Just heat them in the microwave, wrap them in a tortilla or put them in a bowl with beans and/or rice, and you have a nearly instant meal that will be a genuine treat--and most picadillos are relatively low in calories.
This site features recipes for several delicious picadillos: Picadillo-Ground Beef is a good basic picadillo with basic and more elaborate options. The Turco Filling is made with ground pork, fruits, nuts, and aromatic spices and is great for tacos, chiles rellenos and empanadas. (There is an equally good but lighter version of the Turco filling in my latest book, Naturally Healthy Mexican Cooking). Certainly one of the most delicious picadillos is the Turkey Picadillo recipe that I adapted from one by the great chef Maricel Presilla. The most recent picadillo recipe on the site is called Turkey Chile Picadillo. It is very easy to make, low in fat and calories, and can be used for just about anything where a delicious filling is required.