Lentil Picadillo. Photo for The Washington Post by Rey Lopez

Traditionally made with ground or finely chopped meat, picadillo is a tomato-based stew popular in countries that were colonized 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 flavorful 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 Traveler, 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 savory, with olives, adobo, sazón, cumin seeds and coriander.”

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 flavor 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 flavor 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

Active time: 20 mins; Total time: 25 mins

Serving size: 4-6

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 flavors 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 flavor. If you’d like to cook your own lentils, simmer 3/4 cup dried lentils in 2 1/2 cups water until they’re tender. You’ll get about 2 cups of cooked lentils.

Storage Notes: Leftovers may be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.


For the sofrito:

1 small carrot (about 2 ounces), scrubbed and roughly chopped

1/2 small yellow onion (2 to 3 ounces), peeled and roughly chopped

2 cloves garlic, peeled

2 aji dulce chiles or 1/2 small yellow or orange bell pepper, stemmed (optional)

1/2 small green bell pepper, seeded and roughly chopped

5 stems fresh cilantro and their leaves

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

4 ounces button mushrooms

For the picadillo:

4 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 tablespoon dark brown sugar

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano

1 (15-ounce) can brown lentils (not drained)

1 (15-ounce) can crushed or diced tomatoes, preferably with no salt added

1/4 cup raisins (dark or golden)

1/4 cup pimento-stuffed green olives, halved (optional) (about 7)

Salt (optional)

Steamed rice, for serving (optional)


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 1 minute; if you accidentally puree it, it’s OK. (You should get about 1 1/2 cups of sofrito.)

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 5 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 5 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.

Nutrition (Based on 6 servings) | Calories: 238; Total Fat: 10 g; Saturated Fat: 1 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 631 mg; Total Carbohydrates: 35 g; Dietary Fiber: 10 g; Sugar: 11 g; Protein: 11 g

Recipe from Washington Post staff writer G. Daniela Galarza

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