As I mentioned previously, my wonderful neighbor and dear friend Kathy taught a series of Cuban cooking classes last year. I learned so much and even a year later am still reaping the rewards of those lessons. One of the fundamentals to Cuban cooking, as well as other Latin cultures, is Sofrito. This is the Cuban version of the Holy Trinity or Mirepoix, a blend of aromatic vegetables that provide the base flavor for a variety of dishes. Sofrito includes green pepper, onion and garlic, and is sometimes a tomato based sauce but not always. In dishes like the I one I prepared this evening, the aromatics are very finely minced so that they essentially dissolve into the base sauce while adding a tremendous amount of flavor.
The challenge for tonight was how to pair a traditional Cuban dish with wine. My proven mantra of selecting wines from the native of the region as the dish was not going to work here. I don’t know of any Cuban wines and certainly did not have any on hand. However, this flavorful dish should benefit from a good wine pairing, right? That is what I wanted to figure out.
First up was to make the meal. On the menu was Picadillo, a ground beef dish that one must try to truly appreciate. The list of ingredients sounds too rustic for it to be as tasty as it is. In addition, I made black beans, rice, plantains and some sauteed spinach (this was to alleviate the worry that this meal was too decadent for a weeknight).
Picadillo is a tomato sauce based ground beef dish that uses Sofrito as a base of flavors with raisins and green olives for added depth. Those two additional elements add a sweet and salty element that elevates the dish to a higher level.
First step in preparing Picadillo is to brown the beef (1 lb high quality, low fat beef). Here enters one of the lesson’s from Kathy’s class. Season the meat. Don’t wait and season the sauce after everything is done. So, add salt, oregano, garlic powder and parsley to the meat prior to browning. I have tested out this philosophy multiple times with different dishes in the past year and it makes a difference. After the meat is browned, drain in the sink in a colander. You can actually rinse the meat the remove more fat, and surprisingly, the meat will still be seasoned and flavorful. I did not do that tonight though because the meat I had was very lean.
The Sofrito was next. In a food processor, quickly mince half of a green bell pepper, followed by half an onion and a few gloves of garlic. Cook the green pepper first in a heavy pan with some olive oil and then add the onion and garlic. Continue until softened. Add the can of tomato sauce and a generous splash of cooking wine. You could use drinkable white wine but I did not have any open. Let simmer for a few minutes to reduce and mellow out the tomato sauce. Then add the beef, raisins and olives (along with some brine) and simmer on low heat for about a half hour. I also added some additional oregano and dried parsley to the sauce.
The Picadillo is tricky to pair with wine. It is a little sweet, a little salty, a little savory. I would not say it is rich but it is hearty. I thought an Italian wine might pair well because that culture uses tomato based sauces for many of its dishes. My other thought was a Spanish wine but I ended up picking a Chianti Classico that had been resting in the cellar for a few years.
The wine was great. It needed a half hour to open up but once that happened it was really lovely. Smooth, dry, earthy with medium to full body. I loved the wine, however, it was not a great pairing for the Picadillo because of the sweetness from the sauce and the raisins. I think a fruit forward Zinfandel would have been a better match and I will most certainly test that out next time. The plantains were also sweet and clashed a little with the dry Chianti (which would have been superb with Lasagna or even Pizza).
Dinner was great and even though the pairing was not a match made in heaven, I still very much enjoyed the wine and my meal. I bet a Mojito would have paired nicely too.
Update 2/26/12: I made this dish again and paired it with a fruity Zinfandel (08 Irie Zin). The pairing was so much better. The raisins and the onions in the sauce really add a sweetness that will make a dry wine seem bitter. The Zin had the perfect amount of fruitiness that when enjoyed together they sang harmoniously!