This vegan picadillo recipe is a delicious and colourful Cuban-style dish of spiced lentils, potatoes, tomatoes, olives and raisins. Served with rice, it’s quick and easy to prepare for a weeknight dinner and the warming spices of cinnamon, cumin, cloves and nutmeg make it a comforting and hearty meal for chilly weather.
What is picadillo?
Picadillo is a traditional dish in many Latin American countries.
The name comes from the Spanish verb picar which means ‘to mince’ and refers to the main ingredient of picadillo being ground beef.
Each country, and indeed each cook, has their own variation on the recipe with the addition or omission of different vegetables, spices and seasonings.
The vegan picadillo recipe I have for you here is a veganized Cuban picadillo, called picadillo a la Habanera, one of Cuba’s most famous dishes.
Cuban picadillo distinguishes itself from other varieties of picadillo by the interesting and tasty additions of olives, raisins and warming spices.
Just like with Cuban black beans and rice, picadillo uses simple ingredients to create a delicious and unique balance savory, sweet and sour flavours.
Ground beef substitute
When I first created this recipe way back in 2017, there weren’t nearly as many vegan ground beef products available in supermarkets as there are now.
Nowadays, it’s easy to find plant-based meat in nearly every large supermarket and you can easily swap these products into most recipes calling for ground beef.
The issue is that they can be quite expensive to use everyday and are not always the healthiest choice.
This vegan picadillo recipe uses one of my favourite ground beef substitutes for hearty dishes like stews and casseroles: brown lentils.
Not only are lentils packed with fiber and super healthy, they’re also a very cheap ingredient!
If you don’t like lentils, other ground beef substitutes you can use in this plant-based picadillo recipe are crumbled tofu, seitan, walnut-mushroom “meat”, TVP (textured vegetable protein) or vegan ground beef.
Why you’ll love this vegan picadillo recipe
Economical: Cuban picadillo has always been an economical meal and one which takes advantage of cheap ingredients and leftovers to fill your belly during tough times. In fact, they say that potatoes were added to stretch out the recipe in times when ingredients were more difficult to obtain in Cuba.
Quick: If using canned or previously cooked lentils, this vegan picadillo recipe is ready in just 30 minutes, making it ideal for a quick and easy weeknight dinner. Additionally, it cooks in one pot making clean up easy!
Hearty and healthy: The combination of lentils, potatoes and rice is a complete meal loaded with fiber, protein, and carbohydrates that will keep you full and satiated for hours.
Ingredients you’ll need
The ingredients for this vegan picadillo are cheap and easy to find at any grocery store.
Lentils: I use generic brown lentils in a can. You can also cook up some dried lentils or substitute green or black lentils.
Onion and garlic: These form the flavor base of the recipe.
Potato: Any generic potato variety will do. I don’t bother to peel the potato but you can if you prefer.
Red pepper: You can use any color of bell pepper you have.
Tomatoes: This recipe uses two tomato products. The tomato paste helps to thicken the sauce and adds umami. Most Cuban recipes call for tomato puree but my recipe calls for whole tomatoes which I break down with my spoon because the small tomato chunks add a bit more juiciness to the dish.
Spices and seasonings: This part is a bit controversial, lol. Cumin, bay leaves and oregano are common ingredients in Cuban picadillo recipes. The cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg are the controversial ones. I really like the warmth that cinnamon adds but I’ll say that the cloves and nutmeg are optional.
Vinegar: The vinegar in this recipe is actually a substitute for wine. Most recipes call for either a white or red dry wine. Vinegar serves the purpose of adding a touch of acid to balance the sweetness of the raisins and the brininess of the olives.
Olives: Pimento-stuffed green olives are the olive of choice for this vegan picadillo.
Raisins: A handful of raisins adds little bursts of sweetness.
Salt and pepper: To season.
Rice: Serve this vegan Cuban picadillo over white or brown rice.
Herbs: A sprinkling of fresh parsley or cilantro finishes the dish off nicely.
How to make vegan picadillo
The beauty of this dish is that it is a simple one-pot recipe that is ready in less than 30 minutes!
Prep your ingredients: Start by gathering your ingredients. Chop the onion, potato, and red pepper. Mince the garlic and slice the olives. Drain and rinse the lentils.
Drain the canned tomatoes but reserve the tomato juice for the end.
Sauté: In a large pan, heat a splash of oil (or water if you want to make an oil-free recipe) over medium heat.
Add the onion and garlic and fry until soft and fragrant. Then add the tomato paste, cinnamon, cumin, cloves, oregano, nutmeg and bay leaves and fry, stirring frequently, until the tomato paste darkens in color - about two minutes.
Simmer: Add the canned tomatoes and break them apart into small chunks with your spoon.
Add the potatoes, red pepper, and vinegar and cover the pan. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are tender.
Heat: Finally, add the lentils, olives, raisins, salt and pepper and give it all a few minutes to simmer and heat through.
If it seems dry and you want it a bit more saucy, add as much of the reserved tomato juice as you like.
Serve vegan picadillo with rice and garnished with fresh herbs of your choice.
Substitutions and variations
Wine: Many, if not most, Cuban recipes call for about a quarter to a half a cup of dry red or white wine. I used red wine vinegar as a substitute but you can also use wine. The wine can be added after you have fried the tomato paste and spices. Allow the wine to simmer for a few minutes to cook off the alcohol.
Spices: My recipe calls for a lot of spices which are somewhat controversial. If you want to stick to a more traditional flavour profile, I recommend using just the cumin, oregano and bay leaves. The cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg are optional (but delicious!).
Fried potatoes: Most recipes call for frying the potatoes in a separate pan, draining them on a paper towel, then adding them to the picadillo. I don’t like extra steps but you can do this if you’d prefer a more traditional Cuban picadillo.
Capers: Some recipes call for one or two tablespoons of capers. Feel free to add them along with the olives and raisins if you like.
Whereas both Mexican and Cuban picadillo start from a base of ground beef simmered in a cumin-spiced tomato-based sauce, Mexican picadillo also includes carrots and peas, as well as sometimes being spicy from the addition of chilli peppers. Cuban picadillo isn’t spicy and has an interesting sweet and savory flavor from the addition of green olives and raisins.
Cuban picadillo is usually served with rice, fried plantains (tostones) and sometimes beans.
Vegan picadillo made with lentils is very healthy! It’s full of fiber, protein, iron and vitamins. Lentils are a much better choice than beef for picadillo because they are low in saturated fat and have a positive impact on cholesterol levels.
Make ahead and storage tips
Leftover vegan picadillo keeps very well and can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for up to three to four days.
This picadillo recipe is a great option for vegan meal prep!
Lentil picadillo can be frozen in an airtight container for up to three months.
You can reheat picadillo in the microwave or in a pot on the stove over medium-low heat.
What to serve with picadillo
Cuban picadillo is most commonly served with white rice. For a bit more fiber and nutrients you can sub brown rice.
A green salad and some crusty bread or cornbread are also good options.
Vegan picadillo can be repurposed as a filling for tacos, stuffed peppers, empanadas or baked potatoes.
- A splash of water or oil
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 4 cloves of garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons oregano
- A pinch of ground cloves
- A pinch of nutmeg
- 2 bay leaves
- A 780-gram (28 oz) can of whole tomatoes, drained (juice reserved if you want a sauce)
- 1 medium-large potato, diced
- 1 medium red pepper, diced
- 1 ½ tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 4 cups (700 grams) cooked lentils, drained and rinsed if canned
- ½ cup (70 grams) green olives, sliced
- ¼ cup (45 grams) raisins
- ½ teaspoon salt (or more to taste)
- White or brown rice, to serve
- A small bunch of cilantro or parsley
- Heat a large saucepan over medium heat. Add a splash of water or oil, the onion and garlic and sauté until soft. Add the tomato paste and all the herbs and spices and fry for a couple of minutes, stirring, until the tomato paste darkens in colour and the spices are fragrant.
- Add the whole tomatoes and break them up a bit with your spoon. Add the potato, pepper and vinegar and cover the pan. Simmer until the potatoes are tender.
- Uncover the pan and add the lentils, olives, raisins, salt and pepper and cook for a couple of minutes to warm everything through. If you like a bit of a sauce, you can add some of the reserved tomato juice.
- Serve the picadillo with rice and garnish with some cilantro or parsley.
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Nutrition Information:Yield: 4 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 478Total Fat: 10gSaturated Fat: 1gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 8gCholesterol: 0mgSodium: 741mgCarbohydrates: 81gFiber: 23gSugar: 19gProtein: 23g