Any writing I do about my cooking must come with a user warning: Danger, I’m a disaster in the kitchen.

I’m such a distracted soul that I’ve burned eggs and proceeded to scrape them right then and there only to ruin a $50 frying pan. Worst yet, I’m not a detail-oriented communicator when it comes to explaining how I flavor a dish. I subscribe to my mother’s School of Cuban Cuisine and the almighty “poquito:” A little of this and a dash of that, and my favorite, “You’ll get the hang of it with practice.”

If you’re still with me here, hoping to get a recipe, also know that I’m lousy at following directions, a fact my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Smith, noted in my report card (which I translated for my mother as “He wrote there that I’m wonderful.”) This can only mean that: 1) I have never been able to follow anyone else’s recipes; 2) I’m also lousy at giving directions.

But I get the answers right on the tests, Mr. Smith, and my family eats my food with relish.

“You are the best sandwich maker in the world!” my daughter Erica once proclaimed when she was trying really hard to find reasons to love me.

So I’ve been anointed a good enough cook, and recently, I’ve graduated to bigger fare given my mother’s early retirement from her reign in our family kitchen. Even Mami raves about my pernil, the traditional pork roast we serve on Christmas Eve (although I’m not allowed to ever again attempt arroz imperial, as I ruined our New Year’s Eve dinner when all the yellow rice stuck together in a mushy mound). Pernil aside, my family’s unconditional favorite is my picadillo, the staple Cuban dish of ground beef, or, in its all-American incarnation, ground turkey.

I could not help but have Marisol attempt to cook picadillo for her American friends in Iowa in Reclaiming Paris, but her recipe was missing a lot more than salt! So here are my simple recipes for picadillo and merenguitos, one of Marisol’s favorite desserts. Marisol’s Abuela Rosario made them for her, and my mother made for my brother and me both in Matanzas and in Miami. But you’ve been warned. I’m not giving you exact quantities. You decide how much of a condiment to use, depending on how much meat or how many merenguitos you want to make. Email me if you have questions, or, as my mother says, “You’ll get the hang of it with practice.”

Bon appétit!

  • Picadillo a la Fabi
  • Merenguitos

minced garlic
chopped onion
a few slices of green pepper
a laurel leaf
a packet of your favorite Sazón Goya
vino seco
tomato sauce
a dash of olive oil
Spanish olives


Buy the leanest ground beef (or turkey) you can afford. Wash the meat, place in a pot on low heat to simmer, turning often to brown evenly. As you brown, salt to taste, add chopped onions, a couple of fresh garlic gloves (I mince mine), a few slices of green pepper and a laurel leaf. In a rice measuring cup, mix ¾ vinegar, ¼ vino seco with a packet of Sazón Goya (the one with azafrán will add a golden glow; the “natural” has no salt). Stir and add to the simmering meat. Stir well to soak the meat. Let it simmer for a few minutes, and then add a can of tomato sauce. Stir again, simmer for a few more minutes, and then add the Spanish olives and raisins.

If you bought lean meat you may add a dash of olive oil. Cover again. Simmer. If you didn’t buy lean meat, don’t add oil. You will see an orange crust building. Spoon it out! It’s not good for you and it won’t add flavor.

Either way, the picadillo will be done when you see the meat completely brown and the peppers nice and soft and melded into the meat.

Serve over fluffy white rice, or if you want healthier fare, over brown rice. I love my picadillo either way!

egg whites

Photo by Cocina con Sabor

Separate yolk from egg white by gently gliding your hands underneath the yolk. Beat the egg whites slowly with a fork to work up to a white foam. Add sugar to taste. Beat the foam until you can pick up the fluffy mix with your fork and it stays there. Build a swirl of white foam around your fork and bring it close to the fire/heat, and roast. Roast slowly and evenly until the crust of the foam hardens and turns brown. (Gas stoves are best for making merenguitos).

Set aside for a few minutes, cool and savor!