Black Bean Picadillo


So many things taste good together that it’s easy to think of any number of tasty pairings. Who said peanut butter and jelly? Who said cornbread and honey? Who said cake and ice cream? Wait, that last one might have been me.

There are so many foods that taste good together that they become inseparable and you don't really give them too much thought. When you start eating tortilla chips don't you instinctively reach for some salsa? When someone says fish, don't you say chips? When you think of lamb chops doesn't your mind wander to mint jelly? I’m dating myself with that one but pairings are second nature to so many people. They have a innate sense of what foods are best together or what wine pairs well with what dish. 

I am not; repeat not, one of those people. That being said, I do have a grasp of some of the basics. Growing up in an Italian family you get very familiar with a few reoccurring themes. For example, if you grew up with me you would know that pasta goes with anything. That's just a given. Another is you can work wonders with breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese: a combo in almost anything Italian. You also learn about how oregano, basil and thyme go together. Those three herbs were used so much in my early cooking days that you would have thought I didn't know any others existed, and that would be pretty much true.

Spices were the same way; I knew cinnamon and nutmeg because they were used in apple pie. Cloves were those hard little things that in the Cub Scouts you stuck in an orange and gave to your mom - "gee mom, look what I made you - an orange with sharp stick things in it" (note: she was grateful every time). In my mothers house she always had these jars of ready mixed spices like pumpkin pie spice, or poultry seasoning. There were also little packets of taco seasoning mix, chili seasoning mix, or sloppy joes seasoning mix. These mixes confused me. I would look into the spice cabinet and wonder why you needed all the individual spices if they were already mixed for you in one handy packet. When I was first on my own, away from home, if I wanted to make tacos, I would go to the store and buy taco-seasoning mix especially since I had no idea what individual spices were needed. That is, until the day I got the brilliant idea to read the ingredients list on the package. Brilliant I tell you, just brilliant! Now all I had to figure out were the proportions. What using those packets lead to however, was a very narrow understanding of flavor. I went by what some package told me a thing was supposed to taste like.

I'll be honest here and tell you that as a young person my cooking repertoire was pretty limited. There was a lot of take out (thanks North China restaurant and King Falafel). Besides the Chinese take out, and all the burritos David and I ate, our food was pretty standard American. Burgers (so many burgers). Sloppy Joes - made by browning meat then adding a canned sauce to it, and tuna casserole. Canned tuna was a staple back then. It was cheap, and we were poor. Somewhere along the way though we were able to save up enough money to take a short vacation and we went to Disney's Epcot Center in Florida. Back then, the first thing you did upon entering the park was to step into a kiosk and make a dinner reservation. The reservation computer would show you each available restaurant in each of the different countries represented in the park and you would just have to push a few buttons to confirm your reservation. In a way, this was the first time we were exposed to food from other distant cultures and on our first night we made a reservation at a Moroccan restaurant. It might be good to know that my geography isn't that great and needless to say I had no idea where Morocco was, but that's really off topic isn't it? I don't remember exactly what I had. I do remember it had a quite a few peas and the spices were vastly different then what I was used to. These spices were warm and fragrant with a depth of flavor. You could tell there was a complexity to them. I wanted to go back to that restaurant the next day, but instead we opted for the English pub. See how adventurous we are? Not to mention that we also thought that mass-produced food at an American theme park to be the height of sophisticated cuisine!

I found this recipe way, way back in 1990 in Cooking Light magazine. I almost passed it up since it didn't have a picture, but the list of spices caught my eye and I couldn't wait to try it. Back then when I thought of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves I thought of pumpkin or apple pie. I couldn't imagine using those spices in any other way. Reading through the required spices reminded me of the warm spiciness of that Moroccan food at Disney World. I was also surprised that I had every spice in my cupboard, so that was a plus! I pulled out a large skillet, pushed the oregano out of the way and pulled out the spices I once thought were only used for pie. I set to it and to my surprise it didn't taste like pie at all! This dish has a real savory comfort food quality to it as well as the unexpected tartness from the apple. The recipe I have posted is pretty close to the original but I increase the amount of hot sauce in it from time to time to give it a real kick and you can boost the citrus flavor by upping the amount of orange zest you add. The basic recipe can also be tweaked to your preference by adjusting the amount of spices you use to suit your taste. You can even change out the apple to whatever flavor you think works well for you.

Maybe I still don't know a lot about combining spices but I have certainly ventured farther away from the tried and true Italian seasonings over the years. Perhaps someday I'll write about what happened when we started cooking Indian food. And maybe someday I'll figure out why I have an unopened jar of dried summer savory in my cupboard... oh wait, perhaps it's there to hide the equally full jar of dried marjoram? Who knows? It’s a mystery waiting to be solved.

There really isn't much to putting this together. You will need about an hour to get it to the table, which can be a real plus! I know the ingredients list looks long but trust me it's well worth it. Cook up a batch of rice to go with this and you're set.

You can get my copy of this recipe here.


  • 1 lb. lean ground beef

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

  • 1/2 cup chopped onion

  • 2 cloves garlic, minced

  • 1 (14 1/2 ounce) can diced tomatoes

  • 1 (4 ounce) can chopped green chilies, drained

  • 1/3 cup golden raisins

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

  • 1/4 teaspoon grated orange zest

  • 1/8 teaspoon hot sauce

  • 1 (15 ounce) can black beans, drained.

  • 2 cups peeled and finely chopped apple (I use Granny Smith)


A couple of things I've learned about the ingredients over the years.

When you're gathering your spices, you can put them all in one bowl as they are added all at the same time. If you want the tomatoes to stand out a bit more, change out the diced tomatoes for canned whole tomatoes that you chop yourself. You will get larger chucks in the end. For the hot sauce, I usually have Tabasco on hand but use whatever you like the best and you can also adjust the amount listed depending on your taste, just don't go overboard or you'll lose a lot of the other flavors. Lastly for the apple I tried different ones over the years and the one I liked the best was the Granny Smith: I like the tartness it adds.

How I put it together:

1. Put the ground beef in a large skillet over medium heat and stir and cook until it's brown and crumbled. You want a fairly even texture so keep breaking it up as it cooks.

2. When it's all brown and crumbled take the meat out of the pan with a slotted spoon and put it into a clean bowl.

3. Carefully pour out the excess grease, wipe out the pan and place back over medium heat. Add the olive oil and when it gets hot add the onion and sauté until they get a bit tender which takes about two minutes then stir in the garlic and cook it, about 30 seconds.

4. Now dump the browned beef back into the pan along with the tomatoes, chilies, raisins, all the spices, orange zest, and hot sauce (basically everything but the beans and the apple). Stir this all together and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and let it simmer for 15 minutes, uncovered.

5. When the 15 minutes is up, stir in the beans and apple and let everything continue cooking until it is heated through, which should be about 10 to 15 minutes more, and you should stir it occasionally while it cooks.

Serve over rice, or be creative. I have put this on buns, rolled it up in tortillas with some pepper jack cheese and I've eaten it plain, right out of the bowl. I like to top it with some avocado or a dollop of sour cream too. I hope you like it as much as I do.

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