ground beef

I’ve been to the small Pacific island of Guam about a dozen times in my life, but never for long – usually I was disembarking from a US Navy ship and headed to the airport, on my way back home. There were a few moments when I was lucky enough to spend a day or two on the island before catching a flight, relaxing by the beach and reveling in the novelty of not having to wear a uniform 24/7. Regrettably, though, I never got a chance to enjoy a homestyle meal while in Guam. To be fair, the last time I was there was well over 10 years ago, in the dark period before smartphone apps like Yelp–at the time, my food explorations usually just consisted of eating wherever was within walking distance.

I think the fact that I missed out on some of Guam’s homestyle cuisine is what draws me towards one of Guam’s signature comfort foods, and today’s recipe, Beef Tinaktak. In essence, this dish is like a taste of what could have been, had I the opportunity to enjoy a home-cooked meal there. Beef Tinaktak’s pairing of ground beef, tomatoes, green beans, and coconut milk sounds a little strange on paper, but the resulting flavor is anything but; it’s immediately comforting, while wholly unique.

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Picadillo is the name of a variety of dishes first originating in Spain. Versions of Picadillo can be found across Latin America and the Caribbean, and it has reached as far as the Philippines. Each variation has its own distinct quality; in the Dominican Republic, Picadillo is served with hard-boiled eggs, while in Puerto Rico it is used as a filler in Empanadas, or in savory pastries known as Piononos. The word Picadillo itself comes from the Spanish word Picar, to chop or mince.

My favorite Picadillo is the Cuban version, aptly named Picadillo Cubano. As with any beloved dish, there are many regional variations, but it generally combines the unique flavors of cumin, oregano, green olives, capers, and raisins. The end result is not unlike America’s favorite crockpot dish, Chili con Carne, but with a sweet-and-savory dynamic that’s equally comforting and exotic – and it all comes together in 30 minutes.

Not to confuse you, but the Cuban version of Picadillo is found in other countries, as well. For example, it is called Arroz a la Cubana in the Philippines, where it is topped with a fried egg. Not a terrible addition, if you ask me.

For today’s recipe I tested ButcherBox‘s ground beef; this is my second time trying their 100% grassfed beef (read about my first experience here), and I was just as impressed as the first time around. If you’re looking for a fun new take on pasture-raised meats – as part of a curated package shipped monthly – you can’t go wrong with these folks.

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Our local market had some really nice-looking eggplants the other day, so I decided to pick up a couple and whip something up. When coming up with an idea for the dish, I decided to refer to some of the eggplant experts: the countries that live along the Mediterranean coast. Italy seemed too easy, so I went with Turkey instead, who have several classic eggplant dishes. Karniyarik is a stuffed eggplant dish from Turkey, similar to another popular Turkish dish, Imam Bayildi, which is similar but made without ground meat.

Eggplants got their name from their egg-like shape, although they are referred to as aubergines nearly everywhere outside of the United States. Eggplants were probably first cultivated in India about 2,000 years ago, before making their way to the Middle East and Europe. It was one of the first foods brought to the Americas by Spanish and Portuguese explorers in the 16th century.

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The word cutlet is a bit of a culinary mystery – everyone has their own interpretation of what it means. Throughout most of Europe, a cutlet is a thinly-sliced cut of meat (usually pork or veal) that is beaten, covered in breadcrumbs, and fried (think schnitzel). This is the same in the US, but they are mostly made with chicken breasts. The Japanese like to use pork (tonkatsu). Australia uses either chicken or lamb. Great Britain is a little different in that cutlets are usually not breaded.

And then there’s Russia. Somehow, as they trotted down the path of history, the Russians decided that котлет was a pretty good word for what we in the US would call a hamburger steak. Russian cutlets are a very common household dish, probably due to how easy they are to prepare. What’s funny is that they often eat cutlets between two slices of bread as a snack – which sounds a lot like a hamburger to me, although they are still called cutlets.

So at the end of the day, you could have three people walking down the street,

a) eating a Chick-Fil-A sandwich
b) eating a schnitzel sandwich (they exist!)
c) eating what basically looks like a hamburger

…and they’d all tell you they are eating cutlets.

So, after working on my Russian cutlets for a while, I decided to make a dish that is unique in that it would be fit to serve at a restaurant (which is ironic, because cutlets are rarely served in restaurants in Russia).

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