I remember my first Thanksgiving very clearly: I was 8 years old and my family had arrived in the United States only seven months prior. We had a traditional turkey, Cuban moros y cristianos (black beans cooked with white rice), and a variety of salads. No dessert because nobody at the time could wrap their heads around a pumpkin pie. Pumpkin? For dessert? That first year we said, "No thank you."
The truth is we didn't know much about Thanksgiving and the holiday's traditions, what it meant and why it was so important to American culture. But that was then. And this is now.
Today our Thanksgiving table is quite different from the one where I gathered with my parents, my younger brother, and some family friends almost two dozen years ago. Just as that initial attempt, our annual holiday meal is still a hodgepodge of traditional American fare combined with Cuban flavors and favorites.
At first, we started with American dishes sitting happily next to Cuban dishes, but soon it became a family tradition to combine styles and flavors, ingredients and spices, preparations and cooking methods to create something wholly new.
My immigrant parents acclimated to the U.S. quickly, and our Thanksgiving celebration reflected that change in our lives. Soon the table mirrored more than our roots — it was the story of where we came from and the country we chose to call home.
Soon the table mirrored more than our roots — it was the story of where we came from and the country we chose to call home.
For the past few years, the duty of cooking Thanksgiving dinner has happily fallen on me. Each year, I try to incorporate a new Cuban-American combo into our family meal. There's always the turkey (carefully prepared by my abuela using sour orange juice and oodles of garlic), the black beans and white rice dish that first appeared on our table all those years ago, cumin-spiced mashed potatoes, fried sweet plantains, and pumpkin pie because we now know that it wouldn't be Thanksgiving without it.
A New Addition to the Table
After years of experimenting with different recipes, I have finally managed to add something truly special to our feast. The tired and stale stuffing recipe we've been using for years was starting to bore our guests, and had recently become the least sought-after for leftovers. I knew that this dish needed a do-over in the same spirit as many of our other Thanksgiving dishes.
Inspired by my childhood love of papas rellenas (meat-stuffed potato balls), this Cuban meaty potato stuffing does just that. The sausage that usually goes into a traditional stuffing is replaced by a delicious seasoned meat mixture, known as picadillo, and chunky seasoned potatoes are added instead of bread.
As with any good Cuban recipe, it all begins with sofrito. Long ago, I learned how to make the perfect Cuban sofrito from my grandmother: It starts with sweating a large white onion before adding the bell peppers and finally the garlic to complete this trinity. She always chose green bell peppers because they are more economical, but these days I let whatever I am cooking dictate the ones I choose. For Thanksgiving, a yellow and orange bell pepper do the trick.
When using ground beef, I like to add an equal amount of roughly chopped mushrooms. The mushrooms add flavor while keeping the dish on the lighter side. It's important to roughly chop them, as this also helps to maintain a similar texture to the beef.
The rest of the dish comes together easily. Once the sofrito is done and the beautiful picadillo is simmering, the seasoned potatoes are just coming out of the oven. The combination makes for a Cuban-American Thanksgiving stuffing that transforms the table into a reflection of my family's story.
Cuban Meaty Potato Stuffing
Serves 10 to 12
- For the potatoes:
new potatoes, quartered
Freshly ground black pepper
- For the sofrito and beef:
large white onion, chopped
large bell peppers, seeded and chopped
lean ground beef
baby bella or cremini mushrooms, stemmed and coarsely chopped
(8-ounce) can tomato sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
Coarsely chopped fresh parsley leaves, for garnish (optional)
Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 350°F. Place the potatoes, oil, oregano, and cumin in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper and toss to combine. Transfer to a rimmed baking sheet and spread into an even layer. Roast until the potatoes are golden-brown, about 30 minutes. While the potatoes are cooking, make the sofrito.
Heat the oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and sauté until slightly translucent, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the bell peppers and cook until they begin to soften, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute.
Once the sofrito is ready, add the beef and cook, breaking the meat up into small pieces, until cooked through. Add the mushrooms and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato sauce, tomato paste, bay leaves, and smoked paprika. Season with salt and pepper and stir to combine. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the flavors meld, 20 to 30 minutes. Remove the bay leaves.
When the potatoes are ready, remove them from the oven and set aside to cool while the beef simmers. When the beef is ready, transfer the mixture to a large bowl, add the potatoes, and stir to combine. Transfer to a serving dish, top with the parsley if using, and serve.
Make ahead: The beef mixture can be made and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator up to 2 days ahead. Reheat before adding the roasted potatoes.
Storage: Store leftovers in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Reheat at 350°F for 10 minutes.