Vegan picadillo is a plant based version of this traditional Cuban recipe made with tempeh, lentils and potatoes. It’s packed with big flavors from Spanish olives, capers, raisins and spices in a hearty tomato base. Perfect served over rice, cauliflower rice, a bed of greens or zoodles. Instant Pot and stove-top options below.
My one experience with true Cuban food was a work trip to Miami over 10 years ago and a random roadside stop at this literal hole in the wall joint where no one spoke English and the entire menu was in Spanish.
I have no memory of what my coworkers or I ate but I remember my basic Spanish major skills getting me by enough to enjoy whatever it was.
Visiting Cuba sometime soon before the modern world ruins it is high on my travel list but until then, I’ll suffice with homemade Cuban food like this vegan version of picadillo.
Traditional picadillo is made with beef and while it’s delicious like that, it’s also a recipe that’s easily adaptable for a plant based diet by using things like lentils and tempeh, my protein of choice for this vegan twist on the recipe.
Along with the lentils and tempeh, this dish is filled with ingredients like potatoes, red Bell peppers, raisins, capers and Spanish olives (the green ones stuffed with pimientos). It cooks in a tomato based sauce with spices of cumin, smoked paprika and cinnamon.
It’s sort of an odd combination from a flavor standpoint. I’m sure reading that description above you’re sitting there like “hm, what the heck does that taste like?!”
But if you love salty, briny flavors and can open your mind to those along with a hint of sweetness from the raisins and cinnamon, it’s really a lovely pairing. It’s almost as if Moroccan and Cuban/Spanish cuisine were to collide in a hearty, cozy and flavor-explosive way.
Recipe To Try: Moroccan Lamb Lentil Stew
HOW TO MAKE VEGAN PICADILLO IN THE INSTANT POT
I chose to make the picadillo in my Instant Pot but I will also include a stove-top option below if you don’t have an Instant Pot or pressure cooker.
- Using the sauté mode on the Instant Pot, cook the onions and garlic in the olive oil until softened.
- Add the bay leaf, spices and tomato paste, stir to combine and cook for another minute.
- Add the chopped red Bell pepper to the pot and cook an additional 1-2 minutes.
- Dump all the remaining ingredients into the pot. Secure the lid, making sure the dial is set to “sealing”.
- Cook on manual mode for 12 minutes.
- Manually release the pressure, stir to combine, adjust seasonings and garnish with freshly chopped parsley.
HOW TO MAKE VEGAN PICADILLO ON THE STOVE TOP
Making this plant based picadillo on the stove-top is just as easy as using the Instant Pot. Use a Dutch oven or other large heavy bottomed pot and follow steps 1-4 above.
Once all ingredients are in the pot, stir and bring to a boil. When the mixture comes to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook with the cover on for 30-35 minutes until the lentils are softened and the potatoes are fork tender.
See the ideas below for what to serve with the tempeh and lentil picadillo.
PICADILLO MAKES A GREAT MEAL PREP RECIPE
One of the things I love most about this plant based Cuban picadillo recipe (besides the amazing flavor profile) is how well it’s suited to meal prepping.
I usually don’t meal prep entire recipes unless it’s a soup (like this Instant Pot Bean Soup or Lentil Vegetable Soup) or stew (like this Slow Cooker Lamb Stew or Turmeric Lentil Stew) and instead choose to prepare components to meals like roasted vegetables and potatoes or batch cook a grain to eat in a bunch of different ways.
This vegan picadillo recipe, however, is perfect when it comes to meal prepping an entire recipe for easy meals throughout the week.
The recipe makes about 4 generous servings (honestly, you can probably stretch it to 6 servings especially if serving it with something else) which can be dinner for two on two different nights of the week or, dinner one night and lunch for the next day or two.
HOW TO STORE PICADILLO
This recipe will store well in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. I like to use an air-tight glass container like this set for recipes like this. You can even store the leftovers in individual portion sized containers so taking it to work for lunch is even easier.
I prefer glass storage to plastic (and recently switched all my plastic containers out for glass) not only because of the toxicity issues of plastic (especially if re-heating in the microwave) but for staining purposes when it comes to recipes like this with a tomato base.
Unlike plastic, glass storage containers don’t stain from the color of the tomato sauce which the obsessive cleanliness part of me appreciates!
CAN I FREEZE THIS PICADILLO RECIPE?
Yes, this will store well in the freezer for about 2 months. Cool the picadillo recipe entirely and then transfer to an air-tight freezer proof container.
TEMPEH FREAKS ME OUT, WHAT DOES IT TASTE LIKE?
Tempeh is probably runner up to tofu on the plant based/vegan protein ladder but a lot of non-vegans are still pretty freaked out by it.
Listen up, you don’t have to be vegan to enjoy tempeh. Case in point…me! I still enjoy (quality sourced) animal protein but really enjoy cooking with tempeh from time to time as a great source of plant based protein.
Honestly, tempeh doesn’t taste like anything. It absorbs whatever flavors you put with it.
As with any soy product I buy, I always choose organic tempeh. The “original” variety from the brand I buy (Lightlife) has three simple ingredients: organic soybeans, organic brown rice and water.
I much prefer using a product like that than any faux-meat burger, “meat” crumble or what have you. I’m not a fan at all of those newer products like Beyond Beef or Impossible Burger – just take a look at their ingredient list and you’ll see what I mean.
So the tempeh in this recipe is barely even noticeable to be honest. It absorbs all the lovely flavors from the spices, tomato sauce, raisins, olives and capers and just adds some heartiness and healthy protein to the dish.
I’M STILL FREAKED OUT, CAN I JUST USE LENTILS INSTEAD OF TEMPEH?
Haha, ok fine be a wuss. Kidding.
Yes, you can use lentils exclusively in the picadillo if you prefer or just can’t find tempeh near you. If you decide to go this route, I suggest increasing the amount in the recipe to 1 cup of dried lentils and increasing the water to 16 ounces.
There will be slightly less protein in the recipe but lentils are still a great healthy plant based source of protein and fiber.
If you’re looking for a lighter meat option for this recipe, try this turkey picadillo.
WHAT SHOULD I SERVE WITH THE PICADILLO?
I chose to serve cauliflower rice underneath the vegan picadillo for even more plant based goodness in these pictures.
Other options include:
- any variety of rice
- fried plantains or a plantain mash like mofongo (omit bacon for vegetarian version)
- spiralized vegetables like zoodles
- a bed of salad greens or simply sautéed spinach
- tortillas to use the picadillo as a taco filling
While Cuban in origin, picadillo fondly reminds me of my time spent studying abroad in Spain. The Spanish olives, capers, raisins and cinnamon (I was in Málaga very close to Morocco where the cuisine tended to interweave with traditional Spanish recipes) were ingredients often found on restaurant menus.
For that reason, it’s a dish that I really enjoyed making and eating and putting a plant based vegan spin on. I hope you give it a try and love it as well!
More hearty plant-based recipes to try:
- 1/2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 large yellow onion, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 1/2 teaspoons cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 medium red bell pepper, chopped
- 1/2 cup brown (or green) lentils, soaked for 2 or more hours, drained & rinsed (*see note)
- 8 ounces tempeh, finely chopped
- 2 small (or 1 medium/large) white potato, peeled and chopped
- 1/2 cup raisins
- 3/4 cup roughly chopped Spanish olives
- 1 tablespoon capers + 1 tablespoon brine liquid
- 15 ounce can tomato sauce
- 12 ounces water
- salt and pepper to taste
- freshly chopped parsley for garnish
- Place olive oil in the Instant Pot on sauté mode. (**see note)
- Once hot, add onions and garlic and cook for about 3 minutes until slightly softened.
- Add bay leaf, spices, tomato paste and stir until combined. Cook 1 minute.
- Add red pepper, cook another 1-2 minutes.
- Turn sauté mode off and add all remaining ingredients to the pot. Stir to combine.
- Place the lid on the Instant Pot, set to sealing position and cook on manual for 12 minutes.
- Manually release pressure once done cooking. Stir, adjust seasonings (salt & pepper) as needed, garnish with parsley and serve.
*Soaking the lentils is optional but preferable especially if you tend to have digestive issues with lentils or beans. The soaking process greatly helps with this. Make sure to drain and rinse them well after soaking before using in the recipe.
**See post above for stove-top cooking option.
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Amount Per Serving: Calories: 359 Total Fat: 13g Saturated Fat: 3g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 9g Cholesterol: 0mg Sodium: 946mg Carbohydrates: 53g Net Carbohydrates: 0g Fiber: 7g Sugar: 19g Sugar Alcohols: 0g Protein: 17g