In my family we say “Happy Sangibing” rather than “Happy Thanksgiving.” If you say it out loud and listen closely, you realize “Sangibing” sounds a lot like “Thanksgiving” which it is—just in a heavily accented Cuban Spanish-to-English. It’s what assimilation sounds like. And I suppose I am what assimilation—or rather, adaptation—may look like, too.
As a Cuban by way of Panama and now New York City, my childhood Thanksgivings with my mother and older sister were always a mix of my Latin and American upbringing. In addition to jiggly canned cranberry sauce which was more ceremonial than edible and green bean casserole (an American dish I adore), we had congri (rice with black beans), mojo (roasted pork), and pulpeta.
Pulpeta is a fried Cuban meatloaf — but it’s also so much more than that. Rather than being baked and glazed like most meatloaves, it is fried on the stove top, then simmered in a sofrito to finish. Slice into the loaf and the cross-section of a hard boiled egg is revealed, a sort of culinary unboxing. Pulpeta is served around the holidays and in my family we ate it around Thanksgiving when we could cram an extra dish on the table. Since it is a dish traditionally served with mashed potatoes, it was a seamless fit at our table.
I recall pulpeta making appearances even when I lived abroad in Hawaii and Japan during the 1990s. The ingredients were still relatively accessible even when we lived on other islands, because as with most Cuban recipes, there is nothing extravagant or expensive about pulpeta: Cuban history is marred with a weak economy, political dictatorships, rationing and a mindset of scarcity. My own upbringing was marked by tightened finances executed by a single mother raising two girls. We had to make decisions such as forgoing the superficial nature of braces in favor of paying for healthcare. But constraint breeds creativity and pulpeta is a fine Cuban example of that. It uses simple ingredients with clever technique: ground pork, beef, breadcrumbs, eggs and sofrito, searing, simmering, resting.
"Outwardly, I can present very American like the ground beef and pork meatloaf blend, but my Cuban identity is hidden inside like the hardboiled egg."
This meatloaf, if I am allowed to get poetic about it, feels representative of myself and my Cuban identity: Outwardly, I can present very American like the ground beef and pork meatloaf blend, but my Cuban identity is hidden inside like the hardboiled egg. The hidden hardboiled egg of my Cuban identity was not so much intentionally shielded as sometimes passed over in favor of assimilation of our new adopted homeland. I’ve never been embarrassed about being Cuban nor tried to shield it—for many years, it just got pushed to the wayside. Learning perfect American English and the Pledge of Allegiance to gain citizenship—Charlie’s Golden Ticket—took precedence. And when you lived in as many places as I did growing up, you are forced to adapt and change on a dime. It was only once I got older that I really started to crave finding my Cuban roots again and “put it back on the table” in a very concerted and literal fashion.
Pulpeta, congri, patacones and more Latin dishes are present at our table not only as a reminder of our “Cubanity” but for the plain and simple fact that they taste delicious. Now that my family continues to grow with the addition of my two adorable nieces, it’s also an opportunity now for me to teach “the girls” about their Cuban heritage too. And to share a delicious slice with you.
Seared and Simmered, Not Baked
Rather than being baked in an oven like other meatloaves, pulpeta is cooked on the stovetop. It’s first dipped in a beaten egg wash, rolled twice in breadcrumbs, and then seared in olive oil to create a crunchy crust. The searing process caramelizes the natural sugars in the meat which creates a flavorful brown crust, while the simmering and sautéing in the sauce helps to cook the meat all the way through.
What’s in the Sauce
Pulpeta is cooked in a tomato sauce, also known as a sofrito in Latin American cooking. Sofrito is a foundational sauce—it’s a blend of herbs, vegetables, and spices used to season many dishes like stews, beans, rice, meat, and more. Cuban sofrito is a red sofrito (there are green sofritos too) and generally uses tomatoes, red bell peppers, tomatoes, oregano, white wine, onions, and garlic. The sofrito is also reserved for drizzling on individual slices of pulpeta when it’s ready to eat.
Rest the Pulpeta Before Slicing
When you’re done cooking, allow the pulpeta to rest for 5 to 10 minutes before slicing with a sharp knife. This gives the juices time to redistribute and settle. If you slice into the loaf too soon, the juices will seep out, leaving you with a drier meatloaf.
How to Store and Freeze Pulpeta
Pulpeta will keep in the fridge for two to three days wrapped in aluminum foil. To freeze, slice it up and wrap each slice individually before freezing. Thaw the slices in the fridge overnight and then reheat them either in the microwave for 1 minute on high or in a skillet over medium heat with a drizzle of oil until warmed through, 4 to 5 minutes.
Marisel Salazar’s Pulpeta
- 1 pound 80/20 ground beef
- 1 pound ground pork
- 2 cups seasoned breadcrumbs, divided
- 4 large eggs, beaten and divided
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon ground smoked paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon ground oregano
- 3 large hardboiled eggs, peeled
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 red bell pepper, destemmed, seeded, and chopped
- 1 yellow onion, finely chopped
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1 (15 ounce) can tomato sauce
- 16 manzanilla olives, diced
Prep parchment paper or foil:
Set aside a piece of parchment paper or foil for wrapping and refrigerating the meatloaf later. It should be 15 inches wide and 12 inches long.
Season the ground beef and pork:
In a large bowl using your hands or wooden spoon, combine the ground beef and pork. Add 1 cup of breadcrumbs, half the beaten eggs, salt, pepper, paprika, oregano and knead together until thoroughly combined.
Shape the meatloaf:
On the piece of parchment or foil, shape the spiced meat into a loaf about 8 inches long by 4 inches wide and 2 inches tall.
Place the hardboiled eggs in the meatloaf:
Create a shallow lengthwise trough in the center of the loaf and place the cooked and peeled whole hard boiled eggs end to end in a line. Mold the meat over the eggs, totally covering them, and shape back into a loaf shape.
Wrap and refrigerate the meatloaf:
Gently wrap the meatloaf in the parchment paper or foil and refrigerate the loaf for at least an hour.
Set up a dredging station:
Place remaining breadcrumbs on a large plate. Place the remaining beaten eggs in a large glass rectangular pan.
Coat the meatloaf in egg and breadcrumbs:
Remove the loaf from the refrigerator and unwrap. Gently roll the entire meatloaf in the beaten eggs, let the excess egg drip off, then roll in the breadcrumbs. Repeat by dipping the meatloaf back in the egg, letting any excess drip off and then rolling again in breadcrumbs.
Brown the meatloaf:
Set a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat and heat 1/4 cup of olive oil. Brown the meatloaf on all sides until golden brown and a crust forms, 1-2 minutes per side, using tongs and a fish spatula to gently turn the meatloaf as needed. Remove from heat.
Make the braising sauce for the meatloaf:
Set a heavy bottomed Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil and then add the garlic, peppers, and onions. Cook until soft for 5 to 7 minutes. Remove thee vegetables from the pot into a small plate or bowl. Deglaze with wine by pouring the wine into the pot and scrape the bottom with a wooden spoon as the liquid comes to a boil and most of the particles are released from the bottom of the pot. Add tomato sauce, olives, and the vegetables back into the pan. Stir to combine.
Carefully place the seared meatloaf into the tomato mixture using tongs and a metal spatula, if needed and reduce heat to low.
Cook meatloaf in simmering sauce:
Cover and simmer over low heat for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Spoon the sauce over the meat every 10 minutes, as it cooks. The meatloaf is fully cooked when a meat thermometer inserted in the center reads an internal temperature of 160° F or 70°C.
Allow meatloaf to rest before slicing and serving:
Remove the meat to a serving platter using tongs and a metal spatula and allow to rest. Slice the meat into about 1 1/2-inch slices. Pour sauce over meat if desired. Serve.