Long before meatloaf became an all-American icon, the dishes from which it descended were eaten everywhere from ancient Rome to medieval Europe. Along the way, most every culture adopted some variation of a compact loaf of ground meat and spices.
In South Africa, there is bobotie, ground beef laced with curry powder and tamarind baked in a pie plate. In Denmark, there’s the bacon-wrapped forloren hare. And in Cuba, there is pulpeta, a unique stovetop loaf, stuffed and heavily sauced. It starts with a mixture of ground beef, pork and deli ham that is wrapped around hard-cooked eggs to form loaves. The loaves then are breaded and pan-fried before getting a finishing simmer in tomato sauce spiked with white wine. The result is anything but your typical meatloaf.
On an island known for culinary influences from Spanish, African and Caribbean cultures, it’s unclear how these elements came together. But Sandi Abbott, author of the recipe website Bean Train, has a theory. “Cubans don’t like bland food,” says Abbott, who left Cuba with her mother when she was 2, settling in Miami. “Almost everything comes in a sauce. We’re saucy people.”
And the stovetop approach makes sense. Few people had ovens in the rural, mountainous parts of central Cuba where Abbott’s mother grew up. But it’s the sauce that truly sets pulpeta apart.
It’s loaded with classic Cuban flavors, starting with a sofrito-like base of sautéed onion, bell pepper and garlic. Smoked paprika and cumin add depth, while oregano and bay leaf bring herbal notes. And we love how the acidity from white wine and crushed tomatoes balances the savoriness of the meat.
The cracker crust fries to a beautiful golden brown. Then, as the loaves simmer covered in a Dutch oven, a lovely exchange of flavors occurs. The brightly flavored sauce infuses the meat with moisture as well as balancing acidity, and the meat’s juices and some of the buttery crackers seep into the sauce. Meanwhile, the hard-cooked eggs hidden inside contribute a creaminess that complements the savory meat.
Not merely another meatloaf, indeed.