Making the Abuela Special: Cuban bistec de palomilla (thin pan seared steak with onions)

For a guy who writes a lot about Cuban cuisine, I did not grow up loving it. I’m a first generation Cuban American but I grew up loving spaghetti and my mom’s meatloaf a lot more than her Cuban picadillo (a ground beef dish that’s often mixed with potatoes or other vegetables), fricase de pollo (braised chicken in a light tomato sauce with potatoes), and carne con papa (stewed cubed cuts of beef with potatoes); all served with the ubiquitous white rice straight out of the Hitachi rice cooker.

My palate has expanded in adulthood but I still ignore a lot of the Cuban dishes I grew up with on restaurants menus and family gatherings.

There was always one dish from my childhood, though, that still gets me excited: my abuela’s bistec de palomilla smothered in sweet sautéed onions. She’d also spoil me by serving it with French fries instead of rice.

A good palomilla is thin, tender, and delivers a perfect salty and sweet bite from the onions with a hint of lime. My abuela’s was perfection and no restaurant has ever been able to duplicate her magic. I’ve reached a point where I refuse to order it in restaurants. It’s homemade or nothing.

It’s a simple recipe that requires some technique to get right. The steak only cooks for 2 or 3 minutes while still developing the right amount of caramelization without burning it or overcooking it.

I tried for years and, even though she had told me how to make it many times, I’d never been able to replicate it until one glorious evening it all came together.

First, choose the right steak. Grocery stores in Miami always have thin steaks labeled “palomilla” but there’s only one cut of beef you want. Be sure to buy only thin sliced sirloin steaks; not top round steaks. Top round is tougher and doesn’t deliver on flavor. Don’t dishonor your ancestors by being cheap.

Also, despite being cut thinner than most steaks, I usually still have to pound the steak out a little with a mallet. You want these thin, if you haven’t gathered the theme here yet.

Once you have the steak, here’s all you need:

  • 1 yellow onion (sweet, vidalia, or white onions will do)
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Vegetable oil (or another neutral high smoke point oil like grape seed oil)
  • Fresh lime (optional, but recommended)

The rest is all in the technique.

1) Heat up a large sauté pan with about a tablespoon or two of of oil–depending on the size of your onion–on medium heat.

2) Thinly slice your onion into strips and start sautéing them in the pan. Season with a pinch salt. You’re going to keep cooking them until translucent and take on some color.

3) As the onions are cooking, pat your steak dry with paper towels. This is critical. Your steak will boil instead of sear if you skip this step. Season generously on both sides with salt.

4) Take out the onions and set them aside once they’ve taken on color. They should look something like this:

5) Crank up the heat to a medium high or high depending on how hot your stove gets. My abuela always said the secret was high heat so trust in her and don’t be afraid.

Pat the steak down again with towels and make sure it’s dry while the pan heats up.

6) Carefully place the steak in the pan as soon as the oil is smoking. Hold it down with your spatula to ensure the steak has full contact with the pan’s surface. It’s going to cook on this side for no more than 2 minutes or until it easily lifts from the pan. You should see some pleasing caramelization as well as some browning along the edges like this:

7) Flip the steak and cook for another minute. Do not worry about developing color on this side. There are going to be some juices on that uncooked side so press it down firmly again to make sure it doesn’t start boiling.

Take it out immediately after that minute and put it on a plate. Crack some fresh pepper on it to taste (my abuela never used pepper on it but I like it) and squeeze a wedge of lime on the steak while it’s piping hot. The lime is optional but it gives it that extra Cuban flavor lift.

It should look like this before you slather those onions all over it:

And after you smother it in onions:

Serve with French fries or white rice, if you must.

I didn’t figure out this all out until maybe 3 or 4 years ago. All she would say when I’d ask her was to make sure the pan was hot and that the steaks were thin and soft. It’s hard to be mad at the lack of specifics when you know it amounts to abuela fairy dust.

I called her as soon as I cooked a steak I thought was worthy. She just laughed and was so proud I’d finally done it. We compared notes about making sure the steak was dry and the right temp for the pan but it was really about making her smile. She always smiled and laughed whenever I’d tell her I’d made the “Abuela Special.” I always intended to make it for her at home, with her at my side critiquing every turn of the pan, but I never got the chance. Only fools think there’s always more time.

Making the Abuela Special means I get to hear her laugh again and taste the memories but the humble, yet tasty, bistec de palomilla is a comforting meal I hope you give a try.

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