Cuban Potato Balls (Papas Rellenas)
If there is one thing any respectable Southern Californian will tell you to do while in SoCal, it is to visit Porto’s Bakery. With three locations to choose from—Glendale, Burbank, and Downey—Porto’s is a family owned Cuban bakery that has been around since 1960. It not only specializes in a vast array of baked goods, decorated cakes, coffees and smoothies, but it also serves unique café items like sandwiches, soups and salads, all with a Cuban flare. Out of the many items they offer at Porto’s, one novelty stands out in particular. There is one item that any and all avid Porto’s fans will tell you is their favorite thing to eat. A must-try when you pay a visit to this jam-packed, always busy—line out the door—bakery. What is this treat that has everyone mystified and buying them by the dozen? Boxes and boxes filled to the brim with this Cuban delight? Ready to be eaten? Ready to be devoured? It’s Cuban potato balls. “Wait what? What’s that you just mentioned?” Yes. Cuban Potato Balls. Or Papas Rellenas if you feel like being authentic. Seasoned beef stuffed inside a ball of mashed potatoes. Breaded and fried until golden brown and crispy all around. It is so popular that the bakery even offers a sandwich filled with these treats.
Having been born and raised in Southern California, Porto’s was a staple in my household. Growing up, every birthday party or big event, like Christmas and Thanksgiving, my mom would go over to Porto’s and grab us a bunch of stuff. My sisters’ and I would always get a birthday cake from there. Of course until I got older, and started making our cakes myself. But as long as I can remember Porto’s was always there. It was part of my family. I grew up with it being a crucial component of my childhood. Fond memories of my mom and sisters and I having a good time playing games, watching movies, listening to music, eating potato balls. It became an expectation amongst the four of us. An expectation to always have Porto’s goodies present at our events. The events that meant so much to us. Some things gone unsaid, like papas rellenas. I continued to grow up and enjoy these treats all throughout my adolescence. Eventually getting a job at Porto’s my junior year of high school. Not because I loved these treats so much, I just had to work there, but because the culinary field was something I wanted to experience. I had gone there on a field trip, actually, for my culinary arts class and ended up getting a job before I walked out.
For two years I went to work, eager to learn as much as I could. Having started off with no experience whatsoever—they did not trust me to do much—so at the beginning for 8-10 hours I’d literally just put fruit on top of tarts. That’s all. I was a fruit placer. Yes, I just made up that title, but it’s one hundred percent accurate. That was the grand excitement of my day.Placing fruit on fruit tarts. My big culinary dream. Of course I eventually proved myself and after a few months, I was transferred to a different department and began learning how to decorate cakes. Which is where all my experience came from. The one thing that everyone always asked me was “Do you know how they make the potato balls?” Without fail. Without hesitation. “Do you know the recipe?” It was an instant reaction to my, “I work at Porto’s Bakery.” I always disappointed them when I said no. When I declared to them I did not know the secret. I could see their smiles fade fast. The truth was that I never was around or anywhere near that area. I decorated cakes, and I enjoyed it a lot more than frying potato balls all day that’s for sure.
I left there without ever knowing the recipe or even knowing the process of how these Cuban snacks are made. Even now when people find out I worked there, I still encounter the same exact questions. My sisters both love these treats so much that they’ve insisted I make them. Over the years I said I would, but never really did. As a surprise to them, I eventually came up with a recipe—a collaboration of research, various recipes, and Cuban knowledge—put together to create my own recipe. After taking a little from there, and a bit from here, I eventually found out that these, in fact, are very easy to make. The ingredients are simple and the process is not overwhelming at all. Sure some work can get tedious, like shaping the potato balls themselves or breading them, but granted I’m not making thousands of these on a daily basis like the bakery is. So it’s easy. With that said, if you’ve ever visited Porto’s before, then you know what I’m talking about. You’ll be delighted to see and taste the resemblance to the original. And if you’re not in California and have never tried these, or have never even seen or heard of these before, then you’re in for a nice surprise.
Shall we begin?
Here’s the starring cast:
We start off with the main ingredient in this dish.
They’re the star attraction. The big deal.
The whole enchilada.
You’ll need about 4 giant, monster potatoes.
Or just 6 medium.
Or 8 small ones.
Depending on what you have available to you.
Give them a good peel.
Once peeled, cut the potatoes into a medium dice.
Start by slicing each potato in half, lengthwise.
You want them all relatively the same size, that way the potatoes cook evenly.
Dump the diced potatoes into a large pot.
You might notice that after you cut potatoes, they’re very starchy. And if you fill the pot with water, it’ll become white and milky.
Well, we do not want our potatoes to boil in white, milky, starchy water.
So give them a quick rinse with cold water, in the pot, and then just dump out the water.
Refill the pot with cold water.
Place a lid on it, because a watched pot never boils.
Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Once the water comes to a boil, remove the lid and allow to cook until the potatoes are fork tender.
What is fork tender you might ask? You stick a fork in the potato and if it goes in smoothly, then they’re done. That easy.
In the meantime, let’s get started on the filling.
Heat a large—heavy duty—pot over medium-high heat.
Drizzle in a bit of vegetable oil.
Or any other light colored oil, that won’t smoke up on you.
When the oil and pot are hot, throw in the ground sirloin. I’m using a 90/10 ground sirloin.
That’s 90 percent beef and 10 percent fat ratio, just in case you did not catch that.
You want a little bit of fat in the meat, so it renders and creates even more flavor.
Anyhow, where was I?
Oh yea, throw in the meat.
Using a wooden spoon, begin to breakdown the beef and allow it to brown.
Stir continuously to evenly brown and cook the meat.
As the beef cooks and continues to brown, cut the veggies.
We start with an onion.
Peel the onion and cut it into large chunks.
So here’s the deal. This filling is best when the ingredients are finely, finely—did I mention finely?—chopped.
Now I do not know about you, but I’m not about to finely mince every ingredient by hand. I mean do not get me wrong, I like chopping. It’s a lot of fun, sure. But I do not like mincing things finely. Especially when there’s a lot to be cut.
My solution? The food processor.
Yep. Pulsing the onion in the food processor for a few will give you the right size. Plus it makes your job even easier.
Add the chopped onion to the pot of browned beef.
Give it a toss and allow the onions to brown as well.
Grab two cloves.
I use a handheld grater to grate the garlic into the pot. Again, it’s all about making things easier for us.
Add it to the pot and give it a toss.
Next up, green bell peppers.
You’ll need two of them.
So grab two.
If you have an abnormal, giant green pepper, then just use one.
We’re going to do the same thing as we did with the onion.
Remove the stem and seeds and cut it into large chunks.
Cutting it into chunks helps the food processor mince the peppers.
One thing about using the food processor to cut the peppers, is that a lot of the moisture comes out. You’ll notice liquid in the bowl, and you do not want to add any liquid to the hot pot because it wont brown anymore, it’ll just steam.
So I like to drain out the liquid—using a small sieve—before adding it to the pot.
Once drained, add it to the pot.
Give it all a good toss.
You’ll also need two red bell peppers.
Or one abnormally large red bell pepper.
Do the same with the red peppers as you did with the green.
Drain these as well, before adding it to the pot.
Throw into the pot and give it another toss.
Let’s season this filling.
Add to the beef and veggie mixture (from back to front):
Give it a stir.
And then add the juice of one lime.
Give it one final stir and cook for about 5 minutes longer.
Remove the pot from the heat.
And that’s the filling.
Allow it to cool completely.
In the meantime, the potatoes should be done by now.
Transfer the drained potatoes to a bowl and begin to mash.
Just mash away.
Be a mash master.
I do not even know what that means.
The only ingredients you’ll be adding to this, is a splash of milk and a dash of salt.
Do not add butter.
Do not add oil.
You want the potatoes to be semi-stiff. Not too runny or else you wont be able to form the potato into balls.
So a splash of hot milk and salt.
Mix the milk and salt into the mashed potatoes.
A fan complained that Piggy Wiggy has not made an appearance on the blog in a long time.
So, heeeeeeeeeeeeee’s back.
The potatoes should have this texture and consistency:
Stiff and not runny at all.
You want to be able to lift the potatoes and not have it fall from the spoon.
Allow the potatoes to cool as well.
Transfer the filling to a bowl, and let both the filling and mashed potatoes cool down before handling.
It’s best to let it cool down slightly, and then place it in the fridge for a half an hour. This will ensure that they both are very cold. It’ll make it easier to handle. Trust me.
Once the filling and potato mixture has cooled and are chilled, you are ready to start forming.
As with every other recipe, the thing that is going to make your life easier, is a medium ice cream scooper.
It’s a life saver.
This will ensure that all your potato balls are the exact same size. That way, you’re not guessing whether or not you measured out the correct amount of potato.
So believe me, a medium ice cream scoop is your best friend. It’s a multi-purpose tool.
These are the steps on how to form the potato balls:
Drop a scoop of the potato into the palm of your hand.
Flatten it out like a pancake, with an indentation in the middle, for the filling.
Then scoop about two teaspoons of filling in the center. Do not overfill as it will be difficult to wrap the potato around it.
Fold over the potato, around the filling.
Roll and shape into a ball.
Simple right? Super easy isn’t it? Did you get it?
No? Well, here are the picture steps for you.
It’s that easy.
So repeat these steps until all the filling and potato mixture is used up.
You can definitely make these smaller for bite-sized appetizers for parties.
Depending on the size, you’ll get about 25 potato balls.
The size I have here, gave me 25. Which is about a golf-ball size.
Repeat the process and place the potato balls onto a parchment paper lined baking sheet.
Once the potato balls are all formed, it’s time to coat them.
We start with the wet coating.
Crack about 2 eggs into a shallow dish.
You might need another egg later on. But to start off with 2 should be enough.
Throw in a splash of water and give it a whisk.
That’s the wet coating.
Now for the dry part. In another shallow dish add the bread crumbs. Just plain, dry bread crumbs. Not the season variety.
Add the flour, and give it a mix with your hand or fork or whisk or whatever you have close by.
Okay we’re now ready to drunk and dredge and coat the potato balls.
Drop one of the papas rellenas into the egg mixture.
Roll the potato around in the egg to fully coat.
Drop into the dry coating.
We’re going to double dredge the potatoes to make the crust crispier. Put back into the egg.
Turn around in the egg and then drop back into the dry mixture for the final coat.
Here’s the finished potato ball. Fully coated.
Continue—in this manner—with the rest of the potato balls.
Place the breaded potato balls back onto the parchment-lined baking sheet.
Now that they are all coated, it’s time to chill them once again.
It’s best if you chill them overnight. But I know how hard all that waiting can be, so allow them to chill in the fridge for at least 3 hours.
This will allow them to firm up and not fall apart while they fry.
Place them in the fridge and forget about them for a while.
Or at this point you can freeze them and fry a few (or all) whenever your heart desires.
Once chilled, it’s frying time.
You could use a deep fryer, sure. If you have one.
I do not.
So I’m just using a pot.
Fill it up with oil.
Heat it over medium-high heat.
I’m using vegetable oil. You want something with a high smoke point so that it wont burn or smoke up on you.
When it comes to frying, and heating up oil, it’s hard to determine when the oil is ready. I’m often asked “How do you know when to start frying?”
Well, I like to do the “Sara Moulton test.”
What is the Sara Moulton test you ask?
Well thank you for asking.
The Sara Moulton test is when you put in a wood stick into the oil. Preferably the end of a wooden spoon. Do not go out and grab any ol’ wooden stick.
If the oil bubbles rapidly around the wooden handle, then it means the oil is ready.
It’s that simple. Easy test.
It’s called the Sara Moulton test because she taught me this trick. Well she did not personally teach me. I’ve never met Sara Moulton. She indirectly taught me through her television show. So there. Now it’s called the Sara Moulton frying test. I’m sure I’m the only one who calls it this. Now you can call it this too.
Anyhow, I digress.
Carefully drop a potato ball into the oil. Depending on the size of your pot or deep fryer, add about four. Do not overcrowd the pot or else the temperature of your oil will drop and then your potatoes wont fry evenly.
Allow the potatoes to fry for about 3-5 minutes or until golden brown on the outside. Turning occasionally using a slotted spoon, to evenly brown.
When the potato balls are done—golden brown and crispy—drain off the excess oil and place them on a paper towel lined plate. This will soak up any remaining oil.
Place the fried potato balls on a cooling rack that is placed on top of a baking sheet. This will make warming up and re-heating a lot easier and keep them from getting soggy.
Now that all the potato balls are fried, they’re ready to be eaten.
Eat as many as you’d like.
I have to warn you, once you start you might not be able to stop.
These are the perfect appetizer for any gathering. It wouldn’t be a family celebration at my house, without them.
And you can easily make these vegetarian. Just sauté the veggies, and omit the beef.
You can also swap out the beef for another protein, like chicken or pork, if you’d prefer.
My mom suggests shrimp, so you can also do that too.
These can easily be made ahead with two options.
A) You can bread them all and freeze them. Then just fry the amount you want to eat at any given time.
B) You can also, fry them all. Let them cool, and pop them in the fridge. Just warm them in the oven when ready to serve or right before your party.
And that’s it. We’re done.
I’d like to take this moment—right here, right now—to disclose the fact that these are very very addicting. I practically ate the whole batch. By. Myself.
Okay, I’m sorta, kinda, maybe, exaggerating. But I did eat a lot of them.
Cuban Potato Balls (Papas Rellenas)
These can easily be made vegetarian by omitting the beef and adding more veggies. Or you can swap out the beef for chicken, pork or shrimp. They’re the perfect appetizer for any party or gathering, or just as a snack during the week.
Yield: About 25, golf-ball sized potato balls.
- 4 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
- 1 tablespoon warm milk
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 eggs
- 1 tablespoon water
- 1 cup dry bread crumbs
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 pound ground sirloin
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
- 2 small green bell peppers, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
- 2 small red bell peppers, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 tablespoon worchestire sauce
- 1 lime, juiced
- vegetable oil for frying
Boil the peeled and diced potatoes until they are fork tender. Drain. Mash potatoes with the salt and about 1 tablespoon of warm milk—do not add any butter or oil!—and let cool.
In the meantime, make the filling. Heat a large heavy duty pot over medium high heat. Drizzle in the tablespoon of vegetable oil and add the ground sirloin. Using a wooden spoon, break up the beef and allow to cook and brown. Once browned, add the finely chopped onion and garlic. Stir and cook until the onions are translucent. Add the finely chopped green and red bell peppers. Stir and continue to cook. Season the beef mixture with the worchestire sauce, paprika, oregano, salt, pepper, cumin and lime juice. Stir thoroughly and continue to cook for 5 minutes more. Remove from heat and transfer to a bowl. Allow to cool completely.
Using a medium ice cream scoop, measure out a ball onto the palm of your hand. Flatten out the ball into a flat circle with an indentation in the center.
Stuff the indentation with the spiced beef mixture.
Bring the sides together and smooth out to make a round ball, about the size of an overstuffed golf ball. Continue this process with the rest of the potato and beef mixtures, until all the balls are formed.
In a shallow dish, whisk together the eggs and tablespoon of water.
In another shallow dish, combine the bread crumbs and the flour.
Dip the ball into the beaten egg, and then roll in the flour mixture until lightly covered. Dip the ball in the egg, again, and roll in the bread crumbs to coat thoroughly. Continue this process until each potato ball is coated, placing them on parchment lined baking sheets.
It is very important to refrigerate the potato balls for 2 to 4 hours before proceeding to the next step. Or at this step, you can also freeze the balls and fry them later, when ready to eat.
Use a frying pan or medium pot to fry the potato balls. Fill with enough oil to cover the potato balls. Heat oil to the frying stage (about 375º F) and drop about four potato balls (be careful not to overcrowd the pot) into the hot oil. Let them cook for about 2-5 minutes or until golden brown. Turn the potato balls frequently to ensure even browning.
Transfer the fried potato balls to a plate lined with paper towels, to drain off the excess oil. Move the balls onto a rack positioned over a baking sheet. Serve right away, or allow to cool and store in the refrigerator. These can be fried ahead of time and reheated in the oven when ready to serve. Enjoy!