Spanish Rice with Seasoned Ground Beef and Peas

An updated version of Spanish Rice, popular in the 1970s, features ground beef, peppers and peas added to Mexican red rice for a hearty meal.

Bowls of Spanish rice with seasoned ground beef and peas.

There are specific childhood images firmly rooted in my memory, like my father waking us up in the middle of the night for midnight pancakes. The way my mother, who is now deaf but was profoundly hard of hearing when we were young, would waltz into our bedrooms with a, “Wake up sleepyhead,” before snapping open the curtains singing “You Are My Sunshine” slightly off-key but with no less passion.

The smell of coffee brewing and pans banging on Saturday mornings as mom or dad – sometimes both – were making breakfast loudly to coax us girls out of bed.

The yellow walls in our kitchen and the way the morning sun filtered into the room through the frilly lace curtains that mom had stayed up late one evening sewing, watching as the shadows they created danced across the table, floor and walls.

The cabinet to the left of the stove were 5- and 10-gallon canisters lived. Each canister filled with rice, pinto beans, flour, sugar – staples that would ensure we would never go hungry.

The vegetable garden my parents tended to in the backyard filled with squash in winter and tomato vines and corn stalk taller than us in the summer.

A sugarcane patch tucked into the corner of the garden that we’d sneak pieces off to chew on while playing outside.

There are so many more memories. Some that I’ve already shared on this blog and more that I will undoubtedly share in the future.

This dish is one of them. It was introduced to us by a close friend of the family. Lee worked with my dad, and his wife, Jan, became one of my mother’s dearest friends. They had a son around the same age as two of my sisters, and our families became quite close. So close that when my mom became pregnant for the fourth time with my sister Deb, my parents asked them to be her godparents. Many memories were forged over dinner invitations and birthday parties and picnics at the bay so the dads could fish, and the moms could visit while the kids burned off energy.

Spanish rice, as Jan called it, was her contribution to some of these functions. It quickly became one of my favorites. Bearing little resemblance to the Mexican red rice we grew up eating, we weren’t familiar with this rice version. Google tells me that the dish was popular in the 70s but didn’t site origin. I’m assuming Tex-Mex, but whatever its humble beginnings, it’s a one-pan meal that’s quick to make from fairly standard pantry items.

Because I wasn’t old enough to think to ask how to make this back then (I was all about baking at the time), as an adult, I have worked over the years to recreate it from memory, tweaking it here and there. It’s been more than 20 years since I’ve eaten Jan’s Spanish rice, so I don’t know how close I’ve replicated it, especially since I’ve added things I’m sure weren’t in her recipe, such as poblanos and peas. I’ve also adapted the cooking method to my style of cooking. Even with my tweaks, I’ve tried to capture the spirit of her dish.

What goes into Spanish rice?

There are three main ingredients in Spanish rice: rice, ground beef, and stewed tomatoes. I usually use California long grain rice though I have made it with medium grain and jasmine rice, both to good results. For the beef, I prefer extra lean and organic, but you go with any lean ground beef that your budget allows. I use regular stewed tomatoes if that’s what I have in my pantry, but honestly, I am more likely to have diced fire-roasted tomatoes, and I think that works quite well. It’s what I used for this version that I photographed for today’s recipe.

Besides these three main ingredients, my version includes some standard items I keep in my pantry. I’ve included substitution suggestions for a few of the ingredients with more common ones. Hopefully, I’ve got you covered:
  • White onion (white is used most in Mexican cooking, so it’s what I tend to have in my pantry but use whichever kind you have on hand)
  • Poblano pepper (can substitute with canned diced green chiles or double the amount of bell pepper)
  • Green bell pepper
  • Cumin
  • Mexican oregano (can substitute with regular oregano)
  • California chile powder (can substitute with regular chile powder)
  • Knorr beef bouillon (or beef soup base of choice; I prefer powdered because of the higher sodium as it’s also my primary source of salt in this dish)
  • Garlic
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Cilantro
  • Frozen peas

How to cook Spanish Rice

I start by sautéing my aromatic vegetables until softened, followed by the ground beef being careful not to break it up too much – for better texture, I prefer the meat remain in varying sizes with some pieces a little bigger than others. The beef simmers over medium-low heat until it’s released its juices. Once it does, the heat is cranked up to medium-high so that the liquid evaporates and the meat renders its fat, which, if you’re using extra lean, shouldn’t be much at all.

From here, my version of this recipe departs from most versions found on the internet: I remove the meat from the pan and cook the rice as if I were making Mexican red rice.

A little oil goes into the pan, and once shimmering, in goes the rice, stirring to make sure that every grain of rice has a thin coat of oil. The rice continues to toast until it goes from translucent to opaque to a golden brown color. Taking the time to toast the rice in oil does two things: it gives the rice a nutty flavor and coats each grain in a little oil, which helps create fluffy rice grains less likely to clump.

Next, the spices join the party, blooming until fragrant, a mere 30 seconds, while stirring continuously.

Before the spices have a chance to burn, the meat gets returned along with the tomatoes and their juice. Everything gets topped with water before adding the garlic and cilantro sprigs.

After 25 minutes of cooking and 10 minutes of steaming, the cilantro and garlic get fished out and discarded (or smash the garlic onto a fresh corn tortilla with a spoonful or two of rice and roll it up into a little taco, you know, as a cook’s bonus for slaving over the hot stove). The rice then gets fluffed with a fork. Because I hate overcooked peas, the peas get folded in at the very end, just before serving, preserving their bright green color.

How to serve Spanish Rice

  • Serve as a main dish with a simple side salad of crisp iceberg lettuce, juicy grape tomatoes, crunchy rounds of cucumber, and batons of spicy radish, all dressed in a creamy cilantro-lime dressing
  • Serve as a side dish to grilled or roasted meats
  • Stuff a burrito with it along with pickled red onions for contrast
  • Use it as a taco filling (especially for crunchy, hardshell tacos)
  • Transfer to a casserole dish, top with shredded Monterey Jack cheese, and bake until the cheese is bubbling and just turning golden

This recipe is easy to adapt to your family. The poblanos add tons of flavor with no heat, so they’re still kid-friendly. If your kids don’t like peas, leave them out. Or if your family prefers carrots, swap in small diced carrots that get added when the water does so the carrots have time to cook and soften as the rice cooks. Is beef too expensive for your wallet right now? Swap in ground turkey or chicken. Want to stretch this dish even farther? Add more rice. Just make sure that the water to rice ratio is always 2:1. If stretching it with rice, do taste the water after adding the bouillon and adjust to taste if it needs more salt to compensate for the added volume.

However you opt to eat this Spanish rice, I hope it becomes an easy win.

Until next time, friends … ¡Buen Provecho!
xo, ani

Spanish Rice with Ground Beef and Peas

Serves 6 as a main and 10 as a side


Neutral cooking oil, such as safflower or avocado oil
½ cup ¼-inch diced white onion (or yellow)
½ cup ¼-inch diced poblano, seeds and veins removed first (or canned diced green chiles, such as Ortega brand or double the green bell pepper)
½ cup ¼-inch diced green bell pepper, seeds and veins removed first
1 pound 90% - 93% lean ground beef sirloin (or lean ground beef)
Pinch sea salt
1 cup long-grain rice
½ teaspoon coarse ground black pepper
½ teaspoon California chile powder (or regular chile powder)
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon whole Mexican oregano, crushed between palms while adding to the skillet
1 (14 ½ ounce) can diced fire-roasted tomatoes (I like Hunt’s brand because they have no added sugars)
2 cups water
2 tablespoons Beef bouillon
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 fat cloves garlic, smashed, skins removed
8-10 sprigs of cilantro
1 cup frozen peas, rinsed under cold water and left to thaw at room temperature


Pour one tablespoon of cooking oil into a heated 12-inch skillet set over medium-low heat. Once the oil is shimmering, add onions. Cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Toss in the poblanos and bell peppers. Sauté vegetables for 3 minutes, or until softened, stirring occasionally. Add the beef, breaking up with a spatula, leaving a few pieces bigger than others for added texture. Continue to cook meat over medium-low heat until all the juices are released, stirring occasionally. Once the liquid is released, turn heat up to medium and cook until the liquid evaporates and the meat begins to brown. Remove meat to a bowl; set aside.

Add two tablespoon oil to the same skillet. When the oil is shimmering, add rice, toasting it until it becomes golden. Stir often to keep the rice from burning. Drop in the pepper, chile powder, cinnamon, cumin and Mexican oregano, stirring until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Return the meat to the pan, tossing to combine well. Add the tomatoes, water, bouillon and Worcestershire sauce, stirring until incorporated. Simmer the rice for 5 minutes, then taste the broth and adjust seasoning. Add the garlic and cilantro sprigs, cover, lower the heat to medium-low and cook for 15 minutes. Remove from heat – do not lift lead – and let rest for 15 minutes to finish steaming.

When ready to serve, fish out and discard the cilantro and garlic. Add the thawed peas, fluffing the rice with a fork to incorporate the peas; let stand for 5 minutes. Serve as desired.