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Empanadas, a world of flavor in a little pie

  • 8/9/2009:D3: An empanada filled with meat, onions and spices.

    PC: The empanada is a turnover filled with meat, onions and spices.

The empanada is the little meat pie that could, a native of Spain that traveled the world, touching down in Latin America, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, Africa, South Asia and the British Isles.

Each culture put its spin on the idea, creating the humble Cornish pasty, the flaky French chausson, the highly spiced Indian samosa, the peppery Jamaican patty and the phyllo-wrapped Middle Eastern borek, not forgetting the gut-filling peripatetic knish. And that is only scratching the surface.

May I share a personal empanada reverie? I still dream about a Mexican version I once sampled on the plaza in Oaxaca. It was made to order by a local woman, who baked it on a clay comal set over burning coals. She had simmered chicken in a complex yellow mole sauce, and as she wrapped the filling in a dough of masa harina, she added a strip of hoja santa, a sweet leafy herb with a mysterious fragrance. Just the thought of it has my mouth watering.

But if there is an empanadas capital of the world, it is Argentina. The entire population is crazy for them. (For that matter, empanadas proliferate in Uruguay, too, and folks there also lay claim to consuming the most per capita.)

The Argentine empanada is diminutive, just two or three delicious bites. It is eaten throughout the day -- as an afternoon snack or an appetizer before a big Porte? feast of multiple-choice meats from the grill, with good red wine from Mendoza. Everyone expresses a preference, baked or fried. Both ways are good.

My friend Fernando Trocca, a well-known chef in Argentina, showed me how to make them when I was in Buenos Aires. He first made a few savory fillings: a flavorful stir-fry of hand-chopped beef with green olives; a creamy concoction of sweet corn called humitas; and mondongo, spicy stewed tripe, which we agreed was divine.

Juliana L?ez May, another chef, tutored me in the art of creating the empanada's exterior. First, we made a traditional dough with flour, lard, salt and boiling water. Once we rolled it to the proper thickness and cut it into little circles, a spoonful of filling was placed on each round. The technique to master was holding the open empanada with one hand and using the other hand to crimp the outer edge and form a decorative braid. Less dexterous people use a fork, she told me.

She made it look easy. With her deft hands, each little pie was swiftly pinched to perfection, and a large batch was ready for the oven in no time.

Beef Empanadas

Makes 36 empanadas


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