by Alicia Lieu
Recipe at the end of this post.
My love affair with empanadas started a few years ago. I can remember the day we first met. I was at the Colombian bakery by my apartment (well one of the many Colombian bakeries) buying a Pan de bono (Colombian cheese bread) when the gleam of a sparkling, corn wrapped, beef and potato filled empanada fresh from the fryer, caught my eye. I wasn’t sure that it was actually an empanada, but I went for it and asked the lady behind the counter for one anyways. She asked me, “Beef or cheese?” “Ooh, beef,” I answered. And I haven’t looked back since.
The crispy corn wrapper filled with tender beef and potatoes is enough to keep a city girl happy. And once I discovered Mama’s Empanadas, my life was forever changed. Mama’s is there for me like most mamas. Always there to feed me. With over 50 varieties (savory and sweet) at that. With empanada meal deals, sides like Yucca Fries, and a carne asada (grilled steak) meal for $7.75, I know I will never go hungry in Jackson Heights. And they have a smokin’ hot hot sauce made with jalapenos that I adore. On Fridays and Saturdays they are open 24 hours. So, on the weekends, Mama’s always there for you! I stopped into Mama’s and had a field day ordering. I feel like I ordered a ton of food and the total was going to come out be twenty dollars. I was shocked when the lady gave me my total. $8.71. I ordered five empanadas. Crazy, in a great way. Fresh, hot, and delicious. One beef, one beans and rice, one seafood, one Cuban, and one guava and cheese empanada. I could barely walk home after that.
The recipe I have comes from Peter James Blondi. I remember for one of our potlucks at work, Peter brought in at least five dozen homemade empanadas accompanied by this aji that I could not stop eating. We are lucky enough to have his recipe that he created.
Empanadas According to Peter James Blondi
Empanadas have been a staple at my family’s Thanksgiving table for nearly ten years. It all started during my freshman year at Fairfield University in Connecticut when my good friend who was originally from Puerto Rico spent the holiday weekend with my family in Long Island. My mother, always striving to make everyone feel at home, suggested having her prepare something her family would’ve eaten on the day. Hers were crisply fried, with a dark, spicy minced beef and tomato sauce filling. I think maybe a few green Goya Manzanilla olives were thrown in for an acidic twang. It was most certainly a hit at the Thanksgiving table that year.
For several subsequent Thanksgivings, I tried unsuccessfully to replicate those empanadas. Most years they just ended up bad. One year the meat was too dry, the other had too much tomato sauce and worst of all once I slipped with the olives and their sharp, salty flavor overpowered the whole dish.
Several years ago, I saw a BBC program which featured the food of Argentina. Like many South American countries, empanadas are a prominent dish and a significant part of Argentine culture. When I watched the program, I was taken by how similarly the Argentine version, which is baked rather than fried, resembled the meat pies, which I fondly enjoyed as a child in Australia. I’ve subsequently adapted the recipe from the BBC program and paired it with the shortcrust pastry I’ve used for years with my meat pies. For garnish, I always use a condiment from Colombia called aji. While not geographically accurate, the sweetness of the lime juice and sugar, the heat of chili and the crunch of the spring onions helps to lighten the dense filling of the empanadas.
For the shortcrust pasty:
4 cups plain flour
2 sticks + 1 ½ tablespoons very cold butter, finely chopped
In a food processor, blend together the flour and butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. If you’re using unsalted butter, add in a pinch of salt.
Whisk the eggs and two tablespoons of cold water until combined. With the food processor running, slowly add in the egg mixture until the dough starts to come together.
On a floured surface, gently form the dough into a ball. Refrigerate for at least two hours.
For the empanada filling:
3 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp butter
2 large yellow onions, chopped
1 ¾ pounds minced beef (I generally use an 80%/20% mixture)
4 spring onions, chopped
1 ¼ cup of plain tomato sauce
1 cup pitted green olives (castelvetrano olives are a mild Sicilian variety), rinsed and chopped
2 potatoes, boiled and diced
2 hardboiled eggs, diced
1 tablespoons smoked Spanish paprika
2 teaspoons cumin
salt and pepper
2 eggs, beaten
Heat the oil and butter in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. The butter aides in the assembly process, once the filling has cooled as it helps the mixture stay together when spooning it into the dough. Add all the onions and sauté for eight to ten minutes until softened. As the onion cooks, add the salt and pepper to draw out the moisture from the onions. Add in the minced beef and cook until lightly browned, but not fully cooked, about five to seven minutes. Since the empanadas will be baked, it’s important not to dry out the meat.
Add in the tomato sauce and cook for a further two minutes. Add in your olives, potatoes, and hardboiled eggs. In a small bowl, add the paprika and cumin and a few drops of water. Stir until it forms a paste, and then add it to the pan. This helps to prevent the spices from burning on top of the pan, and also helps to enhance the red color of the paprika in the dish.
Adjust the seasoning if needed, and let cool.
Preheat your oven to 390?F (200?C), and line a baking tray with parchment paper. Remove your dough from the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature. Roll the dough until it’s about a quarter of an inch thick (six mm). Using a bowl of your desired size as a template, trace circles with a knife.
When the mixture is cool, fill the circle with a rounded teaspoonful of the filling and crimp the edges with a fork. Place the empanadas on the baking tray, brush with the beaten egg and bake for eighteen to twenty minutes until the dough is golden brown.
For the aji:
1 red habanero chili, finely diced (take care to use gloves as this will burn your hands and eyes)
20g fresh coriander (cilantro), chopped
10g fresh parsley, chopped
4 spring onions, copped
90g tomatoes, diced
120ml white vinegar
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp lime juice
2 tbsp olive oil
Place the chili, coriander, parsley, spring onions and tomatoes in a bowl. And in the vinegar, water, salt sugar, lime juice and olive oil. Stir until well combined, adjust the seasonings if necessary and refrigerate until ready to serve.