Argentina today! A new continent, and a new set of taste-buds to be titillated. Unfortunately, Brussels weather precludes an asado – the barbeques that many South American countries are so famous for. Hell, it’s so cloudy here that the weather almost precludes decent photos! So we turn to Argentina’s other culinary obsession: the empanada.
Empanadas are hand-sized, filled pies that are to Argentinians what pizza is to Italians and sandwiches are to the British. It’s the starchy base for all kinds of tasty ingredients. Inside the fried or baked golden pastry shell of an empanada lurks a seriously wide range of fillings, from beef, to ham and cheese, to creamy sweetcorn. You even get sweet ones filled with dulce di leche, the gooey caramel treat that so many Argentinian desserts centre around. Empanadas are eaten with gusto all over South America, and each country has its own unique way with them. At the risk of stepping on some Chilean, Uruguayan or Brazilian toes, however, it seems Argentina is the country they are most closely associated with. They were perhaps brought over from Galicia, in Spain, but probably popularised by gauchos – residents of the Argentinean pampas, or grasslands.
Empanadas are a really unifying dish. They are eaten by rich and poor alike, and served everywhere from highway service stations to upscale restaurants. They’re like pizza for another reason, apparently, as my Argentinian-American friend Carla explained in a super-informative email. Her explanation is worth quoting in full:
Although right now they are in the forefront of Argentine cuisine, and famous for being a typical dish of Argentina, it wasn’t always so. I would like to compare it to what pizza was for Italians. As I heard, pizzas were made because the lower classes didn’t really have much to eat besides bread, cheese, tomato and maybe some basil. Eventually they started making them in more flavors, and some types of pizzas are particular to a certain region. The dish is known worldwide, and you can find everything from a frozen pizza to a haute cuisine version of it.
Empanadas are the same. It started off as something simple that the lower classes made, mostly in the country side. And what did we have a lot of? Meat. So the original “standard” filling is meat. As with pizzas, you can now find them everywhere in Argentina: frozen at your local supermarket, to part of a 5-star restaurant menu. But as with pizzas…. the best are always those home-made by grandma. 🙂
So I had fun playing Argentinean grandma for a day, and cooked up my own batch of empanadas. I have some special readers who have been deserving a vegetarian dish for a while, so one type I plumped for was empanadas de humita – with a traditional rural filling of sweetcorn in a creamy, cheesy sauce. But I had to go for the classic meat filling too. My grandma, who passed away earlier this year, used to make the most amazing meat pies. She was a sorceress in the kitchen, and I wanted something that would remind me of her. The addition of olives, chilli and cumin lend it an Argentinean twist, but the other ingredients–minced beef, onions, a cube of beef stock, pastry – could have come straight from ouma’s kitchen. One can also add raisins or boiled egg. As Carla puts it:
Meat empanadas contain ground meat, onion, garlic, boiled eggs (diced), and spices. My dad was ok with this filling, as long as there were also green olives diced and mixed with it. My mother on the other hand, always preferred raisins mixed in. So, you can see the variations on taste within one family!
Because there’s so much room for experimentation in empanadas – both according to region, occasion and personal taste, I took the liberty to try making my own recipe this time, using only tips I picked up on my reading, plus an outside recipe for the dough (I substituted the suggested shortening for butter, of course!). The recipe below then, assumes you already have some empanada dough whipped up, and resting in the fridge for an hour or two. You can also buy ready-made empanada dough in a lot of Spanish-influenced countries.
Empanadas are most often deep fried, but in a bid to appease the cholesterol gods after a month of butter, oil and cream-rich dishes, I baked mine like the good citizens of Argentina’s northwest Salta province do.
What Did I Need?
For the meat filling (enough for at least a dozen large-ish pies)
- 400 grams of minced beef (you could also use pork)
- 800 grams of onions (according to my friend, you should use twice the amount of onions as meat)
- 150 grams of chopped olives and/or 150 grams of raisins and/or 2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
- a heaped teaspoon of sweet paprika PLUS a hot chilli pepper
- OR a heaped teaspoon of hot paprika
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 teaspoon of cumin
- 1 beef bouillon cube
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 2 tablespoons of olive oil
For the sweetcorn filling (enough for at least a dozen large-ish pies):
- a 250 grams can of sweetcorn or creamed corn (according to preference)
- 150 grams of grated cheese (I used cheddar, perhaps to the horror of Argentinians!)
- 1 tablespoon of butter
- half a teaspoon of nutmeg.
- two tablespoons of flour
- a cup of milk
- salt and pepper, to taste
How Did I Do It?
- To make the meat filling: heat the olive oil in a pot over medium-high heat, then fry the onions, garlic, chilli (if using) and mince in the oil until the onions are soft. Stir in the spices, bouillon cube and olives (and eggs or raisins if using). Simmer for half an hour, adding a little water if the mixture is sticking to the pot. Take off the heat and allow to cool.
- To make the sweetcorn filling: first, make a basic bechamel sauce (stir together the flour and melted butter until it forms a paste, then add the milk slowly, whisking and simmering until it forms a thick, smooth sauce). Simmer for another 10 minutes or so to cook the flour. Add the nutmeg, cheese and sweetcorn. Heat through until the cheese is melted. Take off the heat and allow to cool. If you’re using whole corn, you can blitz the sauce with a food processor to cream it (the more traditional consistency) or keep them whole (I did this, as I like having a bit of texture).
- For both: Roll the empanada dough into circles around 3 mm think and the size of an outstretched hand (I have no tape measure, and sizes seem to vary almost as much as fillings!). Put a spoonful of two of the mixture into the centre of the circle, then fold down the top so that it forms a closed half-moon, like a calzone. Press the sides closed, making sure there are no holes or weak spots. There were, in mine, and they leaked a little…
- Here comes an interesting and fun part: the repulgue. Every empanada shop has its own system for marking which fillings go in which pie, and it all comes down to the decoration on the ‘frill’ of the half-moon. In general, apparently the classic beef filling gets thumb prints on the frill, other fillings get everything from little hills of pinched dough to fork markings. It seems humida pies (the sweetcorn ones) don’t have one single agreed repulque, so I chose to mark those with the tines of a fork. Those held up a lot better than the thumb prints on my meat empanadas, so be sure to really get your thumbs in there!
- Brush with egg white or milk, and bake in a hot oven (around 200 degrees celsius) until golden brown – around 20-30 minutes. I ran out of butter and had to use olive oil for the pastry – this meant my empanadas didn’t brown as nicely as I wanted, unfortunately. OR fry in hot vegetable oil until golden, and drain on paper towels.
- As Carla says, “if granny doesn’t wanna cook and you’ve gone out for take-out empanadas, not many side dishes come up”. But if you want to be all fancy, you can serve with a salad. 🙂
So How Did It Taste?
I knew this wasn’t going to be a challenging week, taste-wise. Lots of us, from many different cultures, have been greedily gobbling meat pies since we were kids, and you can’t really go wrong with sweetcorn and cheese either. So yes, lip-smacking stuff. The vinegar made the pie crust flaky and soft. Joe and I both agreed the meat pies were our favourites – the olives really added an unexpected depth and umami flavour, and I love the addition of cumin. The sweetcorn pies were almost as tasty, with cheesy goo oozing out delectably with each bite.
What did the other taste tester think?
I especially love the olives in the meat ones. They were like – how shall I put this? Like Argentinean pasties.
Coming from an Englishman who usually heads to The Real Cornish Pasty Company as soon as his feet are back on British soil, that’s quite a compliment. And the good thing is that we have enough extra filling and pies to last us for the rest of the week!