Finding Your Filling

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With empanadas on the rise, chefs across the States are filling these traditional Latin snacks with modern twists that represent their own cities.

Anyone who has visited Argentina has most likely eaten an empanada. Today, however, diners no longer need a plane ticket to experience the infinite combinations of doughs, fillings and techniques that reflect the various regions of Latin America.

Every Central and South American recipe has its own spin on the Latin mainstay. According to Doris Rodriguez de Platt, chef-partner at Andina in Portland, Oregon, empanadas are descended from old Arabic recipes, with techniques brought by the Spaniards to South America during the 16th and 17th centuries.

The word “empanada” is said to have derived from the Spanish word “empanar,” which means “to bread”—or, more literally, “to wrap something in bread.” Just as empanada recipes vary by region in countries like Argentina, Mexico, Peru and Spain, so does the culinary technique to create them.

In Argentina, empanadas are eaten as snacks throughout the day. They’re available in a variety of crusts with every imaginable filling, including beef, chicken, cheese, corn and mushroom. Diners can choose from either baked or fried, and the savory pastries are typically crimped along the dough edges to contain the filling.

In Spain, empanadas are often created as a two-crust pie instead of a handheld treat. In Peru, Rodriguez de Platt nods to techniques that require soft dough and a stuffing cooked slowly and seasoned with chili peppers, onions and garlic. In Mexico, some empanadas are made with traditional fillings, while others are sweet and served as desserts.

“In the Mexican culture, the empanadas are typically sweet. You’ll see sweet potato, pumpkin and goat’s milk caramel empanadas,” says Fred Gonzalez, a chef at San Antonio’s Restaurant Gwendolyn, which serves 100 percent locally sourced American fare. “But the further south you go into Central and South America, the more savory the empanada. When you get as far as Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia, you’ll even start to see empanadas that are almost soupy.”

Gonzalez says empanadas are extremely well-traveled, and they even transcend continental boundaries outside of Latin America. “Every culture has their version of an empanada,” he says. “In Europe, they have popovers; in China, it’s fried dumplings and wontons; and in India, it’s samosas.”

In North America, as empanadas continue to crop up on menus from coast to coast, diners are seeing their own American influences in these recipes, too, such as Colorado bison.

No matter which recipe you tackle, though, Gonzalez says the most important element of making a gorgeous empanada is perfecting the crimping technique. “You have to fold over each little piece of dough after you stamp it shut with your thumb to get the perfect crimp to seal in the delicious filling,” he says.

Empanadas are growing its fan base as Americans continue to seek out authentic or ethnic cooking techniques, new bold flavor combinations and the convenience of shareable, bite-sized finger foods. To capitalize on all these qualities, chefs are imparting their own cultural influences to make empanada recipes they can truly call their own.

Here’s how American chefs with roots in all cultures are putting their signature stamp on this traditional Argentinian dish.

Mamá Amelia’s Empanadas
Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and Atlantic City
Chef Guillermo Pernot
True to the Argentinian tradition, empanadas are the most popular tapas item at Cuba Libre. At the helm of the kitchen, Chef Guillermo Pernot blends native ingredients and cooking traditions of Cuba with those of South America, Spain, Africa and Asia. Because it’s impossible to look at South American cuisine “without thinking empanadas,” Pernot created a menu item with roots in his own family’s recipe repertoire. “An empanada can be filled with any number or combination of ingredients, but [my]secret is not to overthink it and keep it simple,” says Pernot. For Cuba Libre’s three varieties of empanadas, the Argentina-born chef blends his culinary upbringing with his wife’s Cuban ancestry and his world travels.

“Over the course of my lifetime, I have traveled and eaten my way throughout all of South and Central America and most of the Caribbean, including traveling twice a year to Cuba for the last six years, leading bi-annual culinary excursions for 25 travelers,” says Pernot.

While the concept of an empanada is found in all cultures, he insists the fundamental elements of superior empanadas rarely change.

“The recipe for Cuba Libre’s Mamá Amelia’s Empanadas was inspired by both my mother, who used to make empanadas every Sunday for the asado, and my bi-annual travels to Cuba,” says Pernot. “My goal is to combine my Argentinean culture with my experience and passion for cooking Cuban cuisine to create innovative recipes based on the traditional ingredients found in Cuba. [Our] signature empanadas are the perfect example of that.”

That signature empanada is served in three flavors: a traditional Cuban filling of picadillo, Cienfuegos-style ground beef with potatoes, Manzanilla olives and raisins; his mother’s recipe of hand-chopped chicken, corn and Jack cheese; and pulled pork, roasted poblano and charred tomatoes—”because everybody loves pulled pork.” “As an Argentinean, I felt that there was no way that empanadas could be excluded on our menus. The experience I’ve gained over my lifetime has created a medley of flavors,” he says. “As I continue to travel to Cuba, I continue to find many similarities between the cuisine and culinary methods of Cuban cuisine with those of Argentina.”

Colorado Bison Empanadas
Kachina Southwestern Grill, Downtown Denver and Westminster, Colorado
Chef Jeff Bolton
While Denver is not necessarily known for its Latin American food scene, the city does have a rich Southwestern culinary culture that incorporates a panoply of ethnic offerings.

“At Kachina, we blend Latin, native and European—which we consider ‘pioneer’ foods— into our cooking,” says Chef Jeff Bolton, whose ancestry, along with locally produced ingredients, inspires his dishes. “Using bison, which was a staple in the native food offerings, we decided to make a picadillo filling for our empanadas. It is huge in flavor due to the meat, capers and golden raisins that we use.”

Although Colorado bison might not be the most traditional of fillings, Bolton’s cooking technique is extremely traditional, having learned it from his Cuban and Spanish grandfather. “We make all our empanada dough from scratch,” he says of the Kachina team. “We chose the bison because it is a great alternative to beef; it’s high in protein and low in fat. We serve the [empanadas]with a chipotle agave nectar that lends a sweetness to the dish; a cilantro salad that adds freshness; and pickled onions and habaneros to spice it up.”

If fresh Colorado bison isn’t readily available in your backyard, look to other locally produced proteins and branch out, he says. “We are actually playing around with a smoked chicken empanada that could go on the menu,” says Bolton. “We have made many types of empanadas, including chicken tinga and calabacita.”

Mushroom and Jack Cheese Corn Masa Empanadas
El Alma Restaurante and Bar, Austin, Texas
Chef Alma Alcocer
Like San Antonio, the city of Austin has a culinary style that is heavily influenced by its proximity to Mexico. At her eponymous eatery, Chef Alma Alcocer blends her classical French culinary training with her roots in Mexico City, shopping at El Bazar del Sabado.

“From the Saturday market in the neighborhood where I grew up to the centers of old towns, street vendors serve empanadas from their carts, made to order,” says Alcocer. “In Austin, I look at what people are into. I always think about having something that is very adequate for people’s lifestyles—fun, flavorful Mexican food that is fresh, light and in-season.”

Even with flavor inspiration derived from Alcocer’s blended culinary background, her freshly ground corn masa empanadas are made with traditional technique. “Whenever I can get blue corn masa, my favorite thing to do with that is make empanadas,” she says. Alcocer adds guajillo puree to the masa, which turns them orange in color but not spicy. Then she gets creative with the filling: sautéed mushrooms in onion and garlic with a bit of epazote.

“I also added shredded jack cheese because I wanted the customers to get something that’s moist and delicious,” says Alcocer. “We serve chimichurri with these empanadas because our regular customers constantly asked for it on the side. That’s when I decided to put it on the menu. It’s nice, spicy, acidic and complex, so it’s a great addition.”

Alcocer includes empanadas on her menu because she likes the idea of using a commercial cooking technique to present something that is normally a street food. Although she studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, she learned her empanada techniques from her kitchen staff who make the restaurant’s homemade tortillas.

Octopus Empanadas
PM Fish and Steakhouse, Miami, Florida
Chef Maite Muño
Miami is well-known for its robust Latin American population, so it’s no surprise an Argentinian restaurant would embrace its fresh coastal local seafood, even in the spirit of a traditional empanada recipe.

Chef Maite Muñoz says Miami’s strong Latin American influence is apparent in the restaurant’s entire menu, but it’s especially evident in its variety of empanadas that host traditional flavors and spices to present a basic dish in Argentina’s gastronomy.

“Our recipes are inspired by our family traditions. These recipes were created decades ago and have been passed from generation to generation,” says Muñoz. “We choose prime, quality ingredients because we feel it’s the best representation of the traditional recipes from our family. We use various folds to differentiate between the empanadas. They are handmade daily by our chefs.”

Although Muñoz has Chilean roots, she’s been cooking Argentine cuisine for years, even importing ingredients direct from Argentina.

In addition to octopus, PM Fish & Steakhouse offers a broad selection of empanada fillings on its menu, including tuna, corn, spinach and cheese; ham and cheese; cheese and onion; or spicy meat. “Our decision to include empanadas on our menu is because it simply can’t be absent in the Argentinean cuisine,” she says. “It is one of the best ways to start a great meal.”

Carne Empanadas and Acelgas Empanadas
Andina Restaurant, Portland, Oregon
Chef Doris Rodriguez de Platt
One thing is certain: the city that once helped pioneer the local food movement, Portland, is currently bursting at the seams with creative dining choices and culinary cultural variety. And Doris Rodriguez de Platt, chefpartner at Andina, has brought the city a taste of her Peruvian roots as well.

“Much of our menu features iconic Peruvian dishes and preparations. That includes empanadas, which are popular throughout South America,” says Rodriguez de Platt, whose menu offering is inspired by the traditional beef and egg stuffing used in Peru.

“Women in Peru learn to cook at home by seeing and being taught by our mothers or grandmothers,” she says. “At Andina, our kitchen makes empanadas following the old techniques that our Peruvian prep chef teaches our staff, and I help her, tasting the flavor to make sure it tastes like home.”

Because Peruvian cuisine borrows from a number of culinary influences from Europe, Asia and Africa, Rodriguez de Platt and her team had many flavors to play with when they crafted their empanada recipes.

Andina currently has two offerings on its menu. The first is Empanadas de Carne (Beef Empanadas): flaky pastry filled with slow-cooked beef, raisins, egg and Botija olives, served with salsa criolla. The second is Empanadas de Acelga y Espinaca (Chard and Spinach Empanada): flaky pastry stuffed with braised chard, spinach, mushrooms, egg and mozzarella, served with salsa criolla.

“Ultimately, what makes Peruvian food unique and flavorful are the indigenous “ajies” (hot peppers) that are a perfect marriage for everything from fresh salmon to local lamb and beef,” she says. “This allows us to source the right kind of fresh and local ingredients from the Pacific Northwest bounty to complement our menu.”

Other empanada recipes currently in the works at Andina include Empanadas de Queso (cheese), Empanadas de Aji de Gallina (Stuffed with chicken in Peruvian pepper sauce) and Empanadas de Pato (duck confit).

“Our Peruvian ajies are difficult to grow in the PNW, so we import them directly from organic farmers in Peru,” she says. “We also import our ‘aceitunas de Botija’ (Peruvian Botija olives), which provide our empanadas with a special flavor and mouth-feel.”

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