Monday, March 5, 2012

Empanadas for My Ecuadorian Followers

This past summer I worked at a camp in Maine.  I can't describe the experience any other way than that it was life changing.  I know it sounds silly - that camp changed my life - but it's true.  Not only did I grow and challenge myself in ways I never had before, but I met some really incredible people.  My fellow counselors came from all over the world, introducing me to cultures I had never encountered, and new aspects of cultures that I had thought I knew and understood.  The best part is that I still keep in touch with many of the people I met that summer, despite long distances.  The fact that these people are still a huge part of my life is a testament to the impact that they had on me that summer and how truly incredible they are.
Just a few of my fellow counselors. <3
One such counselor and incredible person is Tricia.  We first bonded at The Badger Cafe over red wine and a Grilled Vegetable Napoleon (eggplant, portabello mushrooms, onions and zucchini, grilled and stacked with pesto and goat cheese).  It was at that moment that we realized we were kindred foodie spirits.
The night and meal in question.
Tricia is currently teaching English in Riobamba, Ecuador, and has been following my culinary escapades.  So, I asked my fellow food-obsessed friend if there were any Ecuadorian recipes that would be fun to cook and feature here.  She recommended a favorite and a classic Ecuadorian dish: empanadas.  Empanadas are a filled pastry that can either be savory or sweet - picture a miniature version of a calzone.  In Ecuador, they are commonly filled with vegetables and carne guisada, or steamed meat, and served with aji, a spicy, salsa-like dipping sauce.  Cheese is another popular filling, either savory with vegetables or sweet with cooked fruit and dusted with sugar.

Now, I am no stranger to the wonderfulness of the empanada.  I first fell in love with these hand-held delights about eight years ago in D.C. when I ate at Julia's Empanadas.  My family was on vacation, staying in Adams Morgan.  We arrived later in the evening, starving, but after a long day of driving, didn't feel like going out to a sit-down restaurant.  We decided on grabbing some take-out to bring back to the hotel room where we could crash.  My mom and I ventured out in search of food.  My mom was the one to catch sight of Julia's from across the street.  I remember not thinking too much of the hole-in-the-wall joint with a walk-up counter and one tiny table, and being a little intimidated by the exotic smells and unfamiliar words on the little description cards on the glass display case in which laid rows of golden brown pastries.  We got a grab-bag of empanadas: vegetarian, beef for my brother, chicken for me (yes, I went through a meat phase), and some fruit and cheese ones for dessert.  I admit I was nervous to try this strange, new food.  However, to this day, eating those warm, flaky, amazing empanadas in that tiny hotel room, listening to the live music from a bar down the street and people watching out the window is one of my strongest food memories, and one of my fondest.  Every time I go to D.C., I go out of my way to make sure I get an empanada at Julia's.

My dad was roller-outer and cutter,
I was filler and closer.
So, you could say that I was eager and ecstatic to tackle this dish.  However, I know that my attempt would not come anywhere close to Julia's or what Tricia is eating down there in Ecuador.  That's why I decided to put my own spin on the traditional recipe.  I wanted to keep the flavor profile authentic, but since I no longer eat meat, I settled on a seafood filling.  I made a roasted tomato salsa, instead the hot aji.  I also decided to bake the pastries instead of frying them because 1) baking is healthier, 2) I've never fried anything before in my life, and for a recipe I've never done before I didn't want to add to the complexity and possibility error, and 3) Julia bakes her empanadas.  I did, however, make my own pastry dough, using Bobby Flay's Empanada Recipe (though I switched lard for vegetable shortening).  I'm mildly obsessed with Bobby Flay, and have complete faith and trust in his recipes.  However, the pastry ended up being the most difficult part of this dish.  I've made pie crust and breads before, but empanada pastry is a completely different animal.  It's extremely crumbly, and difficult to get to stick together.  I thought that after some time in the fridge it might bind better, but when it was time for rolling it out, I realized it was much too crumbly.  I added warm water and kneaded the hell out of it, until it got to a consistency I felt good about.  In hindsight, I think it was still a little too dry for my liking, but it held the filling and tasted delightful.  So, it was more my perfectionism than the dough not being right.
Careful filling action.
A quick warning about over-stuffing - Don't.  It's easy to want to put a lot into the pastry, but it makes them overflow and hard to close up.  Then again, the overfilling gave mine a rustic homey look, and made my hands very, very messy.

Roasted Tomato Salsa

1 pint grape tomatoes
1 large shallot, thinly sliced
½ green Italian frying pepper, minced
1 tbs chopped cilantro, roughly chopped
1 tbs olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

+ Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
+ In a medium bowl, toss tomatoes and shallots in olive oil.  Season with salt and pepper.  
+ Transfer to shallow baking dish.  Bake for an hour, or until tomatoes have popped and shriveled.  Remove from oven and allow to cool.
+ Once tomatoes have cooled, pour onto cutting board and give a rough chop.  In a medium bowl, mix in pepper and cilantro.  Serve cold.
Reflection and messy work area
Seafood Filling
1 tbs olive oil
1 large shallot, thinly sliced
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 bag Trader Joe's Seafood Medley
1 tsp white pepper
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp sea salt
½ tsp chile powder
2 tsp paprika
⅓ cup red wine
1 tbs butter
3 tbs flour

+ In a large sauce pan, sautee shallots and garlic in olive oil until they begin to brown.  
+ Add the seafood.  Give a quick stir, then add seasonings.  Stir, then add red wine.
+ Turn heat up to medium high, cover and cook for about five minutes.  Meanwhile, in a measuring cup, mix butter, flour, and a bit of liquid from the pan to create a rue.
+ Uncover, add rue, and stir until the liquid begins to thicken.  Cook until seafood is cooked.  Turn off heat and allow the mixture to thicken.
+ Put about 2 tbs of filling into the middle of each pasty circle.

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1 comment:

  1. This post made me SO happy!!! I agree with everything you said about camp- it definitely was life changing for me too. I'm so curious about how these tasted. Ecuadorians are way into their fried foods, so I can't even imagine them baked. Thanks for thinking of me and making these. Also, I'm now dying to try Julie's in DC. So happy to have a foodie friend to inform me of places like that...