Thursday, September 26, 2013

All the secrets


If you're now reading this, I don't need to tell you that I've been AWOL lately. We went to the states to visit my family, and then on a whirlwind trip of Scandinavia. It was wonderful, and also pretty much the polar opposite of what my daily life has been like for the past 5 years (white-blond tall people everywhere! buses that run on time! awkward dancing!)



I'm back in Brazil now, and back to business as usual, I suppose. I've been obsessively listening to Alex Alvear's incredible Mango album. I've been staring at these pictures for the past hour. A while ago, I wrote up two itineraries of super fun stuff to do in Cali for a new travel site that recently went live; if you're interested, you can find it here. And by "super fun stuff" I do of course mean "what I do when I'm in Cali, and what I wish I were doing right now." Felipe's already planning our trip in December; if it were up to him I'm pretty sure we'd leave tomorrow. 



It was too hot this last weekend to even think about turning on the oven, but I've been wanting to make Argentinean empanadas lately, ever since I learned ALL THE SECRETS to perfect empanadas from a trial-by-fire-style round of 100 empanadas de carne that I made a couple of months ago with my friend Alejandra. One of our Tipo Colombia parties this year fell on a Colombia vs. Argentina soccer game day (eliminatory games to determine who will play in the World Cup); as you might imagine, those kind of games are a big deal around here, and for the party we made both Colombian and Argentinian empanadas. I talked Alejandra into helping me make the Argentinean ones --  I've made plenty of Argentinean empanadas in the past but never beef ones, which is funny given that beef empanadas (empanadas de carne) are the most common in Argentina. And they came out really, truly great, mostly due to Alejandra's father's recipe (he owns a restaurant down in Patagonia) and Alejandra yelling at me so that I would actually follow the recipe during the cooking. By the end of the 100 empanadas, our repulgues (folded edges) were actually very respectable looking.

But the main, HUGE aprendizaje (lesson) that I took away from the empanada-making was what separates the real empanadas that you get in restaurantes in Buenos Aires and my previous homemade attempts: the empanadas have to be flipped. I had always done what I had been instructed to do, by Argentinean friends and internet tutorials alike: painted the folded pastries with egg wash, and baked until golden. The empanadas always turned out tasty, but somehow not the same as the restaurant ones, a difference I had always attributed to restaurant ovens or different dough or whatever. NOPE. Here's the secret: start the empanadas face down on an oiled/parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Halfway through baking them, flip them over carefully, then paint the now face-up empanadas with egg wash, and finish baking. The flipping browns both sides evenly and redistributes the filling, leaving you with a pleasingly plump, golden empanada. 

For the party, we made the empanadas with Argentinean premade wrappers (the La Salteña ones are the best) and they tasted exactly right...these days, it's what almost everybody uses in Argentina to make their empanadas, anyway, so you don't have to feel weird about it (it's not at all comparable to using, for example, premade piecrust, which is almost always disgusting). However, if you don't have access to the wrappers, the good news is that after the party, Alejandra and I did another trial with a homemade dough recipe that came out fantastic. The link is here if you read Spanish (the masa criolla ojaldrada one); otherwise, give me a week or two to get everything together and write it up properly, until I can stand to turn the oven on again...


Beef Empanadas (Empanadas de Carne)

     adapted from Parrilla La Tranquera, Sarmiento, Chubut

2 Tbsp. vegetable oil

5 medium onions, or 3 large ones, finely chopped
1 large spring onion or 3-4 scallions, finely chopped
1 medium red pepper, finely chopped
1/2 green pepper, finely chopped
salt
1 tsp. dried oregano
1/4 tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. aji molido*, optional
2 lbs. (1 kilo) ground beef
1/2 c. tomato puree (either an Italian-style passata or you can blend up a couple of canned tomatoes in their juice to make 1/2 c.)
4 eggs, 3 hard-boiled, cooled and chopped (don't overcook them as they will be reheated in the oven; check out Kenji López-Alt's method here), and 1 uncooked for the egg wash  
24 empanada wrappers (We used La Salteña's "Criollas para horno" wrappers; whatever kind you buy, make sure they are the kind that go in the oven, "para horno.")

In a large saute pan over medium heat, cook the vegetable oil and onions/scallions until translucent. Add in the red and green peppers, a big pinch of salt, and continue to cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently so nothing browns-- you're not looking to caramelize anything here. Stir in the oregano, thyme and aji molido, and cook for another minute, then stir in the ground beef. Cook, stirring every couple of minutes and making sure to scrape the bottom, until all the beef has changed color, then add in the tomato puree and stir. Taste for salt (it should be well seasoned but not overly salty, and then stir in the chopped boiled eggs. Cover the pan and stick it in the fridge until the mixture has completely cooled down. THIS IS IMPORTANT. Hot filling will melt the wrappers-- think about putting hot filling into an uncooked piecrust-- the butter would melt and then you just get a very sad disaster. 
Once the filling is completely cooled, turn on the oven to 400F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Set up a work surface with a clean counter, your empanada wrappers, the cooled filling, a soup spoon, a little cup of water, and your baking sheet off to the side. Take a wrapper and place a spoonful of filling into the center. (Don't overfill, it will make the empanada harder to close; with practice you'll be able to successfully get more filling in there.) Wet your finger with the water and run your finger around the edge of the wrapper, this will help it seal better. Now, the easiest way to seal an empanada is by folding it in half over the filling and then using the tines of a fork to seal it; press hard to make sure the empanada won't open in the oven. For the traditional repulgue, fold the wrapper in half over the filling and then pinch the two sides together hard. Starting at one corner, fold the border over on itself every 1/2 inch or so; this also takes practice, and you'll get better at it.
Place the empanadas on the baking sheet face down (you will probably have to do this in two batches). Bake for 15 -20 minutes, until they are golden brown on the bottom, then flip each empanada over and paint the golden brown side (now facing up) with egg wash. Return to the oven for another 10-20 minutes, until the empanadas are golden brown all over. Serve hot.

*This is one of those things that wouldn't have made a difference to me, but that Alejandra was very adamant about: if you don't have Argentinean aji molido (ground red pepper), leave it out. I wanted to use paprika or red pepper flakes, and she said absolutely not, that will taste WRONG (also, red pepper flakes are far hotter than Argentinean aji molido, which isn't really hot at all). You can order aji molido online here, or you can leave it out, which is what we did, and it will still taste both great and authentic, two criteria that are sometimes surprisingly different.