Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Vote for the Argentine Empanada '08!

This is part of a series of reports recapping my recent trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Check back every Monday and Tuesday when I’ll be giving you a taste of my food adventures in this South American metropolitan city.

Something I highly recommend when traveling is looking into a local cooking class, especially one taught in English. It gives you a chance to get in the kitchen and cook after nights of eating at restaurants, and you get to meet some really fun people while learning something about the local cuisine.

In researching my trip to Buenos Aires, I discovered a Web site for Teresita, a retired teacher who wanted to do more than just hang out watching her grandkids. So she started a bed-and-breakfast and soon began teaching cooking classes spotlighting Argentine cuisine, specifically the ubiquitous empanada.

Teresita’s empanada class cost only $45 and you place a deposit using PayPal when you make a reservation. (Her Web site was created by her graphic designer daughter who lives in the United States; and her daughter actually still manages the reservations and then sends regular emails to her mom letting her know who’s showing up for her classes.)

On Saturday morning, a guy nicknamed Buddha came to my bed-and-breakfast in the city to drive me to Teresita’s home in Adrogue, a suburb of Buenos Aires. (You pay extra for the door-to-door transportation or you can catch a train to the neighborhood.) Buddha also speaks English and he explained that he got the nickname in school when the teacher asked him to do something and all he did was sit there like a Buddha. So the name kind of stuck. (I knew you were all dying to know. Buddha is a porteno, a local Argentine, and has no Asian blood.)

Buddha also happens to be Teresita’s neighbor, so he easily took me to the home, which is in a quaint middle-class neighborhood that reminded me a lot like the warm, sunny country towns on Oahu (if only they were closer to the beach).

Teresita teaches in her kitchen, where she proudly displays the center block table that her husband built. She joked that when they retired, they moved into a smaller home but she said there were only two non-negotiable items: 1) there had to be a big kitchen and 2) a big garden. Teresita got both.

Joining us for the class was Beth, who’s a newlywed from Boston. She and her new husband Steve were staying at Teresita’s bed-and-breakfast, so it was easy for her to get to class on time.

We started by prepping all the ingredients for the filling. We were making two types of empanadas that day—a savory beef and a sweet corn. For the beef, we finely diced some onions, green bell pepper, green olives, and hard-boiled eggs. And for the corn we just cut the kernels away from the cobb. (There were more ingredients, and you’ll see in the recipe below.)

We started by sautéing the onions to get them translucent. After that we added in the bell pepper.

Here’s the ground beef that Teresita got from her local butcher. The Argentine beef is so fresh and inexpensive, so you know the empanadas are already going to be so much better tasting than what we can make back home just because of the quality beef used.

Here’s the beef sautéed to done with the onions and bell pepper. Teresita seasoned it with a spice called aji molido (a kind of ground red, spicy peppers) along with pimentón (sweet smoked paprika) and cumin. She says it’s important to use really fresh spices (don’t keep them long in your cupboards because they’ll lose their flavor), and she got hers at a local spice shop.

This is the corn filling, which also includes bell pepper and onions. Teresita also added some milk. The corn filling is called humita.

Once we were done with the fillings, Teresita placed them in the refrigerator because she says it’s easier to assemble the empanadas with cold filling. That’s why she recommends making the filling the night before.

So what to do while we waited for the fillings to cool? Well, we did a bit of wine tasting. Mmmm. This is a Torrontes white wine from Argentina's wine country, Mendoza. Teresita says this is the best varietal to serve with empanadas. When I tasted it, it had a sweet undertone to it, and reminded me a lot of Riesling.

After our wine-tasting break, we got back to work and started making the empanada dough. Here’s Teresita, left, and Beth working on the dough, which is just all-purpose flour and water. Teresita did start by adding some lard and butter, and she used water with salt already dissolved in it. See how she’s slowly pouring a little of the salted water at a time as Beth kneads the dough? She just adds enough until she gets the right texture. I have to thank Beth for stepping up and getting her hands dirty because I knew it would be hard to take pictures if I had doughy hands.

We let the dough rest and then we broke them into little balls before we made them into empanada skins. Empanadas can be really big like a calzone or small like little turnovers. So we made the smaller version, which I like better.

We had to roll out all the little balls into thin skins. See how thin they were? I had the hardest time rolling out evenly round skins. Mines were always a bit lopsided.

This is Tiny, Teresita’s family dog right outside the kitchen door watching us from the garden. She was such a sweet dog, and pretty big. I think she’s some kind of German hound. She was my new best pal.

Once we rolled out all the balls, we were ready to build our empanadas. It was a real challenge for me to handle the dough and the filling, without everything falling apart. Teresita made it look easy, filling her empanadas with a big spoonful of beef and then doing a rope-twist design to close up the edges. (Oh, I forgot to mention that for the beef fillings, we added raisins, green olives and the hard-boiled eggs after the meat cooled so those ingredients weren’t cooked with the beef.)

Here are the empanadas after they’ve been baked for 10 minutes. Don’t they look yummy? They were made golden brown with the help of an egg wash. Teresita cooked it at a very high heat, and it didn’t take long because the filling is already cooked.

We did two methods for the empanadas, and these are the deep-fried versions. You know how I feel about fried foods, so I admit I only had one of these just to compare. I honestly prefer the baked versions because the dough tasted more like pastry.

Here’s the gang enjoying our work in the garden: From left, Steve (Beth’s husband, who did join us in the kitchen near the end), Beth, Teresita’s husband, Buddha, and Teresita.

This was truly one of my highlights of the trip. I had mixed feelings about empanadas before arriving because I thought they were going to be fried. So I was totally blown away by tasting the baked version and loving it, especially the savory beef empanadas. (The corn filling was yummy, but I think I would eat the humita as a side dish instead of stuffed in empanadas.)

I even made empanadas recently when I returned home. It was a real struggle for me to get the fold right. And while simple to make, it is a lot of work, especially if you’re folding more than two dozen by yourself. That’s why it’s common to host empanada parties where you get people to come and help you fold the empanadas and then you eat them all day with a nice glass of Torrontes. Now that’s a party I can back.

NOTE: The recipe below is an adaptation of Teresita’s beef empanada. The recipe she sent me used grams and such, so I had to guess the measurements. Plus, I didn’t have the aji molido spice, and I ended up using a mix of turkey and lamb ground meat. They turned out pretty good, but not as good as Teresita’s.

If you’re headed to Buenos Aires, be sure to take one of Teresita’s classes. If you don’t want to cook, she also does a market tour for a bit more money. Here’s her Web site. Tell her I sent you!


agent713 said...

What a neat idea for an activity while travelling! They look yummy.

Anonymous said...

That dog is such a character... wow both of those empanadas sound delicious! that sounds like a really fun way to travel Chef Ben.