The kids rolled and patted. Celia sautéed onions and ground beef. I watched and learned. We were having an Argentinean day in our home. Hot empanadas were to be served for dinner. My friend Celia hails from Argentina and she was showing my family how to make both savory and sweet versions of the little pastry pockets.
“When I was very young, I would go to my grandmother’s house and we would make empanadas together,” she explained. “Empanadas are made in a lot of countries: Spain, Portugal, the Caribbean, Philippines, in Latin America. In Argentina we make them for special occasions like birthdays, Christmas, even Good Friday. And when we have an asada, which is like having a barbecue here, it is very common to have empanadas as a side dish.”
Celia buys readymade empanada dough, as did her grandmother. Her favorite brand is La Salteña. “In Argentina, they sell fresh empanada dough and readymade empanadas. I have never made my own dough because you need fat to make the dough. They sell the fat in the store, but it is easier to just buy the dough.”
When it comes to fillings, there are lots of options. “The kids always like ham-and-cheese filling,” she said. “We also make ground beef, chicken, corn and tomatoes, spinach, vegetables, rice with egg and cheese, onions and cheese. On Good Fridays we have empanada de vigilia, which is a fish empanada.”
Celia walked me through the process of making empanadas. “I sauté the meat with a little olive oil. I add red peppers and onions. Some people also put raisins in with the meat. The meat should still have some pink to it. Then I turn off the stove and add some chopped olives, raisins, and chopped boiled eggs. When the filling is room temperature you scoop some onto the dough. If the filling is still hot, the dough will get gooey. The dough is a circle and you fold it in half, and put a little bit of water with your fingers all around the edge. When it is all damp, you press all around so that it cannot come out the sides, and then you do the twisting.” The edges can be either pressed with a fork or twisted by hand. “I don’t put anything on the top, but some people brush egg on top.” The empanadas stay in the oven until the dough turns a golden brown.
“Some people fry their empanadas,” explained Celia, “but it is very unhealthy.”
Celia buys the dough marked “para freir,” which means for frying, but she cooks them in the oven.
Another friend, Andrea Giachino, who comes from Tucumán, in the northern part of Argentina, agreed with Cecilia. “The best empanadas are fried, but they are not very healthy. When you realize that they are not very healthy, you start baking them.
“Each part of the country has a different way of doing the same recipe,” continued Giachino. “In the north of the country, we have a special way, slightly different than Buenos Aires. From my part of Argentina, you typically cut up beef; you don’t use ground beef. You take a piece of meat and you boil it a little bit, let it cool down, and then you cut it into very small pieces. And then you add to that onion and green onions, and then you will make it spicy. That is typical from the north of the country. I add red pepper, lots of cumin, and paprika. And when everything cools down, you should add finely chopped boiled egg. And that is what you use to fill in the empanadas.
“In Buenos Aires, they add olives or raisins to the beef. In Cordoba, they sprinkle sugar on top, even if it is a meat empanada. In the most northern part of Argentina, north of Tucumán, they add potatoes.”
Is something served with the empanadas?
“In the countryside, the most typical way of eating empanadas is to eat it after eating a special kind of soup called locro. Locro is a very heavy, thick soup made of different kinds of beans.”
Are they ever served with a sweet filling?
“Sometimes you make it for dessert. There are people that will use cheese and add sugar on top of it. Or some kind of sweet caramel, like dulce de leche. Some people will make a special marmalade with a quince, a fruit. Or they make a marmalade with sweet potatoes.”
Andrea also buys her dough. “Honestly, I have only ever made my own dough twice,” she admitted, “because it is a lot of work.” Her favorite dough is also La Salteña. “It’s a brand from the north of Argentina which many Argentineans buy.”
And for the edging of the empanadas, “If you are a real Argentinean you do the edges with your fingers, you twist it,” Giachino says.
Andre’s Latin American Market (1249 Morena Boulevard; 619-275-6523) sells La Salteña circular dough sheets in the freezer section ($2.65 for 15 sheets).
The saleslady was quick to add that right next door at Andre’s Restaurant (1235 Morena Boulevard; 619-275-4114), I could buy hot empanadas to go. Shredded chicken or ground-beef empanadas cost $1.95 each; cheese, $1.75.