Jim: Uh, you guys are going to love these. So, empanadas on me. You guys gotta try them.
Creed: Usually I’m a burrito guy, but if you won’t tell, I won’t. Wink, wink.
The Office, “Jury Duty”
The Culinary Institute of America, a renowned culinary school that happens to be close to my home, offers day-long cooking classes for non-students. When I was younger, I took a couple of the classes. One was pretty useless, but the other provided me with recipes that I still use years later. It was in the International Cuisine for Teens class that I learned to make beef empanadas—I honestly can’t remember when I took this class, but I was probably young enough that I would have been eating beef at the time so I may have even eaten beef empanadas. These days, I eat “beef” empanadas, or, if you want to get technical about it, “meatless crumbles” empanadas.
Although I have been eating these empanadas for years and may have made them at the CIA (we didn’t get to all of the recipes in our International Cuisine for Teens cookbook, and while I really can’t remember what we made, I kind of doubt that the instructor chose to demonstrate a recipe that required hot oil), generally they have been prepared for me so this was my first time flying solo.
The thing about making this recipe is that it requires first making sofrito, which is sort of like a Puerto Rican salsa-esque sauce. The recipe for sofrito—also from the International Cuisine for Teens cookbook—make way more than the amount needed for one batch of empanadas. The upside of that is it can be frozen, thawed, and used when you need it. The downside is that I already had some in my freezer so I wasn’t able to document the preparation. The other upside is that it is super easy to make, even without my amateur photos to follow along with. All you have to do is roughly chop onions, garlic, bell peppers (traditionally, both green and red are used), a jalapeño pepper, and cilantro (which is a pain because you have to wash it, dry it, and pull all of the leaves off of the stems). Then, you throw all of that in a blender (I use a food processor), add some tomato sauce, and blend it until it’s a sauce. The recipe says it should be smooth, but mine always ends up with some chunks. And that’s it! The empanada recipe calls for half a cup of sofrito, and the sofrito recipe makes about three cups; I freeze half cup portions in individual ziplock bags so it’s already measured out when I need it. When making empanadas with frozen sofrito, I let the sofrito defrost overnight in the refrigerator.
Before I started working with the meat and meatless crumbles (which from here on will just be referred to as “meat” because “meatless crumbles” sounds very unappealing), I prepared all of the ingredients that get mixed into the meat/“meat” mixtures including: the defrosted sofrito, tomato sauce, capers (which add a lot of flavor to the empanadas), tabasco sauce, Adobo, and Sazon; Adobo and Sazon are, respectively, a “perfect blend of garlic, oregano and other Latino spices” and “the secret to creating the authentic flavors of Latino cuisine,” according to Goya’s website. With everything prepped and ready to go, I moved on to the main components of the empanadas.
The process for making beef and vegetarian empanadas is identical with two exceptions. The first exception deals with stovetop time and the removal/addition of oil. Once the meat was cooked, which became evident as it changed color from pink to brown, I removed the pan from the stove, drained the excess oil that had pooled at the bottom, and returned the pan to the stove to add the remaining ingredients. With the “meat,” I began with oil in the pan, as vegetarian proteins generally tend to stick when cooking because they do not contain the fat that real meat has. Neither the meat nor the “meat” actually needed to be cooked for ten minutes. Once the meat was browned and the ingredients were added, I only left it on the stove for another minute or two (the pan the meat was cooking in is also the pan for frying things in oil so I needed to wash and repurpose it); the “meat” really just needed to be warmed up and risked drying out if it was left on the stove for too long. This leads me to the second exception: I always add the remainder of an eight ounce can of tomato sauce to the “meat” to make sure it’s not dry and also so it doesn’t get wasted (it ends up being about three times as much as the recipe calls for); I have never felt like my empanadas are soggy or suffer in any way from the excess sauce. Once the fillings were made, it was time to assemble the empanadas.
(The following photos depict the beef followed by the “meat” as the steps of the recipe progressed).
Even with the addition of the oil and the extra tomato sauce, the “meat” (pictured below; click on the image for a larger view) still looks drier than the meat (pictured above).
A quick note about the empanada skins (the Goya website calls them “discos”: they come in packs of ten, they are white or orange, and they feel like weird clay when they are room temperature. They’re kept in the freezer at the grocery store, and they need to defrost before they can be used. If they defrost for too long, however, they become too soft and are difficult to work with. To avoid confusion, I used all orange skins for the beef empanadas and white for the vegetarian version. To assemble the empanadas, I first placed a skin on a cutting board. With a rolling pin, I flattened the skin out a bit so it would be easier to close after filling. Then, I added the meat/“meat” in the center of the skin and folded it in half. Using a fork, I crimped the edges of the skin to keep the empanadas from opening up while frying. While I was finishing filling and folding the empanadas, I began heating oil on the stove for frying.
To test if the oil was ready, I dropped an empanada in and was pleased to see bubbles in the oil, meaning it was ready to fry! I fried three empanadas at a time; a deep fryer would have come in handy for this recipe, but as I do not possess one I had to make sure the bottom and sides of the empanadas were adequately fried without accidentally frying my fingers in the process.
Once the empanadas were golden brown (or orange brown) and crispy looking, I removed them from the oil, set them on paper towels to dry any excess oil, and then they were ready to eat!
I prefer my empanadas with a healthy dose of sour cream, but they can be enjoyed just as much without any condiments. This recipe is always a hit, and this time was no different. The beef and vegetarian empanadas were enjoyed by all.
I personally think the vegetarian empanadas taste like what I remember meat tasting like, but no one will ever try one to confirm my suspicion. One day I’ll do a blind taste test to prove that there is no difference in taste, but for now I’m not looking to share my vegetarian empanadas with anyone else.
*Special shoutout to my mom who assisted me with this recipe and allowed me to fry empanadas even though she thinks it makes the house smell like oil for days!