Back in my 20s I needed a good date place. A restaurant where I could bring guys that wasn’t too pricey, easy to get to, and could spark conversation. I found my perfect place, a Cuban restaurant called Mucho Gusto Cafe near Berkley College of Music. Gus, the front of house guy, got to know me and he’d keep an eye out for me. If I seemed to really like my date, he’d send over some Cuban coffee to help seal the deal. I brought my now husband there and he was “coffee worthy.”
Mama Aida ruled the roost at Mucho Gusto, her recipes soared out of the kitchen interpreted for the masses by Chef Johnny Verlinden. The business was successful, but the hectic pace of restaurant life just got to be too much and Chef Johnny took to catering and Mama Aida went back to her home kitchen. I seriously did cry.
So when the email popped up about Johnny developing a biography cum cookbook with Mama Aida I jumped at the chance to review and cook from it. To Cook Is to Love: Nuevo Cuban: Lighter, Healthier Latin Recipes, is a book full of tales of Mama Aida’s days in Cuba, her adjustment to American living and the recipes that tie them all together (Amazon Link).
Empanadas: Yummy and Healthy
I tore through the book, reading vignettes and drooling over recipes. Which one to do first? I thought something easy like plantains (there are several recipes) but I decided I wanted to tackle something new for me … empanadas! Yep, I’ve never made ’em and I wanted to give it a shot.
First off, empanadas is quite an undertaking. You have to make the dough, make the filling, the filling has to chill for a few hours … it’s a full day commitment. You are going to be in the kitchen for a while! That said, the reward of super tasty empanadas was well worth it. My favorite part? The orange zest in the dough really added some zing. My whole family scarfed them down!
The recipe is reprinted here with permission from the author.
For the Pastry
- 3 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup cold water
- 1 teaspoon vinegar
For the Chicken Filling
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium onion (finely chopped)
- 1 medium green pepper (finely chopped)
- 3 cloves garlic (minced & crushed)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon dried leaf oregano
- 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
- 3 medium carrots (cut into 2″ rounds)
- 1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
- 1/4 cup orange juice
- 1/4 cup dry white wine
- 1/2 cup green salad olives
(Note I skipped the olives for the filling and on my next pass on this recipe, I’ll cut the cumin back a bit ~ just personal preference)
- Sift the flour, salt and pepper into a large bowl
- Cut the butter into small pieces, add it to the flour mixture and combine with your hands.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together 1 whole egg and 1 egg white, water, vinegar and orange zest.
- Make a well in the flour mixture, add the water mixture and mix the wet and dry ingredients with a fork until it forms a soft dough
- Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead it just until all flour is incorporated.
- Divide the dough in half and roll out to about 1/8″ thickness.
- Cut dough into four-inc rounds using a large biscuit cutter or a drinking glass with a large mouth.
- Repeat with other half of the dough.
- In a large casserole or dutch oven over medium heat, warm the oil until fragrant.
- Add the onion and green pepper and cook for about 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, stir in the garlic and dry spices, and sauté for about 2 more minutes or until the onion is translucent and tender.
- Add the remaining ingredients, cover and cook slowly until chicken is thoroughly cooked and carrots are tender.
- With a slotted spoon, remove the chicken and vegetables from the pot and set aside to cool.
- Continue cooking the liquid remaining in the pot until it is reduced to about one cup.
- Once cool, place the chicken mixture into the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade . Pulse until the mixture is coarsely chopped.
- Add the reduced liquid and chill for a few hours or overnight
Filling and Baking
- Prepare the filling and chill until it can be easily handled.
- Place one tablespoon of the Picadillo mixture in the center of the one of the pastry rounds.
- Fold over the pastry and crimp the edge either with a fork or by manually folding a small section of the bottom pastry over the top with your index finger while holding the top of the pastry crescent secure, continue around the crescent until the entire edge is crimped and secure.
- Continue with remaining pastry rounds.
- Arrange empanadas on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, make sure sides don’t touch.
- Bake at 350°F for 20 minutes or until pastry is golden brown.
(Note, you can use 90% lean ground beef, as well as ground turkey, chicken, or textured vegetable protein.)
A couple of pointers, really mush your fork into the pastry to crimp it hard, otherwise the empanadas will open on you during cooking. Or, as my Cuban friend suggested, you can just add tiny vents in the pastry. Also, I didn’t use a food processor on the filling, I got in there with a demilune and hand-chopped the heck out of it.
As you can see, it really is a commitment, but I think a perfect activity for a lazy Sunday with an absolutely amazing meal to share with family and friends.
Do you cook empanadas? What are some of your favorite recipes? I’d love to share.