When I was in Costa Rica, I regularly ate lunch in a Colombian soda that served both Costa Rican and Colombian food. It was so excellent and so cheap – why did I leave? Of the Colombian menu items, one of the best was the empanadas. They were wrapped in a cornmeal shell and deep-fried into crispy wonder. I’ve had similar ones in the US and in Puerto Rico, although not as good.
If I had to make a broad, sweeping generalization about food in Uruguay, I would say that it feels much more akin to European food than Central American food. Commonly served: bread, mashed potatoes, tea – it could really almost be England (this is absolutely a joke – there were no raucous parakeets out my window in England). Imagine my surprise then, when I found that empanadas are common here. In my mind, empanadas have always been little fried meat-cheese-potato pockets from the Carribean and Central America.
How wrong I was! Que wrong! There are empanadas here and they are better than I could ever have imagined. Once I started getting interested, I did my research and found out that empanadas have been around since at least medieval times, originating (according to Wikipedia) in Portugal and Spain. So it makes sense that countries colonized by Spain or Portugal (or both, as is the case with Uruguay) would inherit this food tradition, but they have definitely done different things with it here than the Central Americans.
To begin, the empanadas here are mostly baked, not fried, which makes me feel a ton better about eating them, even though I know they also have a lot of butter. The shells, or tapas (literal Spanish meaning: top or lid), are flour-based, not cornmeal-based. Ingredients for the filling are different – there are no potatoes in these, but they include instead hard-boiled eggs and olives. On the whole, it also seems like the empanadas here are a little larger.
The empanadas here also have a distinctive repulgue that I don’t recall in the deep-fried Central American versions. The repulgue is the decorative seal on the edge of the empanada (Google Translate doesn’t know this word – feel special that you know something Google doesn’t). Also according to Wikipedia, take-out shops selling empanadas will use a different repulgue depending on what’s inside the empanada. I myself have not yet divined this code, but I learned how to ask in Spanish.
The literal translations for “What’s in that?” might be “¿Qué está en eso?” or “¿Qué está dentro de eso?” but I learned from a Costa Rican that this isn’t what Spanish-speakers actually say. She taught me the phrase “¿Qué trae eso?” – literally “What does that bring?” but more figuratively something like “What does this empanada bring to the table?” If the baker gives you an answer other than carne, pollo, or queso, and you don’t understand it, you can ask “¿Es dulce o sal?” – “Is it sweet or salty?” Since there are also dessert empanadas, this is not a dumb question.
Empanadas are definitely my new obsession (see my Pinterest board for further proof: empanada obsession) and I am excited to try out lots of different kinds and be an amazing repulguedora (Sp. disclaimer – I made that up), but before that, I just decided to start with a traditional empanada de carne vaguely in the style of Argentina or Uruguay. I read a ton of recipes for this and below is a basic outline:
Baked Beef Empanadas
1 lb of beef, cubed (3/4 inch cubes)*
1 medium/large onion, chopped or in strips
1 medium red bell pepper, chopped
4 cloves garlic, sliced
1/3 c. butter
2 tbs paprika
1 ½ tbs cumin
1 tbs salt
pepper to taste
3 hard boiled eggs – DAY OLD = easier to peel**
1 green olive slice for every empanada – about 8 olives
1-2 eggs, separated –OR- small glass of water
1 package pre-made empanada tapas (they come in packages of 20-25)***
*Cubing a pound of meat was a huge pain. Can butchers do this for you? I don’t know. I have seen recipes for carne empanadas that call for ground beef, too. You could do this, but everything will better with a higher quality meat. You could probably pick out your cut and ask the butcher if he can grind it for you.
** The egg whites will be used to seal the empanadas and the yolks will be brushed over the top for a nice glaze in the oven. Neither of these steps is totally necessary though – the sealing can be done with water, and if you prefer unglazed empanadas, you could just leave them plain, or brush them with a little melted butter.
***Someday, I will make these from scratch, but not today. If you want to, you can find a recipe for that and a billion other Latin things on Laylita’s fantastic site: http://laylita.com/recipes/2008/02/06/how-to-make-empanada-dough/. You can definitely find empanada shells in American grocery stores though.
1)First things first, cube your beef, chop your onion and pepper, and slice your garlic. Preheat oven according to tapas instructions, probably about 390 F.
2)Melt the butter in your pan over medium heat. Toss in your onion, pepper and garlic and let them cook for 5-8 minutes until the onions and peppers are soft.
3)Add the spices and beef to your pan and let it cook only long enough for the beef to be rare (it will bake for about 15 minutes and you don’t want it to be overdone). For me, this was only about 5 minutes, but it would be longer for bigger cubes. Remove filling mixture from heat and set aside to cool. This can be done a day ahead of time if you’re preparing to do some entertaining.
4)Remove tapas from fridge so that they become workable.
5)Slice your hardboiled eggs and olives. Separate your eggs, if using. Lightly beat the yolks.
6)Prepare your workspace: lightly flour your countertop and grease a cookie sheet. Lay out a few shells to work with first.
7)Once your filling mixture has cooled enough not to burn you, you can begin spooning filling into your shells. If you have small-sized empanada rounds, you’ll want to spoon about 3 tbs of filling, medium-sized rounds could probably take about 5 tbs. Add a slice of hard-boiled egg and a slice of olive.
8) Using your finger, trace a line of egg white (or water) around half the circle’s edge. Fold the other half over the top and press to seal. Try to hold/poke in the filling as you’re folding.
9) Make your repulgue! Rather than explaining this step, I think it’s better for you to watch a video:
10) Once you have filled your cookie sheet with empanadas, brush the tops with egg yolk and place in the oven. Follow the tapas packet instructions for baking time.
I think there are probably lots of wonderful sauces to serve with this, but I don’t know what they are yet. I myself tried a squeeze of lime juice in every bite, and that was lovely. I would also definitely recommend a margarita 🙂