Lightly-spiced pork empanadas

Or “Empanadas de Picadillo”, apparently.

I love empanadas, but rarely make them from scratch. Sometimes I’ll cheat with a pack of puff pastry, authenticity be damned. This works, is quick, and fits particularly well into the cram-more-cheese-up-it school of buffet food.

Empanadas de Picadillo, ready for the oven
Empanadas de Picadillo (spicy pork), ready for the oven

But I had a free afternoon, and Rick Bayless’ empanada pastry dough contains three tablespoons of lard, and is then fried rather than baked. How Could I say no?

Rick Bayless, incidentally, is a splendid food writer. Well, was a splendid food writer, before it all got a bit weird. I’ll unpack that sentiment at the end. The first edition of his book Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico is full of fantastic stuff, and really goes out of the way to give context. It’s a rich rustic piece in the Elisabeth Luard tradition. The recent re-issue is usable if you can’t find the original.

Anyway, empanadas. They’re good, I made some, and it worked OK, despite a couple of little fuck-ups.

You’ll find the recipe on p150 of Authentic Mexican (1989 UK edition).

Ingredients:

Pastry

  • About 350g flour
  • 3tbsp (about 40g?) lard
  • Salt
  • About 170ml hot water

Filling

  • Roasted tomatoes (about 600g)
  • A couple of ancho chilies
  • An onion
  • A clove of garlic
  • Minced pork (again, about 600g)
  • 1tsp black pepeprcorns
  • 5 cloves
  • 1tsp cinnamon
  • 4 tsp cider vinegar
  • About 50g raisins
  • About 50g sliced almonds

Instructions

Picadillo Oaxaqueno (the pork filling)
Picadillo Oaxaqueno (the pork filling)

This is basically a bolognaise turnover. But “empanadas” sounds way better.

First – and I cannot stress this enough – go back and read the part where it says “roasted tomatoes”. Read it, and actually roast them. I did not do this. I was an idiot. This substantially accounts for the rather limp final flavour. So, yeah, roast the tomatoes.

While they’re roasting, toast the anchos in a hot pan until they smoke slightly and begin to blister a little. Then re-hydrate them in hot water for at least 10 minutes, but the longer the better.

Once the tomatoes are roasted, puree them in a blender with the re-hydrated chilies and their soaking water.

Dice the onion finely, and chop the garlic.Grind the spices together with a little salt.

Fry the onion for a few minutes in a sturdy casserole type pan, on  a medium heat Then add the garlic, letting it cook a little. Add the mince. The idea is to lightly brown it, so you may need to up the heat, and possibly pour off excess liquid.

Once the mince has coloured a little add the tomato mix, the raisins, almonds, vinegar, and spices.  Stir thoroughly to get any tasty caramelized gunk off the bottom of the pan, and reduce the heat to very low. Let the whole thing simmer and reduce, uncovered, for at least half an hour, ideally more. It wants to end up at that dry-ish, ragu-ish consistency of the best mince-based pasta sauces.

For the pastry, well, mix the ingredients and knead the result until you’ve got pastry dough. I found Bayless’ recipe needed more flour. Or possibly I measured it wrong. I was clearly not on the ball, given the tomato incident. It comes out somewhere between a rather wet shortcrust and a hot water crust.

Empanada pastry dough
Empanada pastry dough

When you’re happy with it, let it rest a little, and roll it into rounds.

Bayless divides this quantity into twelve, rolling each into a 7-inch diameter round. I did roughly that, and found the pastry too thin for comfortable handling. Though it was also too warm, and so over-stretched when you move the filled empanadas, so perhaps cooling is the answer.

To assemble them, dollop filling in the middle, brush the edges with water, and fold into a semi-circle, crimping the edges. It’s basically a pasty full of chilli, or something.

Fry the assembled empanadas for 2 or 3 minutes to a side, in deep-ish oil. I did them in batches of 3, finishing them in a hot oven for a few minutes.

They’d serve well with a piquant salsa, or something cheesy. I intended to put them with the orange, carrot, and cashew salad from p107 of the River Cottage veg book, but had frankly run out of patience at this point, because assembling the little fuckers had gone a bit awry.

The pastry worked, if anything, better than the filling. It had just the right crisp and flaky bite to it, and appropriate slight greasiness. The filling skewed to the bland, however. This, I lay at the door of forgetting to roast the tomatoes, and of the whole thing needing at least one more ancho, and some more salt. It’s a bit sweet, off base. This is in part the fruitiness of the anchos, of course. So I’d dial down the raisins.

It does work, though, and I’d say it’ll pay dividends from a little tweaking. Chorizo is a possibility, as is spinach, or just more spice mix and fewer raisins.

On the problem with Rick Bayless

He’s great. I’d love to go to one of his restaurants. Sadly, I’ve not got around to seeing his TV show. But the books have taken an odd turn. Authentic Mexican is an unapologetic trawl through Mexico, concentrating on Oaxaca, rustic one-pot dishes, and street food. It has the best mole recipes I’ve cooked from, and delicious enchiladas and stews.

The battered 1989 edition sits on my bookshelf, getting gently more sauce-stained and thumbed. The Tinga Poblana (p248) may be my favourite stew. So I was quite excited when it was re-issued in 2007. But it didn’t seem quite the same. There was something more, well, restrained about it; flatter, somehow. Curious, I dug out Mexican Everyday (2005). It aims for “low fat”, jarringly extols the virtues of yoga, and has less personality than a town-centre Greene King pub.

Now, I like yoga, but the thin note of joyless piety to the whole thing was ceaselessly disappointing. It’s like a (thankfully) less tragedy-strewn version of Graham Kerr’s food writing trajectory.

Hopefully, Bayless still believes in lard, but I was too put off by the experience to look at any of the other books.

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