The Great Empanada-making Experiment
My friend Andrea tells me that the reason why Argentinian beef is so good is that all of Argentina’s cows are stolen from Brazil. No need then for a night out at Gaucho, although Duncan says his most recent steak there was stunning.
I decided that the best way to explore Argentinian cuisine was by the grace of my own kitchen, due largely to the fact that it’s the end of the pay period and I’m eight quid in the hole until Friday. And seeing as I don’t eat red meat, my friend Harriet generously offered to come over and teach me to make cheese and chicken empanadas using a traditional South American recipe. Food stuffed with other food. She gets me.
Harriet lived in Argentina for five months, and her downstairs neighbour was actually the head chef at Gaucho. This, by proxy, makes her an expert.
THE EXPERIMENT: Make empanadas. Don’t get drunk first.
Flour – 2 cups
Pork lard/butter – 1/2 cup
Chicken breasts (2), cooked and shredded
Onion, 1 medium
Chicken broth, 1/2 cup
Red chili flakes
“Mozzarella type cheese”
Dulce de leche
Maté is a traditional Argentinian beverage/activity that is much like tea in Britain. It’s served from a shared maté gourd with a metal straw called a bombilla, which is my new favourite word, after balcony.
I believe it is an acquired taste. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the physical act of sipping the tea through a straw out of the funky little cup, the drink itself tasted kind of like, well, the ground. A bitter version of the ground. Maybe this is appealing to some. It almost reminded me of kava in Vanuatu, without the intoxication factor. Harriet says that on the ferry from Argentina to Uganda (I’m almost positive she means Uruguay, but you never know) there is a sign over the toilets that says:
DON’T THROW MATE DOWN THE TOILET
This implies, of course, that lots of mate goes down the toilet.
We bought one bottle of Argentinian malbec and one bottle of Chilean cabernet sauvignon to help us along. Tescos Brixton only has one Argentinian wine, and it’s ten pounds. Chile is neighbours with Argentina, so we decided this was OK.
I must admit I’d never had manchego before, although I think I thought I had. Eaten with quince jelly, it is fecking delicious. I promised myself I would swear less in the run-up to my 30th birthday and subsequent transition into adulthood, but this combi was so good that it deserves at LEAST a half swear. FECK. YUM. Queso y dulce, or manchego and quince jelly, to the layperson, is a typical and popular dessert in Argentina. I found many recipes for quince jelly online; Harriet procured ours from Phoenicia Food Hall in Kentish Town.
You may wonder how dulce de leche fits into the equation. Actually, we intended to make alfajores (caramel cookies) for dessert but ran out of time, probably because of the wine. We ate it with a spoon instead.
1) Open wine
2) Nibble on manchego and quince
3) Make your dough: Beat one egg with salt and paprika, and add enough water to make about 1/2 cup of liquid. Combine lard (butter) and flour, stir in liquid gradually. Mix with your hands. This is the best way. Knead until smooth and elastic. Top tip – better to add more flour to dough than to be short on liquid. Let stand for at least 3 minutes before using.
4) Make your filling: For the chicken, lightly fry 1 medium onion, add scallion, 2 level tablespoons of flour and chicken broth. Add spices to taste – we used about 2 tsp paprika, 1 tsp cumin, and a hefty teaspoon of chili flakes, with some parsley for good measure. Cook for one minute and add shredded chicken, adding more water as needed. For the cheese, beat two egg yolks, add 1 tbsp flour and a pinch of salt. Beat egg whites until you’ve got nice little stiff peaks, blend your cheese (we used Tesco’s pizza cheese, and it worked just fine) into the yolk mixture and then add the whites, some salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. Don’t actually taste it though, because it’s raw egg. Et voila.
5) Open second bottle of wine
6) Using a rolling pin, roll out golf ball-sized pieces of dough into flat circles, about ten inches across and 1/4 cm thick. This was a step I failed to master. “This is not a circle,” I declared after every attempt. Although Harriet gave me a circle-making lesson, all I could manage were flat little pieces of dough that looked a bit like England.
7) Once the dough is rolled, fill with about a tablespoon of filling, wet the edges of the dough and fold over, pressing to seal. Make pretty. Or, don’t. It will taste the same regardless.
8) Bake until cooked. I wish I had more for you, but my oven is rubbish so it’s a bit hard to gauge.
THE VERDICT: The chicken filling was super tasty and authentic, says Harriet. I had expected the cheese to be a bit more gooey, but the nutmeg was a nice touch. The dough, unfortunately, was too floury, and I’m going to chalk it up to the butter. There is a reason that people cook with lard. It tastes good.
I actually think that the empanadas were better re-heated in the microwave the next day, but this may be because the next day I was minus two half bottles of red wine and could actually taste them.
Thanks again to Harriet for being an excellent partner in crime/dine/wine. Until next time. Olé!