Wednesday, September 27, 2006


April 12, 2000

Across Buenos Aires, a Tango With Empanadas

IT is not that I didn't expect to try empanadas during a visit to Buenos Aires, but rather that I never guessed they would become an obsession. I had eaten empanadas, those crisp, flaky half-moons of pastry puffed with savory meat fillings, in other parts of Latin America and at home in New York. I wondered how much better they would be in the country that seems to have the grandest passion for them.

What surprised me were the intriguing regional variations, described by the native aficionados I met at the beginning of my two-week stay in November 1999. Some were devotees of the hotly spiced Bolivian empanadas, in which a little meat is stretched with potato, while others lauded the milder fillings favored in Chile. All raved about the juicy specimens of the Tucuman province in the northwest semidesert, which is said to have the country's most refined regional cuisine. And most knew the outposts for the variations of Salta and San Juan Provinces.

Thoroughly tempted, my husband and I embarked on an odyssey through this graceful city, with its broad tree-lined boulevards and 19th-century Beaux-Arts buildings that recall the elegant sections of Paris.

Following the custom of the Portenos, the cosmopolitan inhabitants of Buenos Aires, we relied on these hot, hand-held pies for quick lunches, often downing four or five as a meal, or two or three as a snack.

Early on, we got some useful background information from Dereck Foster, the longtime food critic of The Buenos Aires Herald. An Argentine born to English parents, Mr. Foster is working on a book about empanadas, and he generously parted with details of a few of his favorite outposts, also pointing out that the word empanada means ''in dough.''

Empanadas may be baked or fried, but each method requires a rich sugarless pie dough. The trimly fit Portenos seem to prefer empanadas ''al horno,'' baked in the oven, although I agree with those who insist that frying works best when the fillings are made of meat. (Any New Yorker who doubts that fried empanadas can be ethereally light and greaseless will be reassured at the excellent little Chimichurri Grill on Ninth Avenue.)

In Argentina, empanadas are beautifully put together as appetizers in formal restaurants. But they taste best in the small bare-bones bakery shops where these pies are made, primarily for takeout. Most provide narrow counter shelves where diners stand or perch on high stools; very few shops have really comfortable tables and chairs. Prices range from about $1 to $1.50 for a three-and-a-half-bite pie.

We began our search-and-devour mission at El Sanjuanino, in the high-fashion Recoleta neighborhood. With snug booths, dark wood paneling and bright tiles, this tavern-cafe provides an easy entrance into the delights of the empanada, the specialty here being those from San Juan Province with green olives, hard-cooked eggs and, it is said, a touch of tomato, although I detected none. Other standard fillings are pale pink ham with a rich, melting white cheese and a hint of onion, and choclo, combining the soft white corn stew humitas with some whole kernels for texture. Here, as elsewhere, chicken proved dry and banal. On a second visit, we discovered that Sanjuanino's empanadas are freshest from 6 to 8 p.m., when habitues drop in for a few little pies and a glass of beer or local wine.

Tucuman called next, and we ventured to the residential and shopping section of Barrio Norte, and to La Querencia, an inviting, comfortable cafe stylishly done up in black and terra cotta. Beef for empanadas in Tucuman is diced with a knife -- ''picada a cuchillo'' -- instead of being ground. That results in a more toothsome filling. In fact, diners are advised to wrap a napkin around their wrist to catch the drippings -- a precaution that proved unnecessary. So was the warning about hot spicing; the amount of chili is tempered to the gentle palates of the Portenos.

Satisfied if not bowled over by that experience, we tried La Cupertina, our other Tucuman outpost, in a far-flung corner of the middle-to-lower-class residential section of Old Palermo. It was worth the trip. The charming bakery-cafe, with its blue and white decor, lively counter where food is displayed, and comfortable tables, served one of the two best empanadas that we found. The shop is run by Tucuman natives, Ramon Torres and his wife, Cecilia Hermann, who is the very accomplished cook.

Cupertina features the most mouthwatering, beefy baked empanadas, brightened with minced scallion greens and heady overtones of cumin and paprika. Other fillings were equally good, with the zanahoria (carrot) being a local favorite.

On to El Horno, and Bolivia, we thought, wending our way toward this small, barren shop in a part of Palermo bustling with bookstores and schools. The shop's focal point is the igloo-shaped clay and brick oven that is native to Bolivia. It turns out plump, lightly spiced empanadas that tied Cupertina's for first place.

Two kinds of meat fillings are offered: picante, the spiciest and juiciest we encountered, and suave, which is more gently seasoned. Potato and egg pleasantly fleshed out both versions. Even better were the little round pukakapas, which combined onions, soft cheese and fiery red chilies, and the pascualina, or Easter empanada, stuffed with Swiss chard and chopped egg bound with a light bechamel sauce.

Back to Barrio Norte, we tried our luck at tiny El Ladrillo, meaning ''the brick'' and referring to the walls and oven here. The specialty is a house creation: souffleed empanadas, each a miniature semicircular balloon, with good versions of standard fillings, most especially one of beef, raisins and olives.

So much for the good news. Not all our searches proved as rewarding. Empanadas from Salta (at La Justina) and Chile (at Los Chilenos) were disappointing. La Justina's were bland and tasted of overheated grease; at Los Chilenos, they were sherbet cold at the center.

Although we had many delicious and even wonderful empanadas, we were a little disappointed that the regional differences were not as marked as we had been lead to expect. A flaw, Mr. Foster told us, brought on by attempts at seasoning to please the common taste.

So what else is new?

Adapted from La Cupertina, Buenos Aires Time: 1 hour 15 minutes, plus 24 to 48 hours' marinating time

1 pound filet mignon, fat trimmed
1 cup finely diced and loosely packed beef suet (5 to 6 ounces) or very white, firm beef fat, or 3/4 cup sunflower or corn oil, or a half-and-half combination of beef fat and oil
1 cup finely chopped onion
1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons sweet paprika, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon hot red chili powder (cayenne or crushed dried red pepper flakes with seeds), or to taste
1/2 to 1 teaspoon powdered cumin
1 cup finely chopped scallions, green and white portions
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
Empanada pastry (see recipe).

1. Dice beef into 1/8- to 1/4-inch pieces. Place in bowl and cover with 3 cups boiling water. Let stand for 5 to 10 minutes, or until meat loses its raw, red look. Pour off water and drain meat thoroughly.

2. In a 1 1/2- to 2-quart heavy saucepan, slowly cook suet or beef fat until it melts, or heat oil. If using suet or fat, leave in the browned bits that remain after fat is rendered. Add remaining ingredients for filling, except scallions, sugar and meat; stir. Reduce heat and saute, stirring, for 5 minutes, or until onion softens.

3. Add meat and scallions and stir. Cover and simmer over low heat for 2 or 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Add one cup boiling water, cover loosely and simmer gently for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring frequently and adding water if needed to prevent scorching. Cook until beef is tender and water has evaporated, leaving an oily red liquid that should remain.

4. Adjust seasonings to taste, adding sugar only to offset excessive bitterness. If more spices are added, simmer gently another minute or two. Remove from heat, and when filling is cool, cover and place in refrigerator for 24 to 48 hours so flavor develops and liquids are absorbed by meat. Remove from refrigerator 30 minutes to 1 hour before filling pastry. Stir to redistribute spices.

5. Make empanada pastry. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Set out two shallow pans, preferably jellyroll pans with rims, large enough to hold 10 to 12 five-inch-long empanadas with an inch of space between them.

6. Place a rounded tablespoonful of filling in center of each round. Moisten edges of round with cold water and fold dough in half, making sure filling does not spread to edges. Press edges with fork to seal, or pinch into tiny tucks. (Filled, unbaked empanadas can be frozen for up to two weeks; thaw for two hours before baking.)

7. Arrange empanadas on pans. Bake in upper third of oven for 10 to 15 minutes, until pale brown. Cool for 3 to 5 minutes, then serve.

Yield: 20 to 24 empanadas.

Time: about 30 minutes, plus 30 minutes' resting time

2 teaspoons salt
4 1/2 to 5 cups flour
3/4 cup solid vegetable shortening, or 6 ounces beef suet, margarine or firm white beef fat.

1. Dissolve salt in 3/4 cup warm water. Sift 4 1/2 cups flour into bowl or food processor. Divide vegetable shortening into small clumps, or cut suet, beef fat or margarine into small pieces; add to flour. Blend fat and flour until you have a fine meal.

2. Add salted water until mixture forms a ball. If dough is very sticky, work in flour a tablespoon at a time.

3. Shape dough into a ball and turn onto a lightly floured surface. Knead vigorously for 10 minutes, or until it is very smooth and elastic. Reshape into ball, place in a bowl and cover with towel. Let rest for 30 minutes.

4. With lightly floured rolling pin, roll dough to 1/8-inch thickness on lightly floured surface. Cut into rounds with 5-inch cookie cutter; stack rounds.Cover with towel to prevent drying.

Yield: 20 to 24 pastry rounds.

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