Food wrapped in dough has a long and multi-ethnic history. And today—indeed, most days—I pay homage to the enterprising cooks who decided to envelope a tasty filling inside a pastry, bread, rice, corn or potato dough that would ultimately serve as both delivery device as well as its own element of deliciousness.
The Three Points cooks wax rhapsodic on dumplings, pierogies, knishes, bierocks, tamales, turnovers . . . but we have a definite attachment to empanadas: the Spanish transplant to Latin America that has hybridized in imaginative ways while still maintaining hints of the old country.
In Spain, the emapanadas come large—a full sheet of pastry, spread with filling and covered with a pastry top. Cut into squares, they are a tapas standard. My favorite is Galician comfort food: a saffron-kissed, barely yeasted dough filled with canned tuna and a flavorful, melty blend of green and red peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes, paprika and olives. Hot out of the oven or cold from the fridge, it is handheld happiness. I pulled my recipe from The New Spanish Table—though just about any Spanish cook book will have something similar.
Meanwhile on a recent trip to Mexico, where I thought I had had it all, I was blown away by a simple, savory version with a massive taste: plantain and black bean empanadas from Veracruz. Just three ingredients (if you use prepared refried black beans), one of them salt, fold together for a sweet-crunchy-meaty-hearty package that surprises and pleases. The “dough” is super-ripe plantains, boiled (with salt) and mashed. The filling is beans. That’s it, but so much more. We ordered one plate at Mexico City’s El Bajio restaurant—served with smokey-hot-sweet salsa negra—then ordered several more (almost missing the amazing green ceviche for all of our greed).
The plantain empanadas we had that night were fried, but I found—when I tried to recreate this dish at home—that they were just as tasty (and less likely to collapse) if baked with a spritz of oil. I served mine with fresh salsa verde cruda as a tart foil to the sweet plantain.