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My latest quarantine cooking project: beef and bean empanadas from scratch

Cravings seem even more powerful when you’re forced to stay home during the coronavirus.
Beef and black bean empanadas, made from scratch.
Beef and black bean empanadas, made from scratch. [ MICHELLE STARK | Times ]
Published Apr. 16, 2020

Every day is an emotional roller coaster when you’re living through a global pandemic, and in my house that definitely extends to the kitchen.

There are days I eat everything in sight, and others where I have absolutely no appetite. Some weeks, I cook dinner every night. Other weeks, I rely on snacks and the ultimate comfort meal: noodles and butter.

This past weekend, I decided making empanadas from scratch was the thing that would help me get through another claustrophobic couple of days at home.

I shared my journey on social media, mostly because as an extrovert I am deeply craving any kind of human connection, but also to hold myself accountable. I knew there was at least a 40 percent chance I would start these empanadas and then give up halfway through. Not only would that be a waste of precious ingredients, it would mean I had no empanadas to eat for dinner. Cravings that occur during a global crisis are very powerful.

I started the cooking project the way I start most kitchen experiments: Googling various recipes from places I trust. The results were all over the place: baked and fried, stuffed with beef or chicken or ham and cheese, garnished with olives and eggs.

The basic idea of an empanada is that it’s a pocket of dough filled with stuff and then either fried or baked. It is a popular dish in many cultures, and depending on where you go and who you ask, you’ll get different versions. In my quarantine kitchen, I made do with what I had.

After combining four or five recipes, and looking through my pantry and fridge, I landed on a filling: ground beef, seasoned with a couple of key spices, plus sauteed onions and black beans. If you have red bell peppers, you could throw those in, too. These would also work with cooked, pulled chicken. Or without beans.

The other major component is the dough. It’s not a yeast dough, but more like a pie crust. Lard is commonly called for in more traditional recipes, but butter also works and is what I had. Unlike pie crust, in which cold butter is mixed into flour, this recipe calls for melted butter. A little vinegar and water round things out, producing a buttery yet pliable dough that was much easier to work with than I anticipated.

This is an all-day cooking project, mainly because you must allow the dough to chill before working with it. Put it in the fridge and forget about it for a couple of hours. Make a cocktail. Zoom with your friends. Queue up some Netflix. Stare into the abyss.

And once your empanadas are formed, it’s important that they go back into the fridge before they are cooked. The chill helps the dough remain intact, to ensure your beef pockets don’t explode when you fry them.

Ah, yes, frying. If you are not confident in your ability to fry food in a hot vat of oil in your own kitchen, I understand. You can bake these instead. I tried it both ways, and both were delicious. If you bake them, they’ll go for about 20 to 25 minutes in a 375-degree oven. And make sure you coat the tops with an egg wash or more butter or oil, so they get nice and brown.

I didn’t really have enough oil for the ones I fried, and I did not do a great job of monitoring the oil’s temperature. But they still turned out great, glistening golden pockets of delicious.

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Plus, they satisfied a craving and took up five hours of a mundane weekend, which is all I can really ask of my cooking projects right now.

Beef and Bean Empanadas

For the dough:

¼ cup (½ stick) unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled

½ tablespoon apple cider vinegar

½ tablespoon kosher salt

3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for surface

For the filling:

Extra-virgin olive oil

About ½ pound ground beef

1 cup diced onion

2 garlic cloves, minced or grated

Salt

Black pepper

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

1 teaspoon dried oregano

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 (15.5-ounce) can black beans

Chicken broth, or water

Vegetable or canola oil

For the avocado sauce:

1 avocado

1 tablespoon mayonnaise

2 tablespoons Greek yogurt

Juice from 1 lime

1 clove garlic, minced or grated

Handful of chopped scallions, white and green parts

Make the dough: Mix butter, vinegar, salt and 1 cup lukewarm water in a large bowl until well combined. Gradually add flour, mixing with a wooden spoon or your hands until a shaggy dough forms.

Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and knead until mostly smooth and no dry spots remain, about 2 minutes. Form into a disc, wrap in plastic and chill until cold, at least 2 hours.

Make the filling: Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over high heat. Cook beef, breaking up with a spoon, until browned but not completely cooked through, 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl with a slotted spoon, leaving as much fat in pan as possible.

Reduce heat to medium and cook onion and garlic, stirring, until tender but not browned, 6 to 8 minutes. Season with salt and black pepper, then add cumin, paprika, oregano and cayenne. Add a bit of olive oil if the pan is dry. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute.

Add reserved beef along with any accumulated juices to pot. Add black beans. Add ½ cup chicken broth to loosen the mixture slightly, stirring to incorporate. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring and scraping up any brown bits, for about 5 minutes.

If mixture is totally dry, add a splash more chicken broth; you don’t want it soupy, but some moisture is good. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. Remove from heat and transfer to a bowl. Let cool completely, or store in the refrigerator overnight.

Make the empanadas: Remove dough from fridge and divide into three pieces. Return two to fridge and roll out the remaining one on your counter into a large rectangle. You want it pretty thin (about 1/16 inch thick if you have a way to measure). Cut out 6 rounds from the rectangle of dough; I used a 4-inch circle biscuit cutter. You can use anything that’s about 4 and 5 inches in diameter. Roll out scraps and make as many more circles as you can.

Transfer circles to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Repeat process with the other two pieces of dough. (Or freeze one or both for later.)

Place 1 to 2 tablespoons beef and bean mixture in the center of each dough circle. Using your fingers, brush water halfway around edge of each round. Fold dry side up and over filling to create a semicircle. Pinch edges to seal; crimp with your fingers or use the edges of a fork.

Chill empanadas on baking sheet in the fridge, at least 20 minutes before frying.

Pour vegetable or canola oil into a large heavy pot or Dutch oven fitted with deep-fry thermometer to a depth of about 3 inches. Heat over medium-high until thermometer registers 350 degrees. Working in batches of about five at a time and adjusting heat to maintain oil temperature, fry empanadas, turning often, until deep golden brown, cooking about 4 minutes total.

Remove to a wire rack or paper towel-lined plate and let cool slightly before eating.

Make the avocado sauce: Pit and peel avocado, then add to a medium bowl. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix until well combined. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed.

Makes about two dozen, depending on how large you make them.

Source: Michelle Stark, Tampa Bay Times

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