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Beef Empanadas

It seems the Sequester has had dilatory effects not only on the budget here in DC, but on the weather as well. We’ve waited far too long for spring, and last Sunday, I started to get impatient. There are only so many months for grilling, and I count April as one of them. So, on a whim, we invited a couple friends over for burgers Sunday night. If the weather won’t beckon me to the grill, I’ll beckon the weather.

By the time I had 8 burgers all pattied up and ready to go, there was quite a bit of ground beef left over in the bowl. It was then that I remembered this beef empanada recipe, which languished at the bottom of my to-make list for years, seeming too fussy for a weeknight. But now it was Sunday, and I had an hour or so before I needed to fire up the grill. I figured if I got the empanadas in the oven by the time folks came over, we’d have lunch for the week.

When Deb first made beef empanadas, she complained that the flavor fell flat. Fortunately, in my world, there never can be enough olives and raisins and spice. I amped up her quantities, which already were more than the original recipe called for. To my palate, the quantities below are perfect. The empanadas are super flavorful and even have a bit of a kick.

I thought about calling them “Vaguely Panamanian Beef Empanadas,” since I also drew inspiration from a Food and Wine recipe for Panamanian empanadas. However: I’ve never been to Panama (or anywhere in Central America, for that matter) and know nothing about Panamanian food. What makes these empanadas Panamanian? I couldn’t really tell you. Food and Wine called for annatto, or achiote, a fragrant red seed used for coloring and seasoning Central American food. But I don’t think annatto is Panamanian, per se. So these empanadas aren’t so Panamanian, and they may not be particularly authentic; they are, however, particularly good. You can whip them up in a couple hours and have lunch all week – or a fantastic appetizer for a dinner party.

Beef Empanadas
Adapted from this recipe and this one

Makes 40 4-inch empanadas

Notes: I took Deb’s advice to heart and upped the seasoning in my empanada filling, with great results. That said, feel free to adjust quantities up or down depending on your own preference. Don’t like olives? Skip ’em. Feel like a sweeter filling? Double the raisins. No quantity here is make-or-break. I’m not a big hard-boiled egg fan, so I used only one, but most recipes I saw call for two, so feel free to add an extra if you wish.

Let’s talk for a moment about the empanada dough. If you have or can find empanada dough ready-made, go for it. That makes this recipe even easier. If you can’t find premade dough but don’t want to make your own, I think that puff pastry would work reasonably well here, too. The final product won’t be quite the same, but I can’t imagine puff pastry filled with flavorful meat tasting bad, so from where I sit, it’s a go. Let me know if you try that.

I used Deb’s recipe, but I modified it to eliminate the dairy, swapping out the butter for olive oil. If that’s a priority for you, the olive oil definitely works, but it’s a fair bit more crumbly than a butter dough would be, and the dough requires 1.5 hours of refrigeration, compared to just 1 hour for the butter dough. It also NEEDS to be cold or else it’s impossible to work with. Work quickly, and refrigerate what you aren’t using. I imagine you’d have better results with an equal amount of margarine or shortening, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. And, of course, if you want to be totally authentic, you’ll use lard. Alternatively, if you’re a vegetarian, you could always substitute Morningstar Farms crumbles or other meat substitute. Now then: Go forth!

1 tablespoon olive oil
3/4 lb. ground beef, preferably chuck
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground annatto/achiote seeds
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 14-oz. can whole tomatoes, drained and chopped, plus 2 tablespoons juice; can substitute 2 large fresh tomatoes
3 tablespoons raisins
2 1/2 tablespoons chopped pimiento-stuffed olives (or regular green olives – we ran out of the pimiento ones)
1/2 a serrano chile, minced
1 large hard-boiled egg, chopped into bits

1 egg, for brushing

1 package frozen empanada pastry disks, thawed (or homemade, recipe follows)

If making empanada dough from scratch, start there (below these instructions) and make the beef filling while the dough rests in the fridge.

Make the filling: In a large shallow frying pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then add ground beef and spices and use a wooden spoon to break up any big chunks. Cook, stirring occasionally, until no pink bits remain, about 4 minutes.

Add onion and garlic, stir to combine, and cook until onion has softened slightly, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, stir to combine, turn the heat to high, and cook, stirring occasionally, until about half of the liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Spread meat mixture on a plate to cool it quickly.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and line 2 baking pans with parchment or silpat.

Roll out the empanada dough (recipe below): Lightly flour a workbench and roll one disk of the empanada dough to between 1/4 and 1/8 inch thickness. Cut 4-inch disks out of the dough and set them onto a lined baking sheet.

Put 1 1/2 tablespoons of filling onto each disk. Wet two fingers and “brush” water around the edges of each disk, then fold them in half and either crimp edges closed with the tines of a fork, or fold them together in a pleated pattern like this. Leave 1/2 an inch of room between empanadas so they crisp up.

Bake the empanadas: Once all empanadas have been filled and folded, brush them with egg wash (1 egg mixed with 2 tablespoons of water) and then bake for 25 minutes, until very lightly browned on top. Let cool on pans for 5 minutes, then serve either warm or at room temperature. Alternatively, let cool completely on racks, then transfer to a sealed container and store in the fridge for up to 1 week; reheat in a 300-degree oven for 10 minutes before serving.

Empanada Dough

2 cups (9 oz.) whole wheat flour
2 1/2 cups (11.25 oz) all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons salt
2 sticks (1 cup or 8 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes – or substitute 1 cup olive oil
2 large eggs
2/3 cup ice water
2 tablespoons white vinegar

In the bowl of a food processor, blend the flour, salt, and butter/olive oil until fully combined. (If you use butter, you’re looking for lima bean-sized bits of butter; if you use oil, the mixture will look far sludgier. Fret not.) Combine eggs, water, and vinegar, then add to the flour mixture and process until the mixture forms a uniform dough. If mixture looks too wet, add flour by the tablespoonful and pulse until the mixture looks drier.

Dump the dough onto a floured work surface and gather into a mass. Knead the dough a few times to bring it together, then divide it into 2 disks, cover each with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 6. (If you refrigerate it longer, you’ll want to bring it back to just colder than room temperature before working with it.)


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