August 30, 2012
Empanadas, Pumpkin Seed Salsa and Burning Your Food
I got some poblano peppers from the market last weekend, and there's really only one thing that I ever want to do to poblano peppers, and that's burn them. Lots of times, I also like to burn jalapeños.
Obviously, burning food is usually a no no - especially when it comes to garlic, which when burned, has the power to transform an entire dish into a sad and bitter mess. Seriously, there's no fixing it - if you burn the garlic, time to start again.
But, sometimes, it's ok to burn food. Sometimes, I even do it intentionally.
Maybe I use the word burn a little loosely. Most chefs would refer to what I'm talking about as 'charring' or 'fire roasting' or 'browning.' Let's call a spade a spade, those are all euphemisms for different degrees of 'burning.' I understand why we avoid the 'B' word. No one wants to order the burned corn, but everyone wants to order the fire roasted corn. Sole with burned butter sauce would be crazy, sole with brown butter sauce - a hot commodity. Vanilla ice cream with burnt sugar sauce, no thank you, but I'll definitely have a scoop of that vanilla ice cream with dark caramel sauce.
What is charred corn if not singed a little? What is brown, or even black, butter if not a slight burning of the milk fats? And to make a caramel, by definition, we must burn the sugar.
Most chefs might still argue that this is not truly burning food, it is browning or charring and that there is a fine line between the two. However, I think that, really, there is just a fine line between a successful burn and an unsuccessful burn.
If I had left these poblano and jalapeño peppers under the broiler for too long, I would have burned them past the point of where it is advantageous for flavor. It's true that when making caramel, there are different degrees of burning the sugar, and that it's entirely possible, and easy, to burn it so much that it's rendered inedible. Same applies to browning butter. Charring corn over an open flame is also a risky business. The flavors imparted from a light singe are welcome, but no one wants to eat corn on the cob that has become biochar.
Depending on the food, burning, aka browning, aka charring, is done to achieve different goals. In the case of corn, I think it's usually to caramelize some of the natural sugars, creating a sweeter, more concentrated flavor. For sugar, it allows us to have caramel. In butter, it develops a nuttiness that otherwise wouldn't show up. In this case, I intentionally burned the skins of my poblanos and jalapeños to bring out a layer of smoky flavor that naturally develops when charring pepper skins. It's the same idea behind the charring of eggplant.
So, let's feel the burn. When the powers of burning are harnessed and used properly, it can be a legit cooking technique. It's when done without intention that you're in trouble.
This dish is perfect party food - especially when you make them mini as I did here. You'll note in the picture above that, as usual necessity is the mother of invention, and I had to use the lid to a mason jar as my dough cutter. Alternatively, rather than pre-cutting the rounds, you can use a tortilla press to press rounds of dough into flats that are twice the size, producing a larger empanada.
~12 mini empanadas
What you'll need:
For the empanada dough
1 1/2 cups AP flour, plus more
1/2 cup masa harina
1/3 cup canola oil or vegetable oil, plus more
2 tsp agave nectar
1 tsp salt
For the Charred Poblano Filling
4 poblano peppers
1 Tbsp creme fraiche
salt and black pepper
For the Pumpkin Seed Salsa
1 cup pumpkin seeds, soaked in water
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 jalapenos, blackened and minced
1 tsp cumin
1 cup water, plus more
1 large handful cilantro, chopped
salt and pepper
In a large mixing bowl, whisk or sift together the flour, salt, baking powder and masa harina.
Add the oil and agave nectar - mix together well. Gradually add water until it forms a solid ball of dough. Depending on the flour, you might have to add a bit more oil if the dough is cracking and seems too dry.
Turn onto a lightly floured surface, knead for a minute or two until smooth.
Wrap in plastic and place in fridge to rest.
Preparing the Peppers
Turn the oven onto the broil setting.
On a baking tray lined with foil, lay the poblanos and jalapeños in an even layer.
Place the tray in the oven, about 4 inches from the broiler. Broil until the peppers have blackened on all sides - rotating every 15 minutes or so.
Once fully charred, remove from the oven and use the foil to wrap the peppers until they have cooled enough to handle.
For the poblanos - remove the stems and blackened skins and scrape the seeds away - if you rinse them under the tap, the seeds will come away easily.
In a food processor, puree the poblanos along with the creme fraiche and a pinch of salt, until smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning. Reserve to the side.
Remove only the stems from the jalapeños and mince them. Reserve on the side for the pumpkin seed salsa.
Pumpkin Seed Salsa
Drain the soaked pumpkin seeds.
In a large frying pan, sauté the minced garlic in the olive oil until fragrant, ~3 minutes.
Add the pumpkin seeds to the oil and sauté for another 4-5 minutes.
Season with salt and pepper.
Transfer the pumpkin seeds and garlic to the bowl of a food processor.
Add the cumin, chopped jalapenos and water. Puree until smooth, adding more water as necessary.
Transfer the puree to a bowl and mix well to incorporate the chopped cilantro.
Stuffing and Baking the Empanadas
Preheat the oven to 425ºF
Roll the rested empanada dough into a round that is roughly 1/8 inch thick.
Use a round cookie or biscuit cutter to cut rounds that are 3-4 inches in diameter.
Dollop a teaspoon or so of the poblano filling into the center of each round.
Lightly dampen the edges of each pastry round with water, which will act as a glue.
Fold the dough in half, over the filling and press the edges down to seal it.
Use the tip of a fork to create ridges along the semi-circular edge, which also helps to ensure the empanada is sealed.
On a baking tray lined with parchment, lay two rows of empanadas.
Place the tray into the oven and bake for around 12-15 minutes, or until golden brown.
Serve alongside the pumpkin seed salsa.
You can use honey or sugar in place of the agave nectar. I'm still on the fence about agave nectar, so I'm experimenting with it where I can.
There are empanada recipes that use only corn meal, if you want to make this gluten free.
You can add a touch more water to the salsa if you'd like to thin it out a bit, but I wanted a thick salsa so it would sit nicely on a bite of empanada.
These empanadas can also be deep fried if you prefer.