Sunday, September 26, 2010

Empanadas: a pocket full of Cuban flavor

I’ve been lucky enough to make it through round one of the Project Food Blog competition. Needless to say, I’m pumped! This week we’ve been asked to embrace another culture and take on the challenge of recreating a classic ethnic dish. I’m a half Italian (hooray for Lasagna) and half Hungarian (bring on the sour cream) girl, so Cuban food isn’t exactly something I have any life long experience with.

My husband is half Cuban. On Christmas Eve instead of celebrating the Feast of the Seven Fishes that every Italian kid was part of, his family makes pernil (slow roast pork) black beans and rice and platanos maduros (fried sweet bananas). I was a total skeptic, bratty even. How’s it going to feel like Christmas Eve without everything I’m used to?

After the first bite, I immediately dropped my reservations. There’s something about a hearty bowl of black beans and rice that can make an outsider instantly feel like family. Cuban food is just plain comforting. You can feel the love in it. I thought this contest would be a cool opportunity to take a stab at recreating some of the flavors from my husband’s childhood. Operation “learn to be a respectable honorary Cuban” is on!

It was pretty tricky to find a classic Cuban meal that fits into the Diet It Up philosophy. Fried bananas and white rice are not exactly staples in my diet. I remember hearing about Grandma’s Ropa Vieja. Ropa Vieja is a tomato based Cuban beef stew and it literally means, “old clothes.” Who came up with a silly name like that? So, I did a little research. Since the stew is made of shredded beef and thin slices of peppers and onions, the resulting dish looks like a mess of shredded old rags. Ah ha! Very clever!

“Authentic” is a tricky word to master in ethnic cooking. Food is inherently regional. In the US, some people put mustard on their hamburger. But here in NY, if you send a burger out of the kitchen with mustard, we’re sending it right back. Some variations on Ropa Vieja use flank steak. Grandma used chuck roast so, I’m going with chuck.

The roast is browned and then slowly braised in a Dutch oven. If you want to hop on the American crock-pot bandwagon, you can certainly make the roast in the crock-pot. I normally shy away from fatty cuts like chuck, but you need the moisture. It helps the meat to shred nicely. I don’t trim any of the fat before cooking. I let the meat cool in the braising liquid and skim off any grease that collects on top. I also remove any remaining fatty bits from the meat while shredding.

The stew is finished with a rich, tomato based sauce laced with sautéed green peppers and onions. A true Cuban would serve a scoop of stew with yellow rice. I would of course go with brown rice. But no matter what your rice preference, Ropa Vieja is an amazingly flavorful Cuban dinner. The slow-cooked element really secures that classic Cuban feel.

But isn’t this supposed to be a recipe for empanadas, you ask? I took the leftover stew and transformed it into ROPA VIEJA EMPANADAS. Who’s the clever one now?! If you aren’t familiar with them, empanadas are stuffed, crescent-shaped pastries. Cuban empanadas are typically filled with meat and then deep-fried. They can be eaten for lunch or as a mid-day snack.

I took a short cut from the American supermarket and bought the dough pre-made. Goya makes “discos” in the frozen food aisle that work just as well as making dough from scratch. But if you have a favorite pastry dough recipe, by all means, put it to good use here. Once the dough is filled with stew, I crimp the pockets closed to form the classic crescent shape. I’m breaking from tradition slightly to bake instead of fry. Sorry Grandma, it had to be done.

After just a few minutes in the oven, the pastry dough puffs up and turns a beautiful golden brown. Even without frying, the dough is still flaky and the stew stays nice and juicy on the inside. For a health conscious eater, empanadas are pre-portioned. I’ll eat one for lunch and won’t be tempted to go back and scoop a second portion. This really is the perfect Cuban meal to-go. We gobbled them up in a few minutes flat.

I may not be a little Cuban grandma, but I know I did my husband’s family proud with this meal. It was authentic and delicious. I might have even earned the highly regarded “honorary Cuban” status after all!

* Voting opens on Monday, September 27th on FoodBuzz. Remember to vote for your favorite healthy home cook, me!

Empanada on Foodista


  1. I love Cuban food. One of my friends back in high school was Cuban and I always loved eating with her family.

    That's so cool how you found ways to keep it traditional but still lighten it up some.

  2. My co-worker loves Empanadas and just demanded a vote for you. I agree. They look tasty. Good luck in the competition :)

    Shelly, Nibbles of Tidbits

  3. this looks delicious :) Good luck with project food and you got my vote for this one! Feel free to drop by :) Good luck and best wishes for making to the top !! WOOHOO

    jen @

  4. I love that you always cook with your heart. When I need some quick inspiration in my life, I always drop on over...:)

  5. This looks amazing! I have always wanted to make empenadas and I love hoe lavorful and mois these look. You have my vote!

  6. I love empanadas! Yours look mouthwatering!! I voted! :) Good luck to both of us in the competition!

  7. Love the empanadas! They sound fantastic! Good luck in the competition!

  8. I was reading this post wondering when the empanadas were coming, reading about a dish that sounds incredible but not an empanada. That was an American Idol-esque delay of amazing results. I must bestow a vote upon your blog and these empanadas, best of luck moving on!

    Lick My Spoon

  9. These look delish! Good luck in the competition.
    Kellie @ Blackboard Kitchen

  10. These look fabulous! Yum! You have one of my votes. Good luck!