Essential Chef Blogs

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Empanada Tasting

Tray of empanadas at El Mercado Food Mart

Empanadas are delicious, filled pastry snacks and an essential element of Latin American cuisine.They are either baked or fried.We sampled both types and we always preferred the fried, of course.French fries aren't the #1 vegetable in America for nothing.And the fried may even be more authentic.We were told that fried empanadas were the original empanadas in Argentina.The gauchos' cooks rendered beef fat and then deep-fried these tasty on-the-job treats.

Display of different shapes and their fillings at 5411 Empanadas

There are as many versions of empanadas as there are countries in south and central America.The word empanada comes from the Spanish empanar, "to encase in bread".These snacks have just two components, the filling and the dough.We ate empanadas filled with beef, chicken, pork, cheese, dates, bacon.The dough can be made with wheat flour, corn flour, even cassava, but we only found wheat flour based ones.  There are many ways to seal the filling in the dough, from the simple -- using the tines of a fork -- to the artful, with various crimps and twists.  By looking at the outside of a 5411 empanada, you will know what is inside.

Lito's fried empanada

Lito's Empanadas (http://www.litosempanadas.com/)

2566 N. Clark

$2.99 each

Lito's fries its empanadas.The owner is Mexican and the recipes are originally Columbian.The empanadas are prepped the night before and then fried to order.We tried two:the ground beef, olives, raisins, potato, onion; and the spinach, mozzarella, and onion.Sharon and I both liked the beef empanada, which was moist and flavorful, with a hint of cumin.We thought the spinach one was too bland.They were served with two dipping sauces, a mayonnaise-based, sweet sauce, and a very spicy, chimichurri sauce.The dough was flaky, not too thick at the edges, and the fried product wasn't greasy, i.e. it was fried at the proper temperature.


Baked Malbec beef empanada at 5411 Empanada

5411 Empanadas (http://5411empanadas.com/)

2850 N. Clark

$2.50 each (plus $.50 for each of the two sauces)

5411 (the country code of Argentina) bakes its empanadas.We sampled the Malbec beef and the bacon/dates/goat cheese.Their fillings definitely lean toward the modern and upscale.The beef tasted like beef stew in a pastry crust.(But a good beef stew.)The bacon/date/cheese was too sweet for me, but Sharon liked it.Once you place your order, the empanadas are sent through a conveyor belt oven and take about 5 minutes to cook.We didn't like their dough as much as Lito's; it was drier, more rubbery/elastic.But that is the difference between frying and baking.5411 empanadas do have the advantage that they travel well.Fried food is best eaten right away.

Café Tola (http://www.cafetola.net/)

3612 N. Southport

$4 each

Café is a misnomer.There is no place to sit and eat these snacks.It is totally a take-out operation.Their empanadas are fried.Although they are the most expensive of the places that we visited, they are also the largest, with a generous amount of filling.We tasted the steak and potatoes and the red spicy pork/beans/potatoes.Surprisingly, the steak and potatoes was much spicier than the red spicy pork.The steak was spicy but not in a particularly flavorful way, it was just hot.The spicy pork was bland.We loved the dough though.

Fried chicken empanada with chimichurri sauce

El Mercado Food Mart (http://folklorechicago.com/El_mercado/home.html)

3767 N. Southport.

$1.50 for fried; $1.99 for baked

We were surprised that a food market has such good empanadas.They offer both fried and baked versions.The deep fried chicken was moist and flavorful, not spicy.But the baked chicken was too dry.A chimichurri sauce for dipping did help alleviate the dryness.They are pre-cooked and sitting in a warming tray near the check-out counter, so it may be the luck of the draw, how fresh they are.

Our favorites?My vote goes to Lito's ground beef – moist, flavorful, perfectly cooked.Sharon preferred the deep-fried chicken empanada from El Mercado. And we agreed that these two were the top two for both of us.

Frozen empanada dough

​ El Mercado sells frozen empanada dough, both for deep frying and for baking.I wanted to try my hand at making my empanadas, so I picked up a frozen package of dough to take home and create my own empanadas.The wrappers were actually quite good, easy to use, and the resulting empanadas were delicious

Homemade empanadas

"Home-made" empanadas (using store-bought wrappers.)

Filling (enough to make at least a dozen empanadas):

1 russet potato, peeled and diced

Olive oil for cooking

1 shallot, diced

½ red bell pepper

3 garlic closes, minced

3 Tbsp. tomato paste

1 tsp of ground cumin

½ tsp paprika

½ tsp of red pepper flakes

1 pound of ground sirloin

To prepare the filling:

  • 1.Cook diced potato in salted water.Drain and then roughly mash (leaving chunks of potato intact)
  • 2.In a sauté pan, over medium heat, add olive oil and cook the shallots until soft
  • 3.Add the red pepper and cook a couple of more minutes
  • 4.Add the garlic and cook for another minute
  • 5.Add the tomato paste, cumin paprika, red pepper flakes and cook for a minute
  • 6.Add the ground beef and cook until browned
  • 7.Mix in the cooked potatoes and add salt to taste

To prepare the fried empanadas

  • 1.Thaw a dozen empanada wrappers, according to the package instructions
  • 2.In a pot, heat 2 inches of vegetable oil to 350 F.
  • 3.Put a Tbsp. of filling in the center of the empanada
  • 4.Brush the edges of the dough with water
  • 5.Fold the dough in half and crimp the edges with the tines of a fork
  • 6.Gently place in the hot oil using a slotted spoon, either two or three at a time.Don't crowd the pot.
  • 7.Cook until golden brown, about two minutes, turning gently half way through
  • 8.Drain on paper towels and keep in a warm oven until all the empanadas have been cooked.
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