Last June my friend M and I took a cooking class at The Pantry at Delancey in which we learned how to make empanadas from the incomparable Lisa Nakamura. (Lisa recently opened Gnocchi Bar and you should go, probably tonight.) We made three different doughs with three separate fillings and two sauces– it was a feast. It was so much fun. Since the class, I’ve made empanadas a handful of times, most often with the pork filling we learned in class. They turn out well, but the truth is that pork filling, while tasty, is time consuming (two solid days of cooking and resting if done right) and I have to really plan ahead to work with it. Then there are the times I don’t want pork, or my dinner guests don’t eat pork, but the vegetarian filling we made in class is not my favorite. I decided it was time to create a few fillings of my own, and this is what I came up with: creamy black beans with sweet red onion and cilantro, and Mediterranean-inspired dark greens with garlic. I can’t choose a favorite. Served with my version of the spicy and sweet chipotle sauce we learned in class, these vegetarian empanadas are spectacular.
The dough recipe I’m sharing is the one Lisa taught us, with no changes. It’s perfect, as far as I’m concerned: easy to make and work with, tasty, and reliable. You can find masa harina in most grocery stores; I like the one from Bob’s Red Mill, which is also available online. To make the empanadas, a tortilla press is helpful but not crucial. It is a handy tool to have; I picked mine up from Amazon for about $25. You could use a rolling pin, too. This recipe makes just about 20 empanadas using a golf ball-sized (roughly 1.5 oz.) ball of dough for each. The dough can be made a day ahead.
The chipotle sauce recipe is also Lisa’s, though I use less water and substitute dried tart cherries for the Goji berries she used. I’ve also had great results with dried blueberries, and imagine dried cranberries would work well. Cacao (or cocoa) nibs are starting to show up more often in the bulk area of grocery stores, which is handy since you only need a few tablespoons for this sauce. I like the ones from Theo Chocolate if you are looking for a source online. (If you have any left over, try them in cookies, brownies or muffins.) This sauce is pretty spicy, which I love in combination with these mild fillings; if you don’t care for spicy food, any salsa would be delicious instead. I recommend making the chipotle sauce several hours, even 1-2 days, in advance so the flavors meld and develop.
Now the fillings! Each filling recipe below is written to make 10 empanadas. I like how they complement each other and make both at the same time; if you only plan to make one of the two, double the filling recipe or cut the dough recipe in half. For the greens, I most recently used a mix of turnip and radish tops, but have had luck with beet greens, kale, Swiss chard, spinach and a mix of these. You will need a good amount– dark greens really cook down!– so keep this recipe handy when your garden is in full swing. The greens I used came from 2 bunches of turnips and a bunch of radishes; after culling damaged leaves, washing, spinning and drying the greens, I had 12 oz. to cook. Cooked down, they were almost exactly two cups. The cheese is optional but recommended; cotija is a great way to go, but feta is always in my refrigerator, so use what works best for you. The black bean filling is made with cooked beans; either homemade or canned will work. (I use my pressure cooker to make 4-6 c. of beans at a time and freeze the extras.) You could substitute pinto beans or cannelini beans for a change of pace.
Empanadas are just so much fun to make, well worth the hour or so it takes to put them together. If you have a few helping hands, you can form an assembly line and have them in the oven in no time! With these easy-to-make filling options, a batch of delicious vegetarian empanadas can– and should– be on your next meal plan.
Vegetarian Empanadas (makes about 20)
- 2 c. flour
- 1 c. masa harina
- 1 tsp. kosher salt
- 12 T. unsalted butter, cold, cut into small cubes
- 2 large egg yolks
- 1 tsp. white or cider vinegar
- 1/2 c. water
Dark Greens Filling:
- 12 oz. fresh dark greens (2 cups cooked)
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- 1 tsp. fresh lemon juice or white vinegar
- 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
- generous pinch of kosher salt
- 1 oz. crumbled feta or cotija cheese (optional)
Black Bean Filling:
- 1 T. canola oil
- 1/4 c. minced red onion
- 2 c. cooked black beans
- 1/4 tsp. dried oregano
- 1 tsp. white or apple cider vinegar
- generous pinch of kosher salt
- 1 egg white
- 2-3 T. fresh cilantro, torn into small pieces
Spicy & Sweet Chipotle Sauce:
- 2 T. cacao nibs
- 1/4 c. dried tart cherries
- 1/4 c. hot water (just under boiling)
- 1/4 c. apple cider or red wine vinegar
- 2 T. honey
- 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
- 2 tsp. chipotle powder
Start by making the dough. Put the flour, masa harina and salt into the bowl of a food processor and pulse to combine. Add the cold butter and pulse until you have a coarse meal. In a small bowl (or Pyrex measuring cup so you have a pour spout), mix together the egg yolks, water and vinegar; with the food processor running, slowly stream the liquid in to the flour mixture, stopping as soon as it’s all in. Turn the mixture out into a large bowl and knead lightly to finish mixing. At this point you can cover the bowl and rest the dough until you need it, up to a day, or proceed.
Make the sauce: to the jar of a blender (the Twister jar of my Blendtec is perfect), add the cacao nibs, dried cherries, hot water and vinegar. Allow this mixture to sit for at least 30 mins. to soften the nibs and cherries. Add the remaining ingredients to the jar and blend until smooth. There will be some texture to the mix, but it should not be chunky.
To make the dark greens filling, carefully wash and dry your greens, then roughly chop them. Heat a large skillet over medium heat and, working in batches, wilt the greens. I did mine in three batches. I wilt the greens in a dry pan; if yours stick, add a small amount of water to steam them off the pan. As soon as they are wilted, transfer to a colander. When the greens are all wilted, and cool enough to handle, press them to release excess liquid. Turn them out onto a cutting board and chop them finely. Place the chopped greens into a large bowl and add garlic, lemon juice or vinegar, dried oregano and salt. Allow to sit for 10-15 mins.; more juice will be pulled out by the salt. Drain again and toss in the crumbled cheese, if using. Use about 2 T. of greens filling to make each empanada.
To make the black bean filling, heat a skillet over medium heat. Add 1 T. canola oil and cook the red onion until it begins to soften, about 3-5 mins. Drain and rinse the beans and then add them to the skillet. Use the back of a spoon to lightly crush some of the beans; this will help bind them into a creamy filling. Add the oregano, vinegar, salt and egg white and cook for another minute or two; remove from the heat. Cool slightly before stirring in the cilantro. Use about 2 T. of the black bean filling to make each empanada.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. To assemble each empanada, pull a golf ball-sized ball of dough from the bowl and roll it loosely into a ball. You can measure the dough at first to get a feel for the amount; each ball should be about 1.5 oz. If the dough resists holding a ball shape, add a few teaspoons of water and mix, then try again. You want the dough to be more dry than sticky, so be conservative with water– and patient. Cracks in the empanadas can generally be pressed together, or sealed with a little water on your finger. Rustic-looking is fine– there’s no need for perfection.
Line the tortilla press with two sheets of plastic wrap and place the dough between the plastic. Press until flat; peel the dough off the plastic carefully and place onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Place about 2 T. filling in the center of each round of dough and gently fold in half; use your fingers to seal the edge. If the greens filling is wet, pour excess liquid out of one side before sealing.
When you have made all your empanadas, bake for 20 mins. Serve warm with abundant chipotle sauce or salsa, etc. I like a little sour cream with mine, too. Leftovers can be reheated and will keep for about 3 days. If you have extra filling, either flavor, add it to scrambled eggs for a delicious breakfast. Leftover sauce is great with a whole slew of things; I like to put a little over a rice bowl with beans and vegetables, or use it to make an awesome roast pork sandwich.