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I’ve written here about the sacred 4 pm. merienda (afternoon snack) in Colombia before, the beloved fourth meal of the day between lunch and dinner. Merienda (also called “el algo”, “the something”) is often something sweet, along the lines of a pastry, or maybe one of the numerous cheese-based breads that Colombian bakeries excel at.
Or the merienda can be non-sweet, which normally means something fried, aka fritanga. Among other options, empanadas are always one of the most popular; freshly fried, topped with aji (hot sauce) and eaten just this side of burning the roof of your mouth off hot, they’re hard to beat with a cold beer on the side. People also eat empanadas for breakfast, replacing the beer with coffee. (Jokes about beer for breakfast aside, Colombia is not a place where you see people drinking alcohol before noon…and not for moral reasons either, people just generally seem to find the idea off-putting.)
There are many ways that distinguish Colombian empanadas from empanadas made in Argentina and other empanada-eating countries: the dough is made from corn instead of flour, they are always fried (Argentinean empanadas can be baked or fried), and they tend to be fairly small. The fried corn dough tastes a lot to me like Frito chips, which I love. Though recently vendors have begun to sell empanadas with several different fillings like cheese (and they dye the dough different colors so you can tell the difference), traditionally Colombian empanadas are filled with a mix of shredded beef, potatoes and green onions. Every vendor has their own jars of homemade ajis that are offered up to spoon over the empanadas; they can vary both in hotness and in ingredients.
Empanadas are fairly labor intensive, but like tamales you can make a bunch, freeze and then cook (or in this case, fry) them at a later date. Though they are a bit of a time commitment, the steps can be broken down over a couple of days, making the whole process much more doable. The dough can be made from areparina, the pre-cooked corn flour used to make arepas, or ground, cooked hominy (also used to make arepas, but more labor-intensive ones). Below I’ve given instructions for both versions, though unless you have a corn grinder, the areparina version is going to be your only (and much easier) option. The dough made from cooked hominy is a little bit better-- both in flavor and in texture-- but honestly, if I had access to areparina right now, I’d totally make that version. My arms are tired.
Given the length of explanation necessary for empanadas, I’ll be posting the recipe we like for aji at a later date. But you really can use any hot sauce you like, or even just a squirt of lime juice if you want to keep things simple.
For the beef and potatoes:
Place the beef, 2 c. water, the scallions, garlic, cumin, pepper and salt in a pressure cooker. (If you don’t have a pressure cooker, cook the meat in a covered pot until it’s tender, adding extra water so that the liquid never goes below halfway up the side of the meat. It will definitely take longer this way, though I can’t tell you how long because I always do it in the pressure cooker.) Cook under pressure for 1 hour (low heat). When the hour is up, release the pressure completely, take off the top, and stick your finger into the meat to see if it’s tender. If it’s still tough, put the top back on and cook under pressure, testing the meat every half hour until it is tender. Wait until the meat has cooled down, then remove the meat from the pot, leaving the liquid. (You can also refrigerate the pot with the meat in it overnight once the whole thing has cooled down, and continue the next day.)
Put the meat aside in a large bowl. Add the potatoes to the meat stock and bring the pot back up to pressure. When the top rises to release steam (about 10 minutes) they should be tender. (Once again, if you don’t have a pressure cooker, just cook the potatoes until tender, however long that takes.) While the potatoes cook, shred the meat by pulling it apart with your fingers. Add in the potatoes (leave any liquid behind in the pot) and mash everything together until you have a coherent mass. Now you’re going to make a green onion guiso to stir into the potato-beef mixture, like so:
Heat the oil in a small skillet over medium-low heat. Saute onions and garlic until soft and beginning to color. Add the mixture into the potato-meat mass and mix well. Cover in plastic and refrigerate until you’re ready to make the empanadas.
For dough made from cooked hominy: Pressure cook ½ lb. of white or yellow hominy until just tender (about an hour), then grind it while still warm with a corn grinder. Add salt to taste (you don’t want an overly salty dough but you definitely want it to taste like something) and (if using white hominy) turmeric to color the dough light yellow. Use your hands to knead the dough until the salt (and turmeric, if using) is evenly distributed and you have a smooth dough. Cover with plastic if you aren’t going to use it immediately so it doesn’t dry out.
For dough made from white or yellow areparina: In a large bowl, stir together 1½ c. areparina with 1½ c. water, 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil, a big pinch of salt, and a pinch of turmeric (if using white areparina). Knead the dough into a smooth mass; if it seems dry, add water by the tablespoon (you made need to add up to ½ c. of water depending on the humidity where you are) until you have a dough that is flexible when you pinch it (neither crumbly nor too soft). Form a ball and cover it in plastic. Let the dough rest for 15-20 minutes.
Form the dough into golf balls (if you want to be anal-retentative like me, I normally make them 40 g. each). Use this technique to form the empanadas: lay a thick plastic sheet (one side of an opened-up extra-large Ziploc bag would work well) on a counter and place one of the balls on the sheet. Giving the balls enough room to spread out when you roll it, double the plastic over the ball. Using a rolling pin or wine bottle or whatever else you have on hand, roll out the ball (under the plastic) until you have a thin circle-- the dough can be a bit transparent but not so thin it will break. Lift the plastic off the circles and add 2-3 Tbsp. (40 g.) of filling to the center of each circle, then use the plastic and a small bowl to help you seal the empanada. Make sure they are well sealed (pinch the ends with your fingers to help seal them). You can now freeze the empanadas, well wrapped, to fry whenever you like, or fry them immediately.
Line a large platter with paper towels and set it next to the stove. Heat a medium pot with a couple of inches of oil to deep-fry the empanadas. You want hot, hot oil (without burning the oil itself, of course). Fry the empanadas a couple at a time (if you put in too many, they bring down the temperature of the oil and they won’t crisp up). Take the empanadas out once they have turned golden brown and crispy. Remove to the paper towel-lined platter and continue frying the rest of the empanadas.
Serve the empanadas hot, with aji or any hot sauce. Makes ~16 empanadas. This recipe can be doubled or quadrupled (or multiplied by 20, don’t ask how I know) easily.