Cooking with Celia
This past week was my older sister Cami’s birthday, so I have been wound up planning an informal, low-key picnic in Central Park for 40 people. When I sent out the evite, I was worried that people wouldn’t be able to make it. When the RSVPs climbed, I was worried they all meant it when they said they were. I did my best to anticipate any logistical problems – were the bathrooms at the Delacorte Theater open, were leashed dogs allowed on the Great Lawn, were you allowed to hang a piñata from Central Park’s look-but-don’t-climb trees? (Answers: Yes, Yes, and Not if they see you). I prayed for sun but when I woke up to a gray Saturday morning, I was overwhelmed by the enormous number of things left to do for a picnic that was so obviously going be awash in early afternoon thunderstorms and soaked donkey piñatas.
I wanted Cami to have the classic Cuban spread – cangrejitos (crab-shaped puffs filled with sweet ham), crispy croquetas, meat filled empanadas, bocaditos (small white bread sandwiches filled with flavored cream cheese), and pastelitos de guayaba. Armed with 4 sheets of puff pastry, 3 bricks of cream cheese, ham and picadillo fillings, and the last of the homemade guava paste I’d brought from home, I set to work. To add a further complication, I was also settling in my mother and Chiqui who had arrived the night before for a two week stay (Chiqui being the 8 pound chihuahua who has replaced me in my mother’s affections).
The few hours I had given myself to prepare evaporated between finding extra closet space, outlets for chargers and rolling out emapanada dough. With just an hour to go, it seemed hopeless, and I started weighing the evils of less food versus having friends wandering the park looking for a spot that hadn’t been staked out. Then someone, probably Chiqui, set my iTunes to Celia Cruz. Now while listening to Celia cannot solve every problem, it does make unhappiness almost impossible. Somewhere Between Cao Cao Mani Picao and Oye Mi Rumba, time slowed enough for me to finish my first empanadas and my mother to cut the crusts of my sister’s favorite tuna bocaditos. By the time I climbed up the subway stairs to 81st Street & Central Park West with a box full of Cuban treats and five minutes to spare, I could finally see the blue skies I first felt when Celia started singing.
Empanaditas/Little Spanish Turnovers
Both recipes adapted from A Taste of Old Cuba by Maria Josefa Lluria de O’Higgins. I love her recipes and rely on them because they’re very traditional but not heavy.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 cups filling (recipe for Picadillo Clásico below)
1 1/2 to 2 cups vegetable oil
Combine flour, salt, and sugar into a large bowl. Cut in the butter using a pastry blender or two knives crossed like scissors until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal.
Mix the egg with the wine in a small bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour in the liquid. Toss the mixture gently to blend then knead the dough until well mixed. Chill for 2 hours.
On a floured surface, roll out the dough to about 1/8 of an inch and cut it into circles about 2 inches in diameter. Place a tablespoon of filling in the center of each circle and fold in half. Seal the edges with the tines of a fork.
Heat the oil in a large skilled or deep fryer* to about 375 degrees. Fry the empanaditas in batches of 4 until golden. Drain them on paper towels.
Makes 24 small or 12 large empanadas.
Empanadas can be filled with any fish, beef, vegetables or guava and cheese. I chose to include the recipe for picadillo below because it’s the most popular filling and because it’s very versatile. People have very strong ideas about adding raisins and tomato paste. Personally, I am pro-raisin but anti-tomato paste.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
1 large green bell pepper, cored, seeded, and chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 pound extra-lean ground beef
1/4 cup tomato sauce
1/4 cup sliced, stuffed green olives
1/4 cup raisins
1 tablespoon capers
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 6-ounce jar of pimientos, drained and sliced
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and green pepper and saute about 3 minutes until translucent. Add the garlic and saute an additional 2 minutes.
Add the beef and break it up so there are no lumps. Add the remaining ingredients except the red peppers and simmer covered over low heat for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Garnish with the red peppers. Can be used as a filling for empanadas or served over fluffy white rice.
Makes filling for 24 small emapanaditas or 12 large.