My ma’s love language is feeding people, and she spent hours in the kitchen making favorites for my sisters and me — things like pernil, arroz con gandules, marinated pork chops, and all the Puerto Rican dishes I could ever want. But on the nights when she didn’t feel like spending a lot of time cooking, she’d whip up these empanadas and leave us feeling nourished with little-to-no mess in the kitchen. She’d call us in one by one and give us a hot, cheesy hand pie in a napkin, while snacking on one herself.
Before empanada discs and sazón were readily available at Target and local supermarkets around the country, Ma would purchase her ingredients at the Moore Street Market in Williamsburg, the culinary and cultural hub for Puerto Ricans living in Brooklyn. Along with everyday grocery items, they sell freshly made sorullos (cornmeal sticks) and papas rellenas (meat stuffed potatoes) and dozens of other Puerto Rican specialties I like to munch on while getting my shopping done.
Here’s Ma’s empanada recipe. She would usually make them with ground beef, shredded mozzarella, tomato paste, and various spices, but I like the vegetarian option just as much — both versions come together quickly.
Empanada discs can be defrosted either by leaving in the fridge overnight or just letting the discs sit at room temperature for 15 to 20 minutes before frying. There should be no frost. These pair well with short-grain white rice or freshly made maduros (fried plantains). Makes 10 Empanadas.
Canola or vegetable oil, for frying, plus 1 tablespoon
1 ½ cups (or 1 15-ounce can) cooked red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon sazón, such as Badia
1 teaspoon all-purpose adobo seasoning, such as Badia
A pinch of cayenne pepper
leaves from 1 stem cilantro (optional)
10 frozen 5-inch empanada discs, thawed
1 ½ cups shredded low-moisture mozzarella cheese
Prepare a large plate with 2 layers of paper towels. Set aside.
In a small frying pan, heat one tablespoon oil over medium heat and add red kidney beans. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes while gently mashing the beans with the back of a heatproof rubber spatula or spoon. While the beans are cooking, heat canola oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. There should be enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan and about ¼ of an inch up the sides.
To the beans, add tomato paste, sazón, adobo, cayenne pepper, and cilantro if using. Mix well until the beans resemble refried beans. Remove from heat.
One at a time, take an empanada disc and add two tablespoons of bean filling and 1 to 2 tablespoons of cheese in the middle of the disc. Take one side of the disc and cover the filling––giving you a half circle shape. With the back of a fork, seal the edges by pressing down on the open seam on both sides. Repeat for all empanada discs.
At this point, your frying oil should be between 325ºF to 400ºF. (If you don’t own a thermometer, take a wooden spoon and insert the tip of the handle in the hot oil for about 5 seconds––if bubbles form around the handle, the oil is ready.) Add 2 to 3 empanadas at a time to the oil and fry on both sides (flipping with tongs) until golden brown, approximately 30 seconds each side. Remove from the pan and place on the paper-towel-lined plate to drain excess oil. Poke with a fork to release excess steam. Serve immediately.
Bianca Cruz is an editorial assistant at Clarkson Potter and attends the Institute of Culinary Education.
P.S. Coming home dinners and stovetop lasagna for busy weeknights.
(Photos by Jenny Rosenstrach.)