What's so special about empanadas?
Empanadas are complete little meals unto themselves. Everything you need - meat, vegetable, cheese, sauce - is neatly wrapped into a tasty crust, ready to travel. Like all great street food, empanadas can be eaten on the go with little fuss or mess. They taste good at room temperature, but they heat up quickly in the microwave or toaster oven, making them ideal for breakfast on the go. Their flaky crust soaks up the flavor of the filling and enhances it, whether it's vegetable, chicken, beef or seafood.
Why use leftovers?
By the end of the week, our refrigerator is often filled with an assortment of small containers, each filled with the leftovers from various meals. There's usually not much food in each container, barely a full portion of something like beans and rice, chicken soup, plain cooked rice, sautéed vegetables, a bit of beef stew, etc. No one seems to notice these containers, and they drift farther and farther back into the dark corners of the fridge.
Once you have accumulated a certain amount, there's a great way to give these leftovers new life. Make a batch of empanada dough, grab the leftovers and some random accoutrements like cheese, sour cream, onions, garlic, salad dressings, olives or whatever seems good, and get busy creating an assortment of empanadas. The flavors of the leftovers magically improve in the oven inside that flaky crust, especially if they've been mixed with something new.
You don't have to have different kinds of leftovers to do this. Perhaps you have house guests and you made a big pot of chili for dinner. Turn the leftover chili into a batch of empanadas and bring them along on the next day's outing. If you enjoy cooking a big meal on Sunday, transform the leftovers into empanadas that you can take for lunch all the next week. Some favorite South American meals that turn into good empanadas are aji de gallina, feijoada, seco de pollo, porotos granados, and moqueca de peixe.
Identifying Your Empanadas
You may wonder - how will I tell the chicken salad empanada from the beef stew empanada? There's a great solution for that, one that's used at empanada joints all over South America to distinguish between their house specialties. The key is the repulgue, or the fold that seals the edges of the empanada. Choose a characteristic repulgue for each type of empanada that you prepare. The leftover roast chicken with spicy sauce might get the pointy repulgue. The vegetarian one might get the pretty braided edge. Or you can vary the shape of the empanada itself. The empanada filled with ground beef and mashed potatoes might be round. The bbq pork empanada might be rectangular, its edges sealed with a fork, etc.
Your imagination is the only limit here. Grated cheese is almost always a good addition for starters. Choose a cheese that goes with your filling - mozzarella in the pizza-style empanada, cheddar with potatoes, or pepper jack with beans and rice, for example. If the leftovers seemed kind of plain or bland in their first incarnation, try adding some sautéed onions, garlic, and/or chile peppers. Crumbled bacon and a bit of ranch dressing go well with any kind of potatoes. Adding olives and raisins to ground beef or turkey for an empanada similar the famous Chilean empanadas de pino. A drawer full of slightly wilted vegetables can be revived by a quick sauté with some garlic and fresh herbs. Mix the sautéed vegetables with some ricotta cheese to make a nice filling for some delicious vegetarian empanadas. It's fun to experiment with all kinds of different combinations.
About the dough..
This standard empanada dough recipe makes about 12 medium-large empanadas, which can hold about 1/3 cup of filling each. To make the empanadas, separate the dough into twelve equal balls and let them rest on the counter while you gather your fillings. Roll one ball of dough into a 6-7 inch diameter circle on a lightly floured surface. Place about 1/3 cup of filling in the middle. Brush the edges of the circle very lightly with water and fold the circle of dough in half into a half moon shape, sealing the edges together firmly with your fingers while keeping the filling well inside. Shape the repulge, or edge, as desired (see this article about shaping empanadas for guidance). Repeat with remaining balls of dough, using the empanada shape and decoration to identify what's inside each one. Place the empanadas on a cookie sheet and brush them lightly with an egg yolk wash. Bake them in a 350 degree oven until they are golden brown (about 25-30 minutes), brushing them once more with egg about halfway through baking.
The same procedure works great for dessert empanadas, which can be filled with cooked fruit (cinnamon apples are a favorite), chocolate, dulce de leche, cream cheese, coconut, nuts, raisins, etc. Use pie crust for extra flaky dessert empanadas, and sprinkle them with a little bit of sugar after applying the egg wash.