Empanada odyssey: A journey to the heart of turnover country

A trip to Argentina brings a new appreciation for the tasty turnovers, which are all too easy to fall for in their Utah incarnations.

By Christopher Smart The Salt Lake Tribune

Published August 9th 2012 10:04 am



Salta, Argentina • Ahh, so that's an empanada!

A spicy epiphany came over me at an outdoor cafe in the colonial city of Salta, tucked among the foothills of the Argentine Andes. Mountains or not, I was close to heaven.

All across Argentina, but particularly in the northwest region, empanadas -- called saltenas -- have been raised to an art form. Something like the aura surrounding barbecue in Memphis, Tenn., but with a little less braggadocio.

Empanadas aren't always easy to find in Utah. While I'd heard the word "empanada" before my trip, I'd never actually eaten an authentic doughy turnover. They can be filled with most anything; chicken and cheese are popular. But Salta is famous for ?-- and proud of -- its spicy beef saltenas. They will tickle you right down to your dedos.

Having finally discovered empanadas on a recent trip to the stunning South American country -- thank you serendipity -- I was on the hunt for the best of the best. At the Plaza de la Empanada -- which, like much of the rest of Salta, looks like the set from a Zorro movie -- these delicacies are hand-made in front of your eyes and then baked. The inviting aroma arrives at your table before they do. Ooh, man.

Once you bite into one of these tasty little turnovers you'll swear it was worth your quest to seek them out. But don't mistake this for a travel story. It's about empanadas -- not an adventure through Argentina.

--

To the center of the empanada universe • To find these authentic gems of flavor, you'll have to suffer through all things Argentine; the architecture, the wine, the music and the dance -- Tango. Nobody said it would be easy.

In order to get to Salta, you'll first have to fly to Buenos Aires, the famously sexy Argentine city on the banks of the Rio de La Plata, where the river flows into the Atlantic Ocean. Buenos Aires is defined as much by its people, who are devoted to an eccentric lifestyle centered on food, wine and music, as it is by its wonderful architecture, which is decidedly European.

At every little cafe or large restaurant in Buenos Aires -- and there seem to be hundreds of them from the art district of La Boca to Evita Peron's tomb in Rigoletta -- you'll find linen table cloths and crystal wine glasses. And there's no rush when eating. But don't go to dinner before 9 o'clock, unless you like dining alone.

Some 15 million Argentines live in and around Buenos Aires. But Argentina is a huge country with plenty of wide open spaces and is home to as many cattle ?-- 40 million -- as people.

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Salta, Argentina • Ahh, so that's an empanada!

A spicy epiphany came over me at an outdoor cafe in the colonial city of Salta, tucked among the foothills of the Argentine Andes. Mountains or not, I was close to heaven.

All across Argentina, but particularly in the northwest region, empanadas -- called saltenas -- have been raised to an art form. Something like the aura surrounding barbecue in Memphis, Tenn., but with a little less braggadocio.

Empanadas aren't always easy to find in Utah. While I'd heard the word "empanada" before my trip, I'd never actually eaten an authentic doughy turnover. They can be filled with most anything; chicken and cheese are popular. But Salta is famous for ?-- and proud of -- its spicy beef saltenas. They will tickle you right down to your dedos.

Having finally discovered empanadas on a recent trip to the stunning South American country -- thank you serendipity -- I was on the hunt for the best of the best. At the Plaza de la Empanada -- which, like much of the rest of Salta, looks like the set from a Zorro movie -- these delicacies are hand-made in front of your eyes and then baked. The inviting aroma arrives at your table before they do. Ooh, man.

Once you bite into one of these tasty little turnovers you'll swear it was worth your quest to seek them out. But don't mistake this for a travel story. It's about empanadas -- not an adventure through Argentina.

--

To the center of the empanada universe • To find these authentic gems of flavor, you'll have to suffer through all things Argentine; the architecture, the wine, the music and the dance -- Tango. Nobody said it would be easy.

In order to get to Salta, you'll first have to fly to Buenos Aires, the famously sexy Argentine city on the banks of the Rio de La Plata, where the river flows into the Atlantic Ocean. Buenos Aires is defined as much by its people, who are devoted to an eccentric lifestyle centered on food, wine and music, as it is by its wonderful architecture, which is decidedly European.

At every little cafe or large restaurant in Buenos Aires -- and there seem to be hundreds of them from the art district of La Boca to Evita Peron's tomb in Rigoletta -- you'll find linen table cloths and crystal wine glasses. And there's no rush when eating. But don't go to dinner before 9 o'clock, unless you like dining alone.

Some 15 million Argentines live in and around Buenos Aires. But Argentina is a huge country with plenty of wide open spaces and is home to as many cattle ?-- 40 million -- as people. [2] =>

For many, when the words "food" and "Argentina" come together, this translates to steak. It could be the grass-fed cattle, or the perfect aging of the meat, or how they cook it over an open flame. Whatever it is, superlatives fall short of the delicious phenomenon.

And, yes, tradition insists you wash that wonderful Argentine steak down with red wine, which is plentiful, affordable and downright marvelous. In Argentina, wine is a staple of life.

If you're lucky -- or a savvy traveler -- you can have your Argentine steak and wine experience while taking in a sensuous Tango performance at a quaint 1940s-era restaurant on the picturesque Avenida de Mayo.

In Buenos Aires, you also can, no doubt, find several versions of empanadas, with differences in size and crust and filling. But to my Norte Americano taste buds, the city of Salta is the center of the empanada universe.

I had heard about Plaza de la Empanada in much the same way you'd learn about any cool place -- luck. It's a little out of the way but not hard to find once you know it's there. Salta is a city of half a million, and much like Salt Lake City, is ringed by mountains and sits a little bit above 4,000 feet. But its climate is subtropical and its narrow, movie-set streets are lined with palm and lime trees. The nearby countryside is dominated by vineyards. The scenery is gorgeous.

--

A pregnant semi-circle of dough • As I pushed into Plaza de la Empanada, which is nowhere near as fancy as the restaurants in Buenos Aires, the first thing I spied was an old lady behind a counter flattening out a little ball of dough. She slapped it back and forth from hand-to-hand and introduced herself as Margarita Maria Lopez.

When she got the dough flat and circular and just right, she spooned on filling made of chopped beef, chopped onion, chiles and a number of other magic ingredients already mixed up in a bowl. She folded the dough over and pinched the edges, so that it appeared like a pregnant semi-circle.

I sat at a table nearby so I could watch her hand-tango the empanada production. A smiling server, Cinthia Georgina Lopez (no relation to Margarita), took my order of spicy beef saltanas and a cold Quilmes, the local larger. I waited patiently for what had been described as the best empanadas in Salta -- or Argentina, for that matter.

Ah yes, the odyssey was worth it. The tangy treats triggered an explosion of endorphins in by brainstem. Everything was warm and fuzzy. I was in love with Margarita, Cinthia, their saltanas and everyone in Argentina. [3] =>

That's as good as it gets. But alas, neither woman could speak English, and my Spanish is more than a little limited. I was unable to apprehend their magic empanada recipe.

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Finding authentic flavor at home • Fortunately, it's possible to taste authentic Argentine empanadas in Salt Lake City. Ana Valdemoros sells them every Saturday morning at the Downtown Farmers Market at Pioneer Park.

After coming to the United States 12 years ago, she couldn't imagine life without empanadas, so she made them for family and friends. But about six years ago, she began selling the traditional treats under the business name Argentina's Best Empanadas.

She makes them with eight different fillings and uses locally produced ingredients for that magic flavor. But she isn't about to give up her recipe.

Valdemoros prepares all her delicacies on Friday nights, but doesn't bake them until Saturday morning at Pioneer Park, so they are fresh.

"Empanadas are popular all over Argentina," Valdemoros noted. "It's like people in this country saying: 'I'm going to have some pizza.'"

I like pizza, too. But there's nothing like an Argentine empanada -- even if you aren't visiting Salta or Buenos Aires.

On the other hand, maybe you should go to Argentina to see for yourself.

csmart@sltrib.com

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Empanadas in Utah

Argentina’s Best Empanadas • Owner Ana Valdemoros sells homemade empanadas, filled with beef, chicken, lamb, spinach and more, every Saturday at the Downtown Farmers Market at Pioneer Park, 300 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City. Open 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. through the end of October. Empanadas also can be ordered online at argentinasbestslc.com or by calling 801 815-0690.

MIA Empanadas Factory & Peruvian Restaurant • 571 W. 2600 South, Bountiful; 801-397-5222. Savory empanadas with beef, chicken or vegan stuffing are available. Or try sweet empanadas with apple or dulce de leche fillings. Open Tuesday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturday until 6 p.m.
Argentine empanadas

Dough

4 cups flour

2 tablespoons lard, melted

1 cup water

Filling

2 tablespoons olive oil or water

3 green onions minced

1 tablespoon cumin (optional)

1 tablespoon paprika

1 pound steak cut in small dice

1 large potato, peeled and diced

1/4 cup beef stock

1/2 cup raisins (optional)

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon red pepper (cayenne)

12 green olives

3 hard-boiled eggs, quartered

1 whole egg beaten

?

To make the dough, combine flour, melted lard and warm water in a mixing bowl. Stir, then knead with hands until the dough is soft. To prepare the filling, heat oil in a medium-size pan over medium heat. Add onions and cook until transparent. Add cumin and paprika and cook for 1 minute.

Add meat and cook for 5 minutes. Add potatoes and beef stock and cook until tender. Add salt and crushed red pepper and raisins and mix well.

Chill mixture for 30 minutes or more.

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

To stuff, pull off billiard ball-sized clumps and roll out into circles. Stuff and bake the empanadas at 350 degrees for 12 minutes until golden.

Makes • About 16 empanadas

Source • wherefoodgoeswhenitdies