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Culture Gobbler

Passport & Plate - Pura Vida Empanadas

Costa Rica | Wednesday, 25 February 2015 | 5 photos

Half of a large white or yellow onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
½ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon chili oil (see recipe below)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
Juice of half a lime
15oz black beans, cooked (or canned)*
Shredded cheese**

* soak the beans overnight then drain the liquid. In a pot, cover the beans with three cups water, bring to a boil then reduce and simmer for about 30 minutes, or until soft. Whether using canned or dry, drain the beans and reserve some of the liquid.

**Queso fresco is traditional, but can be hard to find. Cheddar or Pepper Jack are easy—and tasty—substitutes.

1/4cup oil (canola or vegetable)
1 habanero (or other chili pepper) roughly chopped.

2 cups masa flour
2 teaspoons dry chicken bouillon
1 1/3 cups water


How to prepare this recipe
- Mix ingredients. For a spicier oil, include seeds. Let sit until needed.

- Heat 2 tbsp. of oil in a large skillet and sauté the onion until translucent. Add in the minced garlic and sauté for another 2 minutes.
- Stir in beans and cumin.
- Transfer beans to a medium bowl and add 1 tbsp chili oil.
- Mash the beans to a chunky consistency with a potato masher or broad spoon. Add more chili oil or reserved bean liquid as needed.
- Stir in the cilantro.

- Place masa flour in a lg bowl and stir in chicken bouillon.
- Add water and mix until dough forms into a wet sand-like consistency. If dough is too dry, add in water by half tablespoon increments as needed.

- Lay a large piece of plastic wrap on the counter.
- Roll a chunk of dough into a ball slightly larger than a golf ball. Place onto center of the plastic wrap.
- Fold over each end of the plastic wrap and press out the dough ball until it’s about a 1/8” thick and the size of a bread plate. Absolute uniformity isn’t crucial.
- Place roughly 2 tbsp of the bean mixture onto the center of the dough. Although it’s tempting, don’t overfill. A too-full empanada easily splits in the fryer.
- Sprinkle filling with cheese.
- Take one edge of the plastic wrap and bring it to the other side. The idea is to get the empanada folded into a crescent. Press down on edges to seal.

- Heat 24oz of cooking oil in a high-rimmed sauté pan over med-high heat.
- Drop in a pinch of dough to test the oil. It should respond with a lively sizzle, not a roiling crackle.
- Place an empanada in the oil. Once browned (2 - 3 min) flip over the empanada to brown the other side (2 - 3 min).
- More than one empanada can be made at a time, but be careful not to crowd the pan.
- Once thoroughly browned and crispy, remove the empanada to a wire rack covered by a paper towel to absorb excess oil.

Serve with limes, hot sauce, salsa fresca, or guacamole. They’re also mighty tasty as-is.


The story behind this recipe
Scooping a hunk of wet dough from the bowl, I roll it into a sticky ball before smooshing it out against a piece of plastic wrap on the counter. Puttering idly, a fly weighted by the thick afternoon heat bumps into my sweat-slick arm and stumbles sleepily away. The deep low of a cow seeking out its wayward calf floats up from the riverbed below, mingling with CCR rolling softly on the record player.

Onto the dough I plop a spoonful of black beans smashed with cilantro and a drizzle of flush-inducing chili oil. The cilantro (“It’s pronounced ‘kulantrrro’” my new tico friends instruct me in a flourish of neatly rolled ‘r’s) grows wild among the yet-to-be-tamed sections of the young farm. A crumble of farm-milked, neighbor-made queso, a quick lift and flick of the plastic wrap to bring the dough to a crescent, and one more empanada is ready for the fryer.

Dominque drops in the plump bundles two at a time, the oil crackling madly with each addition. Roused by the scent of crisping empanadas, a fellow WWOOFer rolls out of a hammock suspended from the corrugated steel roof. Giving a full-body stretch and a yowling yawn, he causes the seven dogs snoozing nose-to-tail near the doorway to raise their heads inquisitively. Stomachs fully awakened, the eight of them troop over with pleading looks. Still fizzling lightly from the fryer, I break open an empanada—singed flesh be damned—releasing fevered curls of steam. We take greedy, molten bites chased by equally fiery sips of Cacique Guaro and lime.

Ramon, a tico who lives and works on the farm, wanders into the kitchen shirtless and still half-asleep. He takes a bite, looking out the window at a toucan bobbing on a tree branch. “Pura vida!” he says, a smile spreading across his weather-crinkled face.

This distinctly Costa Rican phrase—philosophy, really—provides added nourishment each time I make these empanadas. Whether in Costa Rica or anywhere else in the world, it’s a phrase that always rings true—“This is living!”

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