Empanadas, Rice, and a Dream Built My Family
When I first expressed my interest in studying the empanada arts, my grandma told me I would need to be prepared to spend a good chunk of time, possibly two days, with her to finish them. Meat on one day, dough and assembly the next day.
“I take my time with my patties,” she explained. “I can’t stand up all day. And I don’t buy my dough at the store.”
The small, mighty meat patties have been a staple of family and community gatherings since long before I moseyed onto the scene. Grandma began baking and selling them in her early twenties, after watching women in her community in Colón, Panama prepare and profit from the crescent-shaped beef-patty-adjacent delights. Since then, they have been the star—backed by Miss Ruby’s hot pepper sauce and legendary beef, chicken, and shrimp fried rice—of countless receptions, anniversary galas, Gold Teeth Clan reunions, and any occasion where “The Electric Slide,” or “One Cent, Five Cent, Ten Cent, Dollar” by The Soca Boys would be appropriate. But the process that produced them was always a mystery to me.
After convincing her that I was capable of identifying, purchasing, and bringing the correct type and amount of beef, she scribbled a list and said to come by early with the meat log, two big yellow onions, tomato sauce, yellow peppers, and other things she lacked. I still carry that scrap of paper in my wallet. She doesn’t measure when cooking, so when I told her I wanted to capture the recipe in writing, she got out the measuring cups and spoons to scoop and level her way through the ingredients, reminding me with every dump that she never does this and that this was, in fact, slowing her down.
Grandma was making an order of ten dozen patties, and had told me she would let me do everything while walking me through the process. First, she sauteed onions and such for the pepper sauce we’d use to simmer the filling. As I broke the meat apart in the pan, she said, “Let me see something,” as she grabbed the spatula and took over. “Because I can just do it real quick, and you can still watch.” That was the end of that.
When it came to achieving the right dough texture the next day, she made me wash my hands in front of her so I could put my hands inside the dough she’d completed and told me, “See? You just have to know.”
Well, all right.
Recipe: Mini Panamanian Beef Empanadas
Now that making rice no longer makes me sweat and question my place in the world, I’ve taken off the arm floaties and am finding my current out in the world, making empanadas without grandmotherly guidance. On top of connecting me to my family’s legacy and resulting in joy-filled portable meat pockets, producing empanadas that look and taste good—cooking in general, really—helps me feel a sense of peace, control, and accomplishment in otherwise chaotic times.
As I enter my fourth month in my new name-on-the-lease apartment, Casa de Joy, after half a decade of homelessness and keeping it together with tape and glue in other people’s occasionally traumatizing spaces, kitchening has become my happy place again. Even dishwashing offers a daily moment of gratitude. There were years when all I wanted was my own sink to leave dishes in.
Each time I take that deep breath and summon the courage and energy to commit to the journey to Empanadaland, I’m transported back to the grownup shindigs and cousin-filled celebrations anchored by cauldrons of rice and one of Grandpa Johnny’s 19 dozen thousand hundred calypso, reggae, soul, and soca cassette mixtapes that kept the Gold Teeth Clan grooving in their plant-filled sanctuary. I hear the stories Miss Ruby has told me about what empanadas, rice, and a dream allowed her to create for herself and her family. I envision her beaming while showing me her photo of the driveway-blocking pallet of bricks that she bought for her porch extension with hard work.
While I continue turning this apartment into my own sanctuary, that familiar savory aroma floating through the air makes this unpainted, un-jungled space feel like home. The patties demand that I put the anxieties of the day to the side and plant my feet and my spirit in the moment. If I am distracted or overconfident in my dicing, I may lose a chunk of my finger. If I rush through measuring and adding seasonings and sauces because I’m stressed about the 'rona or pending automobills, or get too loose with the flick of my cumin-tossing wrist in an attempt to two-step closer and closer to the Miss Ruby flavor, I risk veering off course and contending with ancestral disappointment.
The first time I made them alone, after browning and flavoring the beef and making a pepper sauce, I realized I had used the same amount of seasonings and tomato sauce for my two dozen that she used for her ten dozen and felt like the most useless grandchild since Vanessa Huxtable. I must be fully present in the kitchen.
Discussing a recent batch with her, she told me that, six decades later, “If I movin’ too fast, I still make mistakes. If I’m worrying about something, the patty don’t come out right.” I noticed the same. When I’m not focused or am inconsistent with my form, it shows up in the empanadas. Seeing my babies all egg-washed and full of potential on the parchment-covered pan, I can tell where I was calm and intentional and when I was stressed the hell out or rushing through steps. I can see where I was heavy-handed with the rolling pin or stretched dough too thin across overstuffed patties, especially when my filling bursts out of a patched-up hole during baking.
Usually, I put on a playlist and "Cha Cha Slide" to and fro or let LeVar Burton read me a story as I chop, stir, roll, and stuff. Lately, I have been cooking with the sound of the knife hitting the cutting board, the whir of the blender, the sizzle of peppers and meat, and the occasional “Whew, shit!” as the soundtrack to my kitchening. With my hands in the flour mixture, clawing and mixing and kneading and rotating the bowl, I feel a little bit freer.
I celebrate when I leave the perfect amount of space between the meat mound and the edge to seal them with a flour-coated fork and cut the crimped edges with a bowl for the perfect, un-holed shape. Each empanada teaches me something about myself.
Making patties on my own also gives me space to find my own culinary voice beyond Miss Ruby’s enormous shadow. Now, rather than agonizing over whether I’ve nailed her execution or if my dough is as flaky as hers, I decided to use what I’ve learned of the empanada arts to flourish with my own patties. That exploration keeps my emotional Jheri curl moist.
So, I’ve been experimenting. Whereas she uses ground beef 90% and ground turkey about 10% of the time, my latest batch uses her same pepper sauce base, but one dozen had black beans, minced garlic and smoked Gouda with caramelized peppers and onions, and the other had the same with steak. And: Yes.
I’m strategizing on my take on the glorious pabellón empanadas and arepas filled with tender shredded beef, black beans, and sweet plantain I adored from the Venezuelan bakery while living in Panama. As we contend with Grandma's dementia and, for her safety, the prospect of her inability to cook alone or at all, I hear her coaching and correcting me every step of the way. And telling me to wash my hands again because I looked at my shirt or thought about moving a bowl out of the way with the back of my hand.
People have told me to let them know when I’m ready to start shipping, but for now, I’m remembering to breathe and consulting the ancestors on what to put inside a sweet patty. They tell me what I already knew: Take the time, trust the process.