On The Range: Empanadas

On The Range is a weekly exploration of the history and lore of Texas menu items.

Say the word 'empanada' anywhere in Latin America, and you'll most likely get an instant nod of affirmation.

That's because the little wrapped pastries (the word literally means " wrapped or enveloped in bread") may be the most ubiquitous dish south of the border, appearing in virtually every cuisine.

As usual, there's some uncertainty as to where and when the the dish was first created. Many of those who study such things believe they may be derived from the savory pastries introduced to Spain by Arabs during the eighth century conquests. Others insist their origin came later--though from the same region.

Whatever--in Spain and Portugal, the empanada is prepared as a large pie and cut into pieces. The European version is most often filled with pork, chorizo, or seafood. In Argentina they use chicken, beef, corn, or spinach. Move to Colombia and Ecuador, you find corn flour instead of wheat (for the most part), while in Mexico, empanadas may be either savory or sweet, as it is not uncommon to find fruit-filled varieties served as dessert.

The variations are endless. Food writer Gene Miguel reports that in the El Porteno shop in San Francisco's Metreon shopping center, bakers cater to the upscale market with such ingredients as dry-aged grass-fed beef, Fulton Valley All Natural chicken, and homemade Dulce de Leche. Food writer Joanie See goes El Porteno one better by preparing ostrich empanadas with chipotle salsa.

But in The Latin American Kitchen, Elisabeth Luard states firmly that in South America, "empanadas are street food, hot from the frying vat in the market, or from a kiosk by the roadside and eaten from the hand. In Andean towns they are sold in every bar and gathering place by empanadilla ladies, the makers themselves, spotlessly aproned, and wearing magnificent, hand-woven wraps, making the rounds with their baskets."

Now there's an idea that could really catch on in bars here in Dallas.

They will automatically serve a mild chimichurri with empanadas at Shines Mediterranean Market unless you specify you would prefer the more potent red variety. Don't be disconcerted by the grocery shelves full of foodstuffs you will encounter as you enter, merely walk to the rear of the store and place your order at the counter. The empanadas here are quite small, more like appetizers rather than entrees, so you will likely need several to fill you up, or else pair them with one of Shines Mediterranean or Argentine entrees such as gyros, kebabs, or Lomito sandwiches.

Beef empanadas are baked in a light, flaky crust, so you will encounter very little pastry as you bite your way into the shredded-beef-and-gourmet-olive filling, and will hopefully be fresh and hot from the oven.

Unfortunately, no alcohol is served, so you will have to make do with Turkish coffee or iced tea rather than tequila, cachaca or other authentic shot.

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Chris Meesey