Fiesta Empanadas

Why is it that everything tastes better wrapped in dough? Take, for example, the lowly hotdog. Wrapped in puff pastry or even crescent rolls from a tube, it metamorphosizes into Pigs in a Blanket. (Also known as, “the first hors d’oeuvres to disappear from every party.”) My well-bred mother-in-law, who once called my second-hand dining set “disreputable” (and I guess I can see her point – it’s definitely more shabby than chic), established the ritual of serving Pigs in a Blanket on silver trays at every family event. But wait – I’m getting off track. Today’s post is about another pastry-wrapped treat – one perfect for Cinco de Mayo fiestas this weekend: Empanadas!

From the Spanish word for “wrapped in bread”, empanadas can be sweet or savory, baked or fried. My favorites are these baked Turkey Poblano creations, which I make in miniature size for appetizers or a larger size for a meal. The kids love them plain, but for me they’re not complete without Cilantro Lime Sauce for dipping. (Yes – yet another application for this versatile sauce, which one of these days I should figure out how to bottle and sell. That would be one way to get new dining room furniture.)

Cilantro Lime Sauce

The turkey filling is simple to make, and it can be made days ahead or even frozen until you’re ready to assemble the empanadas.  If you can find frozen empanada wrappers, just let them thaw and get ready to stuff.


If you can’t find them, you can use frozen puff pastry, pie dough, or this recipe below – which is stretchy and forgiving. The assembly goes fairly quickly, once you get the hang of it. (Just don’t overstuff or you’ll get oozage.) I like to freeze unbaked mini empanadas for almost-instant appetizers – great for any time you have extra Cilantro Lime sauce to use up.  (An almost weekly occurrence around here.)

Mini Turkey Poblano Empanadas

  • 1 poblano chile, roasted, skinned, seeded and chopped (optional, but worth the effort; see this link for roasting how-to)
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 medium white or yellow onion, diced
  • 1 lb. ground turkey breast
  • 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 clove garlic, minced or pressed
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • Approx. 1 cup salsa verde (Xochitl®  Brand, if possible)
  • Pinch (1/4 teaspoon) sugar
  • 4 oz. cream cheese or Neufchatel (lower fat cream cheese)
  • 2 packages (10 per package) frozen empanada wrappers, thawed, or 1 package puff pastry, or 1 batch empanada dough (recipe below)
  • 1 egg
  • Sesame seeds

To a large pan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat, add olive oil and onion. Sauté 2-3 minutes until softened.

Add turkey, salt and cumin and cook until no longer pink. (Breaking up turkey clumps with a wooden spoon, as if making tacos.)

Add garlic and sauté another minute.  (Garlic can taste bitter if burned, so I add it towards the end of the cooking to be safe. Check out this cool garlic pressing trick: if you leave the clove “wrapped” in its papery skin, you can pull it out after pressing and no little bits get stuck in the holes.)

Back to the empanadas:

Stir in poblanos, salsa verde and sugar (which helps balance the heat and round out the flavors) and bring to a boil to reduce some of the liquid.

Remove from heat. Stir in cream cheese and taste for seasoning; add another pinch of kosher salt or sugar if you feel it needs more flavor.  Allow mixture to cool before filling empanadas.

(This looks yellow because of the lighting.)

Empanada Dough (makes about 40 4-inch empanadas)

  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup cold water
  • ¾ cup vegetable oil

In a large bowl combine flour and salt. Add water and oil all at once and stir to combine.

The dough should come together but not feel sticky. Add a little extra flour if necessary. The dough may not look pretty, but this is OK.

Assembling Empanadas

Heat oven to 400ºF. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpat liners.

For appetizer-size using premade empanada wrappers or dough, cut out 3” circles with a biscuit cutter or empty can.  Gather excess dough and roll flat with rolling pin. Cut out additional circles until all dough is used.

If using homemade dough, shape into walnut-sized balls. (You should get about 40.) With a rolling pin, roll dough flat into 3”- 4” circles.

Spoon cooled filling into the centers of the dough circles. As a rough guide, use a heaping teaspoonful (the ice cream eating kind of spoon, not measuring kind) of filling for 2 ½ -3” circles or a heaping tablespoon for 4” circles.  I try to get in as much filling as I can, though I often pay the price with messy-looking empanadas that burst open while baking. Just be sure to leave a ½”+ margin around the entire edge of the circle.

If you’re using cut-out circles, you will seal them using beaten egg and a fork crimp.  Beat one egg and brush along the edges/margins. Fold the circle in half and press edges together to seal. Set onto prepared baking sheet and crimp edges with a fork.

If you’re rolling out homemade dough balls, you can seal with a “twisted rope” closure instead of the egg and fork method. Fold the dough over the filling to make a ½-circle and press to seal edges.  Starting at the top, fold dough up and over in a twisting motion, until all edges are sealed. Tuck the end of the twist under the empanada and place on baking sheet.

No one will care if the twisty rope edges aren’t perfect.

Freeze any unused filling or spoon it into taco shells.

Just before baking, beat 1 egg (or use what was left from sealing ) and brush onto tops of empanadas.  Sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Bake at 400ºF for 12-20 minutes (depending on type of dough used, size of empanadas and whether they were frozen), until golden brown.

Serve with Cilantro Lime sauce  (or any other salsa) for dipping.  Good piping hot, warm, room temperature or even cold from the fridge!

Prize-Winning Chile Verde

Verde Vidi Vici! Amid a highly competitive field of entries, my prophetically titled chile verde took top honors this past weekend at the second annual Chili Cook-Off fundraiser for MS. I promised to post the recipe if I won, so here it is – secrets and all. (Guess I’ll have to come up with a new chili recipe and bad pun title for next year.) 

One of my secrets for prize-winning chile verde is freshly roasted poblano chiles – a green and relatively mild type of chile that still delivers a nice amount of heat as well as flavor.  You can make this recipe without them, but the chile verde won’t have the same zing. I usually roast a whole grill-full of chiles at one time, and then freeze the extra in little packets for future use. Another secret for my chile verde: jarred (gasp!) green salsa; I use Xochitl brand, which is made from tomatillos, onions and jalapenos. If you’re morally opposed to using shortcuts such as this, go ahead and make your own roasted tomatillo salsa. (But I bet you won’t taste the difference in the end.)  Finally, for this winning recipe I used pork tenderloin – which I know some people will find crazy since pork tenderloin is pricier and leaner than the pork roasts typically used for slow cooking. Allow me to defend (or at least explain) myself: a) I found a 4-pound value pack at Costco, and b) I simply prefer the lean, uniform taste and texture of pork tenderloin. (I make this recipe with turkey breast as well.) So call me crazy if you want, but now I have a trophy so I can’t be that far off my rocker.

Some chili tasters at the cook-off may have been swayed (as was the plan) by my dish-enhancing garnishes: diced avocado, homemade corn tortilla crisps, and a drizzle of my no-longer-secret cilantro lime sauce. (I featured the cilantro sauce recipe in my Almost Famous Turkey Burgers post, but have reprinted it here below.) The avocado and cilantro sauce lend cooling, fresh notes to the spicy, slow-cooked chile verde, and the tortilla crisps provide textural contrast (something I’m always striving for). If you don’t feel like making homemade tortilla crisps, a handful of crushed tortilla chips would deliver similar results.

Roasted Poblano Chile Verde                         Click Here for Recipe Only

  • 3* poblano chiles, roasted, skinned/seeded and chopped (see below) [*double this amount to make a freezer stash]
  • 3 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 3-4 lbs pork tenderloin, pork loin or turkey breast, trimmed and cut into 1½” cubes
  • 2 large yellow or white onions, finely chopped (approx. 3 cups)
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 Tablespoon dried cumin
  • 1 Tablespoon dried oregano
  • 2 jars (15 oz. each) salsa verde (Xochitl brand, preferably)
  • 1 box (14 oz.) chicken stock
  • 1 chicken bouillon cube
  • 1 squeeze (approx. ½ teaspoon) agave nectar or honey
  • Kosher salt

Roast the Poblanos

Heat a gas grill to medium-high. Place the whole chiles directly on the grill grates and close the lid.

After 5 minutes, check the chiles; if they are nicely charred on the bottom, turn them over using tongs.  Check again after a few more minutes. Repeat until chiles are charred on most sides; then remove from grill and set them on baking sheet or large plate. Cover with plastic wrap and let cool. [Note: you can also char the chiles on a baking sheet under a broiler.]

When chiles are cool, slip off the burnt skins (wearing gloves if you have sensitive skin), then pull off the stem tops and seeds. (Use a spoon to scrape off seeds, or give the chiles a quick rinse under cold water.) Be careful not to touch your eyes during this process! Slice the chiles into strips and then chop into pieces.

Prepare the Chile Verde

Trim most of the fat and silver skin from the meat and cut into approx. 1½” cubes.

Heat oven to 325ºF or set out slow-cooker/crock pot. Place a very large, heavy pan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add 1 Tablespoon (a splash) of olive oil to the pan. Working in batches to prevent pan overcrowding, add the meat to the hot oil and let sear for 5 minutes. Resist the urge to stir; the meat will release from the pan when it’s nicely browned and ready to turn.

When at least 2 sides of the meat cubes have browned, remove from pan and repeat with the next batch of meat (adding more olive oil as necessary). The meat cubes will not be all the way cooked. To keep dirty dishes to a minimum, you can place the browned meat back on the same platter/baking sheet with the uncooked meat cubes since it’s all going back into the pot anyway.

Once all the meat has been browned and removed from the pot, add the diced onions and sauté a few minutes until softened, adding another splash of olive oil if necessary. Note that in this batch I got lazy and just added the onions to the pot with the meat. Since the chile verde cooked for so long in the oven, it didn’t matter in the end. Sautéing first is safer, though; the texture of not fully cooked onions would detract from the dish. Then add the browned pork and any accumulated juices back to the pot.

Add the garlic and cumin and sauté another minute. Add oregano, salsa verde, chicken stock, bouillon cube and chopped poblanos.

Cover pot and bake in oven at 325ºF for 3+ hours (or place in crock pot and set on low for 8 hours or high for 3-4 hours), until sauce has thickened and meat is falling-apart tender. (It should flake apart with a fork.)

Stir and then taste for seasoning; add a small squeeze of agave nectar or honey (this helps round out the flavors), and then a few pinches of kosher salt only if necessary. If mixture seems dry or overly salty, add a cup of chicken stock or water. 

Serve in bowls with desired garnishes. (Shown here with corn tortilla crisps, diced avocado and a drizzle of my Cilantro Lime sauce.) Can also be served over rice or with warmed tortillas.

Serves 8-10

Corn Tortilla Crisps

  • 1 package white corn tortillas, cut into ¼” slivers
  • Vegetable oil
  • Kosher salt

Cut tortillas into ¼” slivers.

Set a large tray or baking sheet covered with paper towels next to the stove. In a large cast iron pan or Dutch oven, pour in approx. ½” – 1” vegetable oil. Heat on medium high until shimmering. Fry tortilla slivers in batches, about a handful at a time. Using a strainer or tongs, stir the tortilla slivers around a little until they are golden brown. (You don’t need to turn them.) Remove slivers from oil and let drain on paper towel tray. Sprinkle with kosher salt while still hot. Repeat with the next batch until all strips are fried. Store in an airtight bag or container. Will keep for several days if you hide them from kids or other snackers.

Cilantro Lime Sauce

  • 1 small bunch cilantro, washed & dried (roots and thick stems twisted off) (approx. 2 cups packed)
  • 1 Tablespoon fresh lime juice
  • 1 small clove garlic, pressed or minced
  • ½  teaspoon ground cumin
  • ¼  teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup reduced fat sour cream or fat-free plain Greek yogurt
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • Few drops agave nectar or honey

Add all ingredients to food processor or beaker if using stick/immersion blender. Pulse and puree until smooth. (Add a little more olive oil to aid pureeing, if necessary.) Adjust seasoning to taste (i.e., another pinch of salt or drop of agave/honey) Refrigerate until ready to serve; will keep for several days.

See original recipe here for photos of steps. (Scroll down to end of post.)

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