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Almost every culinary culture embraces the delicious concept of filling a pastry shell with meat and/or vegetables, then serving it up as a snack: The Chinese have pork-stuffed bao, the British make meat-and-gravy pasties, India puts potatoes in samosas, and in America we heat up Hot Pockets — which were invented right here in Colorado.
But for my money, no one does savory stuffed pastry better than the Argentines, who have perfected their particular version of the empanada, a staple of many Latin American canons. Argentina is known for two types of empanadas, and many restaurants there sell both. The fried variation features a crunchy, oily shell around a stuffing of chicken, beef or veggies. I prefer the baked empanada, though, with a pastry crust — shiny from a finishing brush of oil or butter, crispy on the edges and just a little flaky to the touch — that gives way to a mouthful of filling: corn, ham and stretchy mozzarella, or braised beef with just a kiss of heat. One of these little pockets is an ideal starter, three can make a meal — unless you love them as much as I do, in which case you can polish off a half-dozen without even thinking about it.
My obsession with this dish is so strong that it can be hard to explain to people who haven't had the privilege of tasting the real thing. When I lived in Buenos Aires, my eating habits bordered on an actual empanada addiction: I'd break out in a cold sweat as I approached the door of my favorite shop, quivering at the prospect of my afternoon snack.
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Back in the States, however, I had to quit cold turkey. Although a few Denver spots offered a decent approximation of an Argentine empanada, none were so good that I could hold them up as proof positive to friends subjected to my nostalgic ramblings, friends who could barely keep from rolling their eyes as I spilled each taste memory.
Thankfully, I no longer have to try to explain what makes empanadas so worthy of my undying affection. All I have to do is point doubters to Maria Empanada.
Lorena Cantarovici, who came to the States eleven years ago, is tiny and sassy; I'd expect nothing else from a Buenos Aires native. Three years ago, she decided to open a catering business that would use her mother's recipes for empanadas, and she got to work tweaking that process for the dry Colorado climate. "The key is the dough," she told me one day. "And the dough depends on the air, the weather, the day! It was hard." But eventually she nailed it, and by last fall, her business was going so well that she needed a bigger kitchen.
She found it just off Sheridan and Mississippi, in a strip-mall storefront that looks like a log cabin. Inside, she had just enough space to create a small sitting area that holds two tables and a counter, where she keeps a glass case stocked with a dozen or so different types of empanadas as well as dulce de leche-based desserts, tartas (savory pies) and eggy Spanish tortillas. And soon she'll be serving espresso there, too, made the Argentine way, with plenty of milk.
Photos: In the kitchen at Maria Empanada
Soon after Maria Empanada opened, I stopped by the combo catering business/eatery with my boyfriend, who has had to endure my reminiscences over the past couple of years and so deserved a reward for his patience with my ravings. He stood studying the menu hanging above the register, which details the ingredients in each empanada, but before he could venture any suggestions, I'd ordered our meal — rattling off eight requests to a smiling Cantarovici.
"Would you like sauces?" she asked, as she used tongs to pluck each requested item from the case and place it on a tray lined with yellow paper that had been hand-labeled with our order.
I looked at her blankly for a moment. Cantarovici makes four salsas, including a classic chimichurri from dried parsley and oregano, minced garlic, olive oil, white vinegar and red-pepper flakes; a sweet chile-infused mayonnaise similar to the ketchup-mayo blend that the Argentines call "salsa golf"; a green-onion sour cream meant to go with the Spanish tortillas, and a mild hot sauce. Although natives put mayonnaise or salsa golf on almost everything, they usually leave their empanadas unadulterated. Made right, they don't need sauce.
Still, I was intrigued, so we asked for a sample of each. She added four dipping cups to our tray and carried it to one of the tables, where we sat down and started eating. After my first (sauce-less) bite, I wanted to weep tears of joy. "This," I told Rob, "this is the real deal."
I'd started with the corn, my favorite version in Argentina. As I bit through the crust, at once brittle and chewy, I hit a gold mine of sweet kernels infused with the savory earthiness of mild bell peppers and a hint of heat from crushed red-pepper flakes. The filling was slightly soupy, which gave each bite a delicate silkiness. That texture must be nearly impossible to achieve, because I hadn't found it anywhere else outside of South America.
Next I moved on to the traditional beef, another old favorite that was just as successful here. The juicy braised beef was mixed with a classic blend of bits of hard-boiled egg white, briny green-olive slices and plump, sweet raisins. Curious, I dunked one corner into the chimichurri, since that sauce usually plays well off cuts of steak. It did add a pleasant garlic-and-pepper edge, but after that bite, I returned to the unadorned empanada.
In fact, I soon abandoned all of the salsas. While I appreciated the dry heat of the hot sauce and the cooling bite of the sour cream, they didn't enhance my enjoyment of Cantarovici's craft.
And there was a lot to enjoy. The spicy-chicken empanada was filled with shredded poultry cooked with yellow onions, more hard-boiled egg whites and a little chile powder that made it not so much spicy as deeply savory and complex. We sampled a couple of versions made with mozzarella; I preferred the tango to the classic ham and cheese, since the tango added sweet onions and bell peppers to the mix. And though I'd never seen blue-cheese empanadas in Argentina, the mix of queso fresco, eggs, green olives and walnuts worked well in the filling, muting the sharp punch of the blue cheese.
We finished our feast with alfajores, a sugar-powdered Argentine sandwich cookie stuffed with homemade dulce de leche — caramelized condensed milk — and dusted with coconut. I had a tutor in Buenos Aires who survived almost exclusively on these confections, and I thought of her as I bit into Cantarovici's version. "The cookie was very hard to get right," she told me as I chewed. "I still don't think it's there."
The cookie was chewier than the true Argentine version I remembered, but it was still an excellent, rich bite to go out on. "Que rica," I breathed as I finished, using the common Argentine term for "exquisite."
After that first stop I returned often, eating my way through every empanada that Cantarovici could throw at me, as well as the vegetable tarta. I used to eat vegetable-and-cheese pie by the slice in Argentina, pairing it with a salad and a Coca-Cola Light for a tasty midday meal between classes. Cantarovici uses zucchini, carrots, bell peppers and onions in her tarta, cutting the vegetables very small and combining them with parmesan and mozzarella to make a smooth filling inside the flaky crust. It's a good way to eat a lot of vegetables that don't really taste like vegetables — the cheese and pastry take care of that — but I still prefer the empanadas.
The last time I stopped by, it was to get a few corn empanadas for the road. As I ordered them from Cantarovici, we spent a few minutes name-checking our favorite neighborhoods and places in Buenos Aires. Then she divulged how hard it had been to get the corn empanadas right. "The first time I made them, they all exploded," she said. "I was cleaning corn off my windows!"
But she finally got it right: This is one very, very hot pocket.
Photos: In the kitchen at Maria Empanada