My friend Cathy Woolard puts her friends into one of two buckets: those she can travel with and those she can't. For her legendary adventure trips she weeds folks out by enforcing two clear rules - "no bitching" and "don't be an asshole." If you break the rules you don't get invited back. I love traveling with her and relish every invitation.
Jeff and I have always traveled well together. He's a great planner and makes everything fun. For the second time in the past six months we took a family vacation to a foreign country with all three kids. In December it was Mexico for his parents' 55th wedding anniversary and last week it was Buenos Aires to visit Charlie during his semester abroad. I would be lying if I said it didn't make me anxious to travel with the kids. Two years into our marriage, I'm madly in love them. But I can't just weed them out if they bitch or act like assholes. Fortunately, they take after their dad - they're great travelers - and unlike their dad, are fluent in Spanish, which made navigating easy.
When I visit a new city I love to shop, see the sights and eat. The more local the cuisine the better. I'm always intrigued by the different nuances of cooking styles and traditions. Buenos Aires feels very European. It was conquered by the Spanish and the Iberian influence is evident in the dining experience. Breakfast is a non-event including coffee and media lunas, small croissants covered in simple syrup. Lunch and dinner are all about the parillas or grills. Steak reigns supreme and meals last for hours. We always made sure to order empanadas to start because they come out of the kitchen relatively quickly, sating us until the platters of steak, fries, overly dressed salads and tortillas slogged out. We generally ordered a sampling of meat, cheese and spinach and cheese empanadas. But the meat were the most interesting as the entire nation seems obsessed with beef. They eat every part of the cow and make incredible leather out of the hides.
Fortunately for our waistlines, Buenos Aires is also an extremely walkable city, and we spent hours hoofing our way through the sights. Of note - there's a really interesting cemetery, gorgeous opera house and loads of museums. Shopping is boutique oriented. No two stores are alike, and they're all teeming with an array of bags, shoes and jackets made of sumptuous leather. The architecture is a hodgepodge of beautiful old buildings abutting sleek modern structures. I scored points with the family by correctly guessing that the super cool bridge in Puerto Madero was designed by Santiago Calatrava (win!). There are also fabulous parks and green spaces.
While I was away, my friend Danica invited me to one of her legendary pie parties. I've always wanted to come, but the thought of pie after a week of eating our way through Buenos Aires seemed unthinkable until it occurred to me that empanadas are pies, and what better way to try to re-create the flavor or Argentina than a pie making party. Of course her parties are more than just baking. It's about women coming together in the kitchen and paying homage to our mothers and their mothers in the sisterhood of pie making. I met some really interesting women and took away some helpful pie crust tips. Danica was skeptical about my meat pies, but I prevailed. I made the filling in advance. I read a few recipes and took what I liked and what I remembered from my experiences in the parillas of Buenos Aires. I browned half ground beef and half chorizo with tomato paste. I took a cue from Puerto Rico by blending the onions and garlic in the Cuisinart to create a Sofrito sans the bell pepper and tossed that into the pan. I mixed smoked paprika, cumin and cayenne pepper and added leftover roasted acorn squash, raisins and chopped green olives as well. I threw in some parsley and basil from the garden to round it out the flavor.
I've never been much of a baker. I don't have the focus required to properly measure ingredients and follow recipes. Danica on the other hand is a delicious blend of right brain creativity and left brain analytics. While she seems to effortlessly toss her pie crust ingredients together she does so with the discipline of a baker. And the result is a flaky and golden crust. My meat filling and her pie crust paired for an outrageously delicious empanada. As we stood around her kitchen among friends, I knew Cathy Woolard would have loved that there was no "bitching" and no one was an "asshole." Fingers crossed I'll get invited back!
1/2 Lb ground beef
1/2 Lb choizo
2 T olive oil
2 T tomato paste
Sofrito (1 onion and 1 clove garlic blended in a Cuisinart)
1 T smoked paprika
1 t cumin
1 t cayenne
3/4 C chopped green olives
3/4 C raisins
3/4 C chopped roasted acorn squash (or potato or sweet potato)
1/2 C chopped parsley
1/2 C chopped basil
Salt/Pepper to taste
Heat the olive oil in a heavy bottom pan. Brown the meat with the tomato paste and sofrito. Add spices, salt/pepper. Cook for about 10 minutes. Add the green olives, raisins, acorn squash. Cook for 10 more minutes. Add herbs, reduce heat and saute for up to an hour.
Danica's Pie Crust
3 C Flour (not self-rising)
1/2 C Butter
1/2 C Shortening
1 t Salt
1 T Sugar
1 C Water with ice
I should reiterate here that I'm not much of a baker. Danica does so much of this by feel and instinct that I'm going to let her show you (instead of having me tell you) in this awesome video!
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. To form the empanadas you can either roll the dough into a free form circle or use a salad plate a cookie cutter. Place the circle of pie dough on a nonstick pan. Use a quarter cup to scoop the filling onto the dough into a generous heap, fold the dough over the filling to form a half circle and roll the edges to seal. Use a fork to crimp the edges and brush with the egg wash. Leave about an inch between the empanadas until you fill the pan. Place in the oven for about 45 minutes into the crust turns golden.