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empanadas in MIami

What’s tasty, comforting and oh so satisfying? An empanada!  That description can be said about many food and drinks in the Miami Culinary scene. A super cool beach-worthy cocktail- check! Moist, tender and succulent stone crabs-check! Tart, and creamy Key Lime pie-check! Empanadas- double check!

Coming to Miami and not having the half moon pie is like going to New York and not having a bagel. Everyone will ask you why did you even bother to go on your holiday. Whether baked or fried with a myriad of different fillings to choose from, your day in Miami just gets that much better with an empanada in hand. Broke up with your significant other? An empanada will sooth your sorrow. Tired of that restrictive diet that has you feeling cranky? An empanada will feed your carb-loving soul. Want to really impress your vacation house mates with your knowledge of local delicacies? Show up with a bag of empanadas and you are now crowned the queen or king of fun.

But just where did these tender, sweet or savory morsels originate from? Empanadas, like most popular foods in Miami, are not exactly indigenous to the area code 305. Prior to the massive influx of Cuban exiles to Miami around 1958 to 1959, finding an empanada this city was like locating a needle in a haystack-it was that difficult. Fortunately, not only did the Cuban population bring with them their colorful art, their passionate music, and their expertise in various fields including politics and business, but also their home-style cooking of which empanadas play a major role.

Going back in history, it is believed that most of the cuisine we call Cuban today was influenced by the Spanish conquistadors who lorded over the island of Cuba for centuries. It is thought the empanada might have originally come from Galicia in Spain. Further, the idea of wrapping a hardy filling in a pastry dough may have stemmed from the Moors who occupied Spain for hundreds of years. In fact, the word empanada comes from the Spanish verb empanar, which translates as enbreaded, or coated in bread. Even though Miami is nicknamed the Magic City for other reasons, a community that churns out millions and millions these little pies whose humble beginnings may have originally been created with unsophisticated sustenance, is nothing short of spellbinding.

So, what should you expect when you bite into a Cuban empanada? First, the simple dough is made from flour, butter, salt and eggs. While Cuban empanadas can be filled with the likes of pollo ( chicken) or jamon y queso ( ham and cheese) or even sweet with guava, for a food experience that will take you straight to the heart of a warm, homey Cuban kitchen is to indulge in a picadillo empanada. Think of picadillo as a relative to American Sloppy Joes, but without the bun. Picadillo has more pizazz! That’s due to the explosive flavor combination of raisins and olives added to ground beef, tomato sauce, white vinegar, onions and peppers seasoned with bay leaves, oregano, cumin, black pepper and red pepper flakes. Simple and rustic, picadillo is not the stuff of white table-clothed bistros, but a reminder of the coziness of home. Once the picadillo is stuffed into the dough and a half moon shape is formed for hand holding, the empanada is fried at a high temperature so it cooks quickly but doesn’t have a chance to absorb too much oil, rendering it almost greaseless.

But since Miami has a nicely diverse Hispanic community, there are other types of empanadas to try besides Cuban. Argentinian empanadas are the closest in nature to a Cuban one. The dough ingredients are almost the same, except sometimes Argentinians add milk to the dough to give it a softer rather than crispy texture. And the dough is baked rather than fried. Argentinian picadillo often has the addition of a hard boiled egg to the mix. Colombian and Venezuelan empanadas use corn flour instead of wheat flour for the dough. It is not the masa flour for tortillas or the cornmeal on the bottom of your pizza; it’s more finely ground and has been pre-cooked. The empanada can be yellow or white corn flour based. In Colombia, a picadillo is made with potatoes added and in Venezuela, fresh farmers cheeses are often used. Since both countries fry their empanadas, the crisp crust and tender inner texture invites the use of sauces. A spicy sauce called aji; a tomato, onion and hot chili pepper sauce, usually accompanies Colombian empanadas and Venezuelan empanadas use something called guasacaca, which knocks the tiara right off of guacamole. Guasacaca is a fresh, light herb and avocado sauce that you’ll want to add to more of your foods than just the empanada.

With an abundance of opportunities to savor an empanada in Miami, just where should you spend your dinero? Well, since the Cuban community has made its absolute firm stamp on Miami culture and is strongly embedded in the fabric of South Florida life, the most logical place to start your empanada exploration is in the cherished neighborhood of Little Havana.

Head for the corner of 16th avenue and Calle Ocho or 8th Street, the main artery that snakes through this lively district. Or should we say, put yourself at the intersection of mouthwatering and heavenly when you march yourself up to El Pub, (1548 SW 8th Street) and order your Cuban empanada of choice. Family-owned and operated for well over 20 years, your first encounter with this beloved establishment should be at their spacious outdoor Spanish blue-tiled ventanita. A ventanita simply means little window in Spanish, as adding “ita” at the end of a Spanish word connotes some thing diminutive ( imagine the fun you can have by adding ita onto English words- that would take doing a few rounds of mojitos to get in that silly of a mood, but let’s not digress!)

Pop your head into the window and allow one of the extremely friendly and charming damas to serve you. Choose from any of the freshly prepared empanadas on display in the little glass case. Wrap it in a napkin and drizzle on some hot sauce graciously supplied by your smiling server. If you have a moment, stroll inside the restaurant and admire the authenticity of this relaxed space complete with Cuban memorabilia adorning the walls.

Spend some leisurely time here munching on your flaky empanada while you strike up a conversation with one of the local Viejos ( old men), who might even share a thimble-sized portion of their colada ( Cuban coffee to share) with you. As you enjoy this slice of traditional Cuban life, don’t be surprised in the next moment if a sleek, shiny red Ferrari pulls up and a gorgeous senorita climbs out of the car and swiftly makes her way to the ventanita for a take-away order of empanadas. For the empanada is loved by all.

By Robyn Webb