Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Empanadas, Big Party and What We Learned

Two things, there are two things I did this Saturday past that I knew better than to do, but did, in fact anyway, thereby causing myself a certain degree of both misery and pain.

In reality, one of them began far earlier than this most recent Saturday, when several weeks ago I was asked about, and was pontificating on, in a Chefly way, which hors dooveries we could serve at a big ol' wine tasting event (400 guests), one in which we would need 1000 pieces of whatever we chose (two items). I posited how it might be nice, and something no one else would be doing, to make and serve empanadas as one of our offerings. Yes, empanadas; little pastry crescents filled with some attendant goodness, baked and sauced appropriately. This is not something that I've often done, but it sure did sound good in my boss's office that day.

My other suggestion was to do Mushroom Risotto Cakes, something I've been doing for years. These are a surefire hit when topped with some kind of nice aioli, and I chose a green version flavored with vast quantities of green onions and parsley for this one. This is a pretty easy app to put together although it does require standing and stirring a massive steaming cauldron of napalm-like boiling rice for close to 25 minutes. Once that's done and the risotto is poured out onto sheet pans the rest is pretty easy. It gets chilled, cut out and breaded and is ready to be fried or baked. And it is a great vehicle for using up all the ends and funky chunks of cheese that a catering company/restaurant naturally seems to gather in the course of sending out multitudes of cheese trays.

My boss, said, "oh cool" or the equivelent thereof to my suggestions and so it was to be.

The week arrived upon which the party was to be held thinking ahead, as I am occasionally prone (prone indeed) to do I asked our kitchen manager to order me 20# of boneless beef chuck. I was thinking that I would braise it, days in advance, in a low and slow fashion, so as to have time to shred it and mix it with various and unique flavoring agents. Plan ahead and do this sensibly, day by day. That sounded good, at least in my tiny mind and on paper.

I ambled into the kitchen two days before the blessed event (lots of ambling going on when this is the only gig of the entire week) to get that big chunk o' meat in the oven along with some onions and garic and chiles and red wine, and received a major surprise. The big ol' chunk of meat I expected to drag out of the cold and into the warm is NOT 20# of beef chuck, but is instead, two 10# tubes (yes, 20#) of ground chuck. It was boneless, yes, but hardly suitable for our purposes.

So we did a lot of phonin' and we did a lot of moanin' and finally we arranged to have the 20# of boneless beef chuck delivered, but because it came from somewhere far away it would not arrive until the morning of the day before the blessed event. I began to mutter my favorite quote about mice and men. It was going to have to wait until Friday and that's just the way it was going to be.

I pulled in Friday morning and proceeded to ready the large chunk of chuck for the oven. I started off by sticking it all over with a boning knife, salting and peppering it and then rubbing it down with a paste of garlic, jalapenos and olive oil. I sliced five onions and spread them over the top and all around the spiced and rubbed meat. I poured in a two cups each of wine, stock and water, double wrapped it in foil and started it off on it's long relaxing journey to tenderness in a 325 degree oven. I didn't know it at the time, but this journey to tenderness would not come until waaaay later in the day, when I had left the building.

I hauled out the giant rondeau (a large, low and heavy cast aluminum pan) and after much stirring and not an insignificant amount of perspiring managed to get five sheet pans of garlicky cheesy mushroomy risotto made in the meantime (where does the phrase/word "meantime" originate from, anyway? Yeah, I know, google it). Next were the sauces for the risotto cakes and the empanadas. As I have mentioned, the risotto cakes would get a nice rich green herb aioli while the empanadas (which I have not mentioned) would get not one, but two sauces, each based on roasted peppers, one red and one yellow, but with decidedly different flavor profiles. Both would be olive oil mounted purees, the red flavored with roasted garlic and chiles, the yellow with sherry vinegar, shallots and dijon mustard.

So we arrived, the noble and hardworking Pedro and myself, at 9:00 Saturday morning knowing that we had to cut and panko (my kind of verb) the risotto cakes which would be a snap, if a time consuming one, but also that we had to assemble the empanadas from scratch. And this is where the first of my "knowing better" bells began to ring in the larger of my two heads. "This was dumb" it rang, "this is going to suck", it pealed. "This is going to take FOREVER", it gonged. And I tried not to listen, but it was far too late.

So, we shredded the 20# of very, very tender boneless braised beef chuck and then we chopped it by hand, the food processor rendering it too mushy. I blenderized it's pan drippings and the attendant flavoring agents (lots of onions) once they were defatted, and mixed the hand shredded and chopped meat with several cups of roasted corn I had stashed away and frozen back in the season, several more cups of nicely soaked and plumped golden raisins, and five or six finely chopped jalapenos. The rich braising liquid pureed with the nearly melted onions made sort of an onion soup to the Nth degree and was perfect as a binding/moistening/flavoring agent. But, The Clock Was Moving.

Now it was time to Make The Empanadas. We (I) moved into dough mode and began churning out small batches of the empanada dough in the food processor while the loyal, noble and hardworking Pedro began the rolling, filling, folding and crimping (yes, with a fork) process. It was slow going, stultifyingly slow going and I began to get a little, not a lot, but just a little concerned and somewhat manic. Failure is not something we cotton well to in the food business.

And it was here that the second of the two misery and pain producing things that I knew FAR FAR better than to have done occurred. On about the fifth or sixth, but could easily have been on the sixth or seventh, batch of dough I stopped the food processor because I didn't think the water I had just added had mixed in with the dry ingredients at the bottom.

So (and here's where it comes, folks; "Don't do it, don't go in the haunted cave" they scream from the cheap seats) I stuck my right hand down into the bowl of the food processor and in doing so managed, unbeknownst to me, to hook my middle finger under the cutting blade. And then what could have happened did. Upon attempting egress with my hand I caught the fleshy part of the top digit of my finger against the blade and pulled up. Halfway through the action and before it was complete I knew exactly what I had done. I ripped my hand out, causing the bowl and the top parts to fly across the kitchen and screamed, "No, no, you stupid asshole, no!!!" But it was too late. I had opened up a big crescent shaped gash in the previously mentioned fleshy part of the top digit of the middle finger of my right hand. And there was that moment, that priceless second where I looked at it and could assess the nature of the damage, just before the blood came pouring out.

So at that point the selfless, noble, long suffering and hardworking Pedro had to quit rolling and filling and folding and crimping (yes, with a fork) and also become the doctor. I got a towel on that sucker as fast as I could and squeezed it for all I was worth. Pedro got the goods and he proceed to first sterilize, then bind that damaged digit as tightly as he could, me urging him on to wrap it tighter and tighter. Oh yeah. And now it was big and bulky and white and a rubber glove wouldn't even fit over it, although Lord knows I tried. And The Clock was still moving.

It was now late afternoon and we were only up to 280 (four sheet pans) of empanadas. We kicked it in, although I must say, it is no mean feat rolling out dough, and cutting, filling, folding and crimping empanadas with a finger the size of an andouille sausage. Pedro, bless his noble and hardworking heart kept on rocking and rolling (not to mention, filling, etc...) and the two of us labored over the table in quiet backbreaking desperation. By 5:10 (we were to leave at 6:00 and still had to fry the cakes and bake the precious empanadas) we had 510 of those little suckers all filled and ready to go. Que milagro!

The final hour was a bit of a blur, but it all got done. I discovered, much to my delight and relief that I could avoid frying the risotto cakes by spraying them with non-stick spray and putting them on the very top rack of the convection oven. It may not have been frying, but it got them brown and hot and at that point that was just about all I was looking for. The empanadas were in the bottom of the two ovens, doing their level best to get a lovely golden brown and the risotto cakes were in the top.

Every last one of those perfectly browned 1050 morsels then had to be transferred from the sheet pans into 2" hotel pans (because they're the only ones that fit) for transport in our heated cambros to the site of the blessed event and somehow they made it. Josh, the dishwasher showed up about an hour or so after we really had needed him, but it meant that neither I nor the hardworking and fiercely loyal Pedro would have to clean up the colossal mess that can only be made by two people doing the work of four or five or six. Pedro and I jumped into the van with the alacrity of two men who have just worked nine straight hours on their feet without taking a break and we were off to the hills of West Salem and Zenith Winery.

The event itself, an Equinox benefit for something or another was massively anticlimactic compared to the day's events, but Pedro and I did get to wear our new monogrammed black Chef's jackets. We also got to rehearse our song and dance about what it was that we were serving because we had to do it a couple of hundred times each. And amazingly every single one of our 1050 bites of food got scarfed down my a bunch of folks from West Salem who somehow all seemed to get drunk drinking one ounce of wine at a time. The risotto cakes seemed to be Best in Show among all the food items, we were told our table and food were the best time and time again, and some guy in shorts stood off to one side of our table and must've scarfed down 30 empanadas all on his own.

There we stood at the end, bloody but unbowed. 13 hours our feet without a break (except for the bandaging process). My back ached from the time spent over the table lovingly preparing the empanadas and my finger was throbbing like the floor when you live over a houseparty. Pedro, the hardworking, loyal, trustworthy, brave, clean, thrifty and reverent Pedro turned to me and said, "Chef David, when I work with you, even when I work hard I always like it and I always learn something."
I eyed him dimly, a certain amount of fatigue coloring my view. "What did you learn today, if I may ask?"
He looked me right in the eye and said, "Never do empanadas for a big party."


  1. OMG! I suppose it was a donation too which is why you couldn't hire another set of hands?! Way to go Chef. Sorry about your finger.

  2. I came over to your blog from your comment on salt at Food 52. I read that article and then was reading the comments, all the while thinking, "I would feel just a teensy bit pretentious if I had 10 different salts in my kitchen; surely that is overkill even for food snobs," when I came upon your good commonsense comment. I don't think you were overdoing it when you used the phrase "oneupsmanship overkill"! Just had to visit your blog after that! Coming back later to read more.~Jean at

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Wednesday May 13, 2009 La Cusinga and Me

This words below are from our website describing La Cusinga.  The story, however is much deeper and much richer than these introductory words can describe.  La Cusinga represents a noble and successful effort to preserve this section of unspoiled coast and to keep it alive as a model of what true ecology can accomplish.  The dreams and visions of John Tresemer, the owner of La Cusinga and the Finca Tres Hermanas that surrounds it, have been realized here in what is a true example for all who would preserve and protect what remains of this, or any natural wonder. 

La Cusinga 
La Cusinga Lodge is a coastal rainforest eco lodge dedicated to marine and terrestrial conservation and environmental education. Its location on the southern Pacific coast provides guests with sweeping ocean views and a relaxing beach vacation. In addition La Cusinga is part of a private nature reserve that supplies the visitor with an unparalleled look at Costa Rican wildlife and rainforest. The reserve consists primarily of 250 hectares of virgin rainforest that borders thousands of more acres of privately protected forest. On Costa Rica’s still wild south-western Pacific coast, La Cusinga Lodge borders Ballena Marine National Park which was developed to protect the humpback whales that frequent the coast. La Cusinga Lodge was established in order to share the unique site with Costa Ricans as well as international visitors. Besides getting exposure to rural Costa Rican culture and beautiful vistas, visitors have access to highly prolific areas of primary tropical rainforest and unspoiled coast, all conveniently accessible. 

i returned to La Cusinga this past January, 2009, with a dream in mind.  I wanted to create a cuisine for our guests that would bridge the gap between what La Cusinga offered physically and spiritually, and what they were putting in their bodies when they ate here.  I knew from having previously lived in Costa Rica for over two years that there were organic farmers and that sustainable agriculture was being practiced, but at that time it had been limited in its scope as well as its distribution.  

My first steps upon returning were toward the local Feria to seek out and communicate my ideas with the growers and vendors who could provide me with a local, organic and sustainable product.  The fertile valleys of San Isidro that lie over the coastal mountains and to the Northeast of our Pacific location are rich and productive but are only now exploring the potential that they hold.  

I had in mind a vision that would support local farmers, fishermen and food artisans and one that would recreate (or perhaps, create) a new cuisine of Coastal Costa Rica.  I visit the markets each week to talk with growers and to develop the  relationships that I believe will be mutually beneficial as Costa Rica experiences its rapid growth on an international level
Organic farming is a new and not heavily supported concept in our part of Costa Rica.  It is a brave step for farmers to make, as local communities of both growers and consumers have never placed, or not known to place, an importance on farming organically and sustainably.  I feel a responsibility as a Chef here to be at the forefront of those encouraging and supporting these pioneers  

I came to La Cusinga almost three years ago not knowing what to expect.  My first time through here was characterized by a lack of understanding and appreciation on my part as well as an inability to recognize or connect with the local "flavor" that would make for a coherent package for out guests.  I now feel as if I have made a "connect" with the property and the vision.  I am not completely satisfied and hopefully, never will be, until we are able to produce, right here at La Cusinga, the greater share of the produce we serve.  However, the groundwork has been laid with local farmers and the availability and quality of organic produce is impressive.

Now at La Cusinga I serve a variety of organic lettuces and braising greens.  My salads include wedges or slices of rich red tomatoes as well as sweet !00 and yellow pear cherry tomatoes.  I roast organic beets and marinate them in balsamic vinegar to be served alongside the lettuces and topped with a locally made organic goat cheese.

My soups are made from roasted and steamed local organic vegetables and tiny organic yellow creamer potatoes have found their way onto my plates, nestled against filets of locally caught fish.
I am now using a local organic cocoa powder that still contains the nuggets of cocoa butter unlike the fined cocoa powder in the markets.

And better still, I am able to use palmito (hearts of palm), ginger, cilantro and its sawtooth leafed cousin culantro coyote, mangoes, hot and sweet chiles, mandarina limes and yucca root from our own Finca Tres Hermanas to serve in my dining room at La Cusinga.   The connection from jungle and farm to table is evolving.  May it continue to grow.