The last few months were busy. Far too busy. Working every one of my alleged days off busy. And rainy enough to not bother me too much I don’t have a horse to ride at the moment. Muddy ground and not enough time has of course resulted in a horribly overgrown and weed covered yard of shame – the kind of yard I couldn’t show my dad because ‘muñeca no tienes vergüenza.’
No, I don’t.
The second benefit is no less happiness inducing yet a bit more practical. My too numerous chard plants have exploded. While I did pick off them regularly and throw the leaves and stems into everything I could there is currently no stopping their growth currently, at least not until the temperatures reach the mid 80F. The Phoenix area being gifted with such unique weather as it is, any garden greens, peas, herbs and other such delicate plants are grown as winter crops, suffering little to no frost damage.
This weed ridden unkept yard has yielded me two wonderful benefits. For the first time in the two years I’ve been trying and sometimes failing miserably at it (see murdered Meyer lemon, avocado and cara cara orange trees), I have lady bugs. Baby lady bugs, mid sized lady bugs and big fat lady bugs eating bug in sight. I squealed in delight at this development.
The menu at home has been a constant rotation of chard. Chicken and swiss chard soup. Braised pork and chard with roasted cauliflower. Great British Baking Show style sausage rolls with chard and swiss cheese. All chard all the time. This dish in particular has been my favorite so far, empanadas de acelgas y queso.
The addition of milk to the corn dough for these fried empanadas multiplies the crunch of the pastry as the natural sugars in the milk caramelize, yet also creates a more fluffy interior to the empanada. Is it traditional, no. But neither is the Mexican blend cheese I used for the dish, as this recipe was written in March 24th of 2020, when stores are empty of many staple goods and it is best to stay safely at home due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The current madness of the grocery store is not worth it, not even for cheese.
Had I my choice of cheese it would have been quesadilla or asadero, a good melting cheese full of flavor. Not using cheese is not an option, as cheese is the glue helping the filling stay together.
Empanadas de Acelgas y Queso
De-stem the chard by holding each individual leave near where the stem and greens meet with the non-dominant hand. With a lose pinching motion of the dominant hand, swipe upward on the stem, separating the leaves. Reserve stems. Once cleaned bunch up into a few rolls and roughly chop. Trim thick parts of the stems and slice 1/4″ thick at a slight bias. Discard thin stems.
Heat a large braising pan over medium heat. Once warm add a good drop of canola oil and cook garlic for approx. 30 seconds, or until fragrant but not browned. Immediately add chard stems and season lightly. Once chard stems are softened add leaves season with a three finger pinch of salt. Cook while giving the occasional stir until mostly wilted. Finish with freshly cracked pepper and set aside to cool. Once cool, drain of excess moisture.
Mix salt into instant corn flour, maseca. Add warm milk and one cup of warm water, noting more may be needed. Mix well for 2 or 3 minutes. This dough will absorb liquids quickly but should be thoroughly mixed to ensure even hydration. Rest dough for approx. 5 minutes for hydration to continue, then mix again. Dough should feel tacky to the touch but should not stick, and should be able to be rolled smoothly into a ball and pressed out smoothly. If too dry, add a teaspoon of warm water into the dough at a time and work completely in before adding more. If too moist, mix well again and allow to rest for a few more minutes before testing again.
While filling empanadas, heat approx. 1″ of canola oil to 350F, or until it lightly shimmers but does not smoke. Divide dough into portions just slightly bigger than a golf ball. Press the dough flat using a lined tortilla press. If a tortilla press is not available, the smooth flat bottom of a pan may be used, being sure to press down smoothly, and to place the dough between two pieces of plastic or wax paper. Do not press the dough too thin as it will break when filled. Holding the flattened dough in the non-dominant hand, place a heaping spoonful of chard filling in the center, draining any excess moisture being doing so. Top with cheese to taste, resisting the urge to overfill. Fold the empanada closed, pinching it sealed. Repeat until dough and filling are gone.
Carefully dip each empanada into hot oil, releasing close to the oil to prevent splatter. Cook approx. 4 minutes on the first side, or until light golden brown. Very gently turn and cook on the second side for approximately 2 minutes, or until also light golden brown. Drain on towels and cool for several minutes before eating as filling will be very hot.