I like to cook things you can eat with your hands.
If you think about it - or if you watch my 9-month-old grandson, Banzai – that includes just about anything you can eat. Or grab.
I am babysitting Banzai. It is no mystery who is in control of this situation: It is not me. The kid is running me ragged. He refuses to cease moving, refuses to stop ripping into everything within reach. He is a blur, and I am … old.
Banzai scoots around the room at breakneck speed and puts everything he can take in his hands into his mouth. That includes my shoes, a copy of National Geographic, leaves off the Boston fern, a tissue, a refrigerator magnet, a dog biscuit, a paintbrush, the neck of an empty wine bottle and an assortment of balled-up crud he finds beneath the couch.
I feed him, don’t get me wrong. He wolfs down formula, oatmeal, peas, blueberries. Goes through them like a combine mowing a field of ripe wheat.
But, he seems to prefer stuff he can grab at random. If he spots it, he picks it up. If he picks it up, he tries to eat it.
I am changing his diaper for the third time. It’s like trying to put a bobcat in a paper bag. The only thing I can do to distract him is to hand him a baby wipe.
He tries to eat it.
As I said: there’s not many things you can’t eat with your hands.
One can make a case that most soups require a vessel and, though one can drink soup, a spoon is not out of the question.
Most everything else, though …
But, as we creep forward to the edge of civilization, we distinguish foods that are intended to be eaten with the hands and those that, barring a total meltdown of civility, are not.
The list of handhelds is long and the entries run from the pedestrian (most sandwiches, pizza, bun-born goodies, fried chicken, etc.) to the precious (fancy-schmantzy canapés, for example). Sorry, Banzai, the list does not include refrigerator magnets.
Some of my fave in-your-hand delights are the knish, shawarma, the taco, the pita crammed with all manner of highly spiced delights – from falafel to chunks o’flesh cooked on a skewer. Maybe even a vegetable or two, if I am in crisis mode.
I have written before in this space about one of the brightest stars in the handheld firmament – the Cornish pastie. A note: pastie, in this case, is pronounced “pasty.” Leave pasties to a ’50s burlesque house, and all the juvenile, tawdry delights it offered.
The Cornish and English who migrated in the 19th century to my ancestral home of Central City, Colorado, brought with them this practical favorite of the miners: A half-moon-shaped pie crust encasing what amounted to a dry stew: chunks of beef or lamb, cubes of potato, turnip or rutabaga, sliced onion. The edges of the crust were glued with egg wash and crimped. A hole was poked in the top of the pastie to allow a bit of broth to be poured in and to let steam escape when the hearty treat was baked. The half-moon pastie was wrapped in a tea towel and put in the bottom of the half-moon-shaped tin container the miner wore on his hip. The miner’s lunch stayed warm until he ate it, crouched deep down in the dank dark shaft.
Then there are the cousins of the pastie: turnovers - sweet or savory. Delectable, business.
And how about those empanadas, senor? Turnovers Espanol.
Olé. Kind of like a pastie, but rarely as large. The template is similar: a half-moon-shaped dough package, containing one of who knows how many possible fillings.
I have chowed down on empanadas filled with beef mixtures, pork, chicken, beans. The fillings have spanned the scale from mild to incendiary; the sizes ranged from a two-bite appetizer to two empanadas for an entrée.
It had been quite some time since I made empanadas and the other night, I got the jones for the Big E. But, I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare the empanadas, so I got to figurrin’ and I figurred a way to cut a whole lot of corners.
I had a bit of time available the night before I intended to bake the empanadas, and I had about an hour prior to the time I planned to serve them
First obstacle: the pie crust (or one of the many empanada dough recipes one can find). No time to be cutting butter or lard into flour. No time to refrigerate the dough and let it sit.
Store-bought pie crust. True, the stuff probably contains enough toxins to drop a large mammal, but who cares? Obstacle cleared.
The second obstacle: no time to slowly cook meats for a filling.
A storebought rotisserie chicken. True, the poor bird was probably injected with all manner of nasty fluids (hopefully after it was slaughtered), but who cares? Obstacle cleared.
The night before the empanada feast, I prepare the filling. I sauté thinly sliced white onion and a bit of thinly sliced red bell pepper until soft. I toss in a couple cloves of mushed garlic and the chicken meat, which I have ripped from the carcass and cut into small bits. I add a half cup or so of diced, fire-roasted tomato, a quarter cup or so of chicken broth, some ground cumin, dried oregano, chopped cilantro and a stiff measure of chopped, roasted green chile. I reduce the mix to the point the liquid has nearly evaporated, I add salt, pepper and adjust the other seasonings. I let the mix cool then add grated asadero cheese and some small cubes of cream cheese. I stir to blend, cover the bowl and put the mix in the fridge.
The next day, the third obstacle: sauce, or sauces.
I have come to the conclusion that the one thing better than food you can eat with your hands, is food you would eat with your hands that is so gooped up with delectable sauces, you need to use a fork.
Here’s the ideal pairing: a fiery salsa fresca and a cooling avocado sauce (not guacamole — an avocado sauce).
I don’t have time to make the salsa fresca: charring and skinning several types of chiles, roasting tomatoes and onions, etc.
Buy a couple cans of Mexican-made salsa casera. Sure, the rodent parts per million is probably off the charts, but who cares? Obstacle surmounted.
As for an avocado sauce, I find a couple of what will pass for ripe avocados at the market. They are subpar, but they will have to do (this is Siberia With a View, after all). I look for Mexican crema and can’t find any, so I buy a small tub of sour cream.
I halve the avocados, scoop out the flesh and toss the hunks in a blender. I add half a tub of sour cream, some lemon juice, some half-and-half, salt, pepper and a dose of extra virgin olive oil. I then puree the hell out of the blend. I taste, adjust the seasoning and, voila, avocado sauce — the perfect counter to the salsa casera.
I take the pie dough out of the box and unroll it. I use a small bowl as a guide and I cut rounds of the dough. The size of a round (6 inches in diameter) requires four or five tablespoons of the chicken mixture. I place the mix on one side of the round (leaving a half-inch edge), fold the other side over and, after moistening the bottom edge of the dough with egg white, I close and crimp the dough. I put each finished round on a greased baking sheet. I slick up each empanada with egg white, slide the tray in a 425 oven and bake until the empanadas are toasty brown.
I grate some cotijo cheese, whip up a slaw made with cilantro mayonnaise, cook some (canned) black beans … and the party begins!
On top of an empanada go alternating slicks of salsa and avocado sauce. I sprinkle each sauced empanada with the cotijo.
Ahhh. Hand-held food, taken to the next level.
Hand me a fork. On second thought, make that a spoon.
Perhaps the next time I make (or buy) a crust and set course to bake empanadas, I’ll whip up a baby wipe empanada for Banzai. I think he’d like that.
With a side of couch crud.