Planets Align (featuring Chicken Chorizo Empanadas and Mushroom Soup with Chestnuts)
On a lightly floured wooden board, I rolled out the chilled pastry dough dappled with butter, emitting the tiniest whiff of vinegar. Using only the lightest touch so as not to warm the dough and make it harder to roll, I ran my fingertips over that floury blanket and double-checked the thickness. One more turn with my wooden dowel rolling pin and it was time to move on to the filling.
I pulsed the braised boneless chicken thighs, chicken chorizo, paprika, onions, garlic, and sultanas in the food processor for a second or two, making a spicy-sweet, coral-colored poultry mush.
Lifting a 3-inch round from the 12-piece stainless steel biscuit cutter set, I perforated the sheet of dough into a constellation of pastry spheres and pulled the excess slivers away. I would ball up and re-roll the extra pieces once all of them had been collected, but this first pass through the freshly sprawled dough would make the most flakey and pillowy empanadas of the day.
Using a small spoon, I set a mound of chicken filling in the center of the first pastry circle. Dipping my index finger into a little water bowl next to my board, I moistened half of the dough’s circumference and then folded the edges together, pressing the dry arc to the wet. Using the tines of a fork, I made indentations on the outside rim of the chicken-filled half-moon and sealed it shut. I leaned the folded empanada on a sheet pan against another in the line of the 43 empanadas I’d made so far that morning.
Other chefs in the kitchen were talking, the oven door squeaked like it always did as someone pulled a hot sheet pan from its cavity, and music played from a tinny Bluetooth speaker in the corner, but I paid no attention. My empanadas and I were in a world of our own.
Here’s a secret: I don’t love my children equally. I have favorites. I find some of my small plate offerings far more beguiling than the others, especially when I’m focusing all my attention on what makes them shine. Some weeks it’s my fried chicken and waffle bites, some days it’s my shrimp rouille. My spring rolls with minty noodles beg for attention, then my hazelbeet crostini pull focus. I remember years ago when I developed the baked brie tartlets with honey garlic sauce, I thought I could not love any appetizer as much as that one, but my obsession switched onto another app months later.
For years, these little Spanish turnovers have been an option on my very comprehensive menu of appetizers, but one rarely chosen. Then suddenly this November, empanadas were ordered by one client…then another…then another.
It was pure coincidence, but the synchronicity of random client’s cravings gave me time to focus on these little pastries. I got to know them. I got to see what made them sing. I got the time to make them taste like me… like my food.
On this rainy November morning, I was prepping for holiday parties in the kitchen I rent a spot at, swooning as I spent time with my new favorite child when I was suddenly struck with a vision so clear I almost shouted.
I know, I know. It sounds like a big leap but stick with me here.
This past October, Francis and I celebrated my 50th birthday in Paris. With a strong insistence from a friend (thank you, Cheryl), we made a lunch reservation at Le Grand Vefour, a 200-year-old, two-Michelin-star-holding restaurant next to the Palais Royal in the 1st Arrondissement.
We entered the dining room, resplendent with gilded mirrors, red velvet booths, and gold-framed artwork, and were meticulously served one of the most spectacular multi-course meals I’ve ever eaten. The feast lasted 2 1/2 hours and was as beautiful as it was delicious.
But I’ll tell you something… at the end of the meal after we had been slain with more tastes and textures than I thought possible and a larger intake than my control-top tights had been commissioned for, there was one dish that stood out above the rest: the chestnut and cep mushroom soup with ricotta.
It was a freakin’ poem.
I wondered what it was that made it stand out from the rest of the fare? It was far from the most beautiful course. It wasn’t scrupulously constructed on the plate with swoops of colorful foams and contrasting angular breadsticks. Was it that the porcini mushrooms were harvested at their most vibrant moment on that late October day? Was it that the chef roasted the chestnuts over an open fire to make them even sweeter? Was it the consummately seasoned stock that simmered for hours? Was the soup passed through a chinois twice rather than once?
On that day in October, the pan-fried duck was tender, the yellow cod with lemon mousse was lush and verdant, but it was the mushroom soup that took my breath away. There are so many factors involved in creating the perfect dish. All I could think was, “I can taste you, chef. I can taste what you meant to create when this concoction first occurred to you and you were right, it’s divine.”
Upon further investigation, I see that that soup has been on Le Grand Vefour’s fall menu for a while. I also found through online reviews that some people didn’t enjoy the soup at all. This doesn’t make me feel confused or frustrated. It makes me feel inspired. Anything can happen in a kitchen. You never know where the culinary spotlight will shine. There are many good food moments in a chef’s life, but it’s a rare occurrence for us to feel like every flavorful nuance we intended to create in a dish was fully represented on the plate. Planets must align.
I try to keep my ambitions appropriately sized. I cook small food for small parties in Portland, Oregon. I listen to my vendors, my clients, my garden, and, more and more frequently, my intuition. Because maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll be able to orchestrate the harmonic convergence of my intentions with my talent and karma to create the perfect bite. I know I’ll never stop trying.
Chicken Chorizo Empanadas
This dough will make 40 empanadas, but you can keep the dough in the freezer for future use. You can halve it by using half an egg and use 1/6th cup of water)
- 1 cup of unsalted butter (two sticks), cut into 16 tablespoons pieces
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 ½ teaspoons salt
- 1 egg
- 1/3 cup water
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar (distilled vinegar, not fancy)
- Put the butter pieces with the flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse for a few seconds to take the butter down into smaller pieces and coat them with flour. Add the egg, the water and the vinegar and pulse for another few seconds to combine but not over-process.
- Separate the dough into two disks, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least an hour. The dough can be made a day in advance, or kept frozen for a month.
Chicken Chorizo Empanada Filling
Makes filling for 20 empanadas
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- ½ yellow onion
- 3 garlic cloves
- ½ cup loose chicken chorizo sausage
- ¼ cup dry sherry
- ½ pound boneless skinless chicken thigh
- ½ cup chicken stock
- Bay leaf
- ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon sweet paprika
- ½ teaspoon cumin
- ½ cup sultanas (white raisins)
- 1 ½ teaspoon sherry vinegar
- In a dutch oven, heat the olive oil on medium heat. Saute the onion 5 minutes until the onions are translucent. Add the garlic and saute for one minute.
- Add the chicken chorizo and cook gently, breaking up with a wooden spoon. Cook for 5 minutes over medium heat.
- Turn the heat up and deglaze with the dry sherry for a minute, scraping any bits stuck to the pan up. Add the chicken thighs, the chicken stock, bay leaf, smoked paprika, salt, sweet paprika, cumin, sultanas, and sherry vinegar.
- Cover the pan and cook on low heat for 30 minutes, making sure there is enough liquid in the pan to cover the meat. After this time, check to make sure the chicken thigh meat has cooked through and then let it cool uncovered for 10 minutes.
- Toss the meat mixture into the food processor and pulse 3 or 4 times to break it down into a mush. Place mixture in a bowl and keep in the fridge until you’re ready to fill the pastries.
- When you’re ready to make the empanadas, preheat the oven to 375 degrees and lightly flour a counter or board.
- Take one of the discs of dough from the fridge (to make 20 empanadas).
- Cut the disk in half and then, using a rolling pin, roll the half the dough out to a thin sheet. Using a 3-inch round cookie or biscuit cutter, punch out 10 rounds from the dough.
- Using a small spoon, mound about ¾-1 teaspoon’s worth in the center of the rounds and then fold in half. I frequently use a little water on one edge of the pastry circle to seal it. Only put water on half the circle because water won’t stick to water.
- Squeeze the circle into a half moon shape and then, using the tongs of a fork, make indentations along the edge of the empanada to seal it even tighter. There might be some leaking from the filling and it might feel awkward at first, but you’ll get the hang of it.
- When all the empanadas are filled, place them on a parchment covered sheet pan and bake them for 18-20 minutes. They will puff up and get flakey.
You can also freeze the filled empanadas for a later time. When using frozen empanadas, bake for 25-30 minutes at 375.
And, since I was very motivated to play with mushroom soup and I owe you a recipe from the last blog, here’s my take on Mushroom Soup. I serve this with a healthy spoonful of a cheeseless pistachio pesto which adds a bit of color and a small crunch.
Mushroom Soup with Chestnuts and Cheese-free Pistachio Pesto
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- ½ onion, chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, sliced but not chopped fine
- ½ pound chanterelle mushrooms brushed clean and sliced in half or quarters
- ½ pound cremini mushrooms brushed clean and sliced
- ¼ cup dry sherry
- 2 teaspoons fresh thyme
- ¼ teaspoon white pepper
- ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
- 4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
- 8 chestnuts
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Cheese-free Pistachio Pesto
- ½ cup fresh basil
- 3 tablespoons pistachios
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- Salt to taste
- Heat the olive oil in a stockpot over medium heat. Turn the heat down to medium-low and add the onions and garlic, and a pinch of salt. Sweat the vegetables for 15 minutes. You want them to get soft and sweet.
- Heat the second tablespoon of olive oil in a saute pan. Once hot, add the mushrooms and saute for 10 minutes WITHOUT SALT. They will start to turn brown and lose a lot of volume as they caramelize. After they have darkened, gently season them with a pinch of salt, fresh thyme, the white pepper, and the nutmeg. Deglaze the pan by adding the sherry, scraping up whatever bits have attached themselves to the bottom of the pan, and let the mushrooms drink up the liquid as it bubbles.
- Add the mushrooms to the onion/garlic mixture in the stockpot and then add the stock, the chestnuts and the lemon juice. Partially cover the pot and let it cook for 30 minutes over a medium/ low flame.
- With a mortar and pestle or food processor, smash the basil, pistachios, and olive oil together with a healthy pinch of salt to make a thick paste.
- Using an immersion blender, puree the soup until smooth. You can put the soup into a food processor or blender instead, but wait until it cools down. Processing very hot soup can become explosive and painful so heed this warning.
- Serve with a hearty spoonful of pistachio pesto and enjoy!
Here is a clip of me making this soup as a contribution to the Martin van Buren High School Comfort Food Cookbook: