Empanadas with my favorite Chilean
R & R (as I like to call them) have been largely responsible for helping me get to San Francisco. When I lived in my chilly studio in Fairfax a few winters ago, Rachael was a loyal visitor, frequently leaving the city and making the trek across the Golden Gate Bridge into the wilds of Marin to hang out with me and eat macrobiotic food. They always gave me a sofa to crash on when I made my many reconnaissance missions out to the West Coast, offering endless tea, celebrity house tours, job leads and Russian pastry on Geary. Rachael even allowed me to make fun of her skeletal houseplants, and in exchange I agreed to defend her right to listen to Prince as much as she wants. Which means it's pretty much the only thing I've ever heard her put on the stereo.
And now they're leaving, bound for an extremely hot state crawling with scary creatures that I prefer to believe exist only in astrological form. Apparently they are real, and they like to crawl into your shoes while you slumber innocently nearby. Shudder.
I'm sad. But I can't help but be happy for them because Rachael is in hot pursuit of her dream job. And Rodrigo, who will be slightly closer to the ports where he does all his business, is well on his way to becoming a fruit mogul, and is about to introduce the American market to delicious and exotic produce that we have been cruelly denied until now. I'm thrilled that a visit to their new home may include bonuses like access to the championship golf course in their planned community and perhaps a polygamist sighting, if we're really lucky. I don't even play golf, but damn, I want that access.
Last night, they invited us over for a Last Supper of sorts: homemade empanadas de pino and something that they called "typical Chilean salad." I was curious to try Rodrigo's cooking, since even he, a proud Chilean, has nothing positive to say about the foods of his native land. He offered us his theory on why Chile lacks a distinctive cuisine: apparently long ago the Spanish considered it a terrible place to live, so it was populated mainly by felons. As he says, "All the four-, three-, two-, and one-star chefs left. We were left with the zero-stars." Indeed, while doing a cursory Google search on Chile, I learned that the country's culinary strengths lie mainly in its fruit, seafood and wine, but not, perhaps, in dishes like palta reina, described here as "avocado filled with tuna fish or ham covered with mayonnaise and served on lettuce leaves". Even ensalada a la chilena, literally Chilean Salad, consists of nothing more than a big bowl of tomatoes and onions with dressing. Hey, I love tomatoes and onions. But as national salads go, it seems like kind of a humble combination for a country to hitch its entire wagon to, is all I'm saying.
Then again, we have American cheese...
After we arrived and the ceremonial pouring of Chilean wine was complete, Rodrigo explained that the empanadas he had made - empanadas de pino - are the most typical, consisting of a simple dough that has been wrapped around a cooked filling made of ground beef, onions, raisins, hard-boiled eggs and black olives before baking. Admittedly, that combination of ingredients sounded pretty haphazard to me, but it works. Let it be known that the wily raisin is my mortal enemy, but it can really taste delicious when it's all plumped up and softly sweet in the middle of a big pocket of seasoned meat.
Apparently, you can make an empanada out of anything, and I'm already envisioning, say, a spicy little lamb number with currants, pine nuts and cinnamon. The democracy of the thing is inspiring, isn't it? Think of all the combinations! Coincidentally, I'd ordered a yuppie version last week at a place called Limon that was vastly different in texture - more like a fried potsticker - but also startlingly tasty. However, it was not made by my favorite Chilean, so it didn't have the star quality of Rodrigo's version.
When you think about it, pretty much every culture has its own version of the empanada. Dim sum, calzone, Cornish pasties, piroshky ...we all love some variant of dough wrapped around filling. But as Rachael says, only Chile can claim this approach as its own:
"Chilean cuisine consists mainly of white bread and vegetable oil. Of course, you mix the vegetable oil with various things - beef, tomatoes, avocado (at about a 3-1 ratio, oil to avocado) - but it usually winds up just tasting like vegetable oil. Also mayonnaise. Lots and lots of mayonnaise.
Bye, guys. Don't forget to shake out those shoes.