David Sterling’s followup to “Yucatan” explores all of Mexico, but starts in Yucatan’s famous magic town, Izamal. Here is one interesting dish, which isn’t at all what it first appears.
By David Sterling
At a tiny stall in the humble Izamal market, ample platters were filled with what appeared to be two kinds of picadillo, or chopped meat: one a meaty-looking brown color (beef?), the other an appetizing reddish color (pork?).
And to one side were Yucatán’s requisite and ubiquitous purple pickled onions — or so I thought. A casual chat with the stall’s friendly owner, José Camaal Sosa, revealed the magician’s secret: one of the imposter “meats” was actually made from tofu; the other, eggs scrambled with achiote then finely chopped. And the onions? Not onions at all, but rather finely chopped cabbage stained fluorescent fuchsia with thick slices of beet.
I was astonished that in this land of die-hard carnivores, a vegetarian puesto (stall) would be so popular, as this one obviously was. However, the clever vendor readily confided that his creations had nothing to do with appealing to herbivores, but instead was a way to carve out a competitive niche in a market visited by folk of humble means. His famous “Empanaditas” de San José are cheap — just 2 pesos each (about 15 cents).
Prepare-ahead note: The tofu needs to be frozen at least 24 hours to reduce water content. You should prepare the fillings and keep them warm while you form and fry the empanadas.
Yield: 8 servings / 2 dozen empanadas
For the garnish
¼ small cabbage (9 oz./260 g), finely chopped
1 small beet (4.5 oz./125 g), peeled and thickly sliced
½ cup (125 mL) white vinegar
½ teaspoon (3 g) sea salt
For the fillings
“Picadillo” de tofu:
14 ounces (400 g) tofu
2 tablespoons (30 mL) vegetable oil
1 tablespoon (2 g) dried whole
Mexican oregano plus ¼ teaspoon
(0.75 g) cumin seed, lightly toasted and ground together
¼ teaspoon (1.25 g) freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon (3 g) sea salt
“Picadillo” de huevo:
2 tablespoons (30 g) recado rojo (“de achiote”)
1 tablespoon (15 mL) water
1 tablespoon (15 mL) vegetable oil
For the “empanaditas”
2 cups (500 g) masa harina
½ teaspoon (3 g) sea salt
2 cups (500 mL) water
Vegetable oil for frying
Chile sauce of your choice
Prepare the garnish: Combine the ingredients in a nonreactive mixing bowl; allow to macerate for at least 30 minutes, tossing occasionally to distribute the color from the beets.
Prepare the fillings:
“Picadillo” de tofu
With the tofu in its original wrapping, freeze it for at least 24 hours. On the day you will be preparing the filling, bring the tofu to room temperature until completely soft. Remove the tofu from the package and pour off the water. Line a fine-mesh sieve with a piece of cheesecloth; place the tofu in the cheesecloth and use your fingers to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Rinse the tofu, use your fingers to squeeze out the liquid again, and repeat this process until the liquid runs clear. When the liquid is clear, gather the ends of the cheesecloth, twist, and squeeze until virtually no liquid passes through.
Heat the vegetable oil in a large nonstick skillet until shimmering; transfer the tofu from the cheesecloth to the skillet and immediately begin to break it apart and crumble it with a wooden spoon or spatula; the texture should resemble ground pork or beef.
Add the spices, stir to incorporate, and continue cooking another 2–3 minutes or until dry. Check seasonings and add salt if needed. Keep warm until ready to serve.
“Picadillo” de huevo
In a small mixing bowl, thoroughly beat the eggs and set aside; mix the recado with the water until completely dissolved. Beat the recado mixture into the eggs until thoroughly incorporated.
Heat the vegetable oil in a medium nonstick skillet until shimmering. Pour in the beaten egg mixture and immediately begin to stir it with a wooden spoon to scramble the eggs. Continue stirring until completely cooked. (Note: Commercial recado already contains salt, but you will want to check the seasonings anyway and add salt if necessary.)
Transfer the scrambled eggs to a cutting board; chop the eggs finely, then return them to the skillet to keep warm until time to serve.
Prepare and fry the “empanaditas”
Combine the masa harina, salt, and water thoroughly and let the dough rest for 15 minutes before proceeding. Form the dough into 24 balls weighing .7 oz. (20 g) each; keep them covered loosely with a towel as you work.
Meanwhile, prepare a tortilla press: slit open a small plastic sandwich bag along the two sides; open it and place it onto the bottom round of the opened press: half of the plastic should rest on the bottom of the press, the other flap should extend toward the handle.
Pour 2 inches (5 cm) of vegetable oil into a large skillet; heat to a temperature of 375˚f (190˚c). Place one ball of dough in the center of the plastic, and fold the other half of the plastic to cover the ball. Lower the lever of the tortilla press, and gently press to form a tortilla about 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter. Use the plastic to lift the tortilla; place the tortilla on the palm of one hand while you peel away the plastic with the other. Add about 2 tablespoons of the tofu or egg mixture, fold the tortilla in half to resemble an empanada (“half-moon” shape), seal the edge of the empanada with your hands, then immediately plunge it into the hot oil. Fry only 3 or 4 empanaditas at a time, basting them with hot oil and turning once until golden brown, about 2–3 minutes. Remove to paper towels to drain.
To serve: Plate 3 empanaditas per person, overlapping the corners slightly. Top with 2 tablespoons (12 g) of the cabbage garnish. Diners add chile sauce to taste if desired.