Thai Chicken Empanadas

There are some foods that are irresistible after just one first bite. Some commercial foods such as french fries, pastries, potato chips and the like fall into that category.

Of course, all of those could be classified as “junk” food. But there are others that fall somewhere between that categorization and healthy. Cheese is in that grouping.

Although it is produced in wide-ranging flavors, textures, and forms, basically most cheese is loaded with protein calcium but also has a high fat content. For me, cheese pizza — or any kind of pizza for that matter — is hard to walk away from after having just one piece.

I got to thinking about other foods such as this after reading an article by Noelle Carter of the Los Angeles Times about the Thai chicken empanadas at Zengo in Santa Monica, Calif. Carter said that it is so hard to eat just one of the empanadas.

She contacted the restaurant for the recipe (which follows) and adapted it to her tastes, adding that the little morsels “are a project, but it’s well worth the time and effort, and they make a perfect appetizer for a party or gathering.”

An empanada, in case you didn’t know, is a stuffed bread or pastry baked or fried in many countries in Western Europe, Latin America, and parts of Southeast Asia. The name comes from the Spanish verb empanar, meaning to wrap or coat in bread. An empanada is made by folding dough or bread around stuffing, which usually consists of a variety of meat, cheese, huitlacoche, vegetables or fruits, among others.

I’ve eaten empanadas once, courtesy of the Rev. Raul Perez-Cobo of the Crookston Diocese. Father Raul made them at a dinner I helped served a few years ago, and they were extremely delicious. And that’s why the Zengo recipe so intrigued me.

Thai Chicken Empanadas
2 poblano chilies
4 teaspoons olive oil, divided
Salt and pepper
2 cups diced onions, small dice
Diced meat from 1 roast chicken (about 5 cups, or 2 pounds diced meat)
1 bunch cilantro, minced
¾ cup Thai sweet chile sauce (mae ploy)
12 ounces Oaxaca cheese, shredded
4 pounds puff pastry
All-purpose flour, for dusting
3 quarts frying oil
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Rub the peppers with 2 teaspoons of the oil, and season each with a pinch of salt and pepper. Wrap the peppers in foil and roast in the oven until softened, about 30 minutes, checking every 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and set the foil-wrapped peppers aside until cool enough to handle. Peel and seed the peppers, and cut into a small dice.
Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Add 2 teaspoons oil and saute the onions until translucent, stirring frequently, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat.
Assemble the filling: In a large bowl, combine the diced chicken, diced poblanos, onions, 1½ teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon pepper, cilantro, Thai sweet chile sauce and Oaxaca cheese. Taste and season with additional salt and pepper if desired. You should have a generous 6 cups of filling. Cover and refrigerate the filling until chilled, at least 1 hour, up to overnight.
Roll out the puff pastry 1 sheet at a time (refrigerate the other sheets until ready to use) on a lightly floured board. Cut out rounds using a 3½-inch biscuit cutter. You should be able to cut 16 to 18 rounds from each pound of puff pastry.
Fill each round with about 1½ tablespoons of the chilled filling. To fold the empanada, place the round in your hand. With the fingers of your other hand, press the filling down as you are clamping the pastry into a taco or moon shape. It may seem as if there is too much filling at first, but the dough will stretch as you press the filling down (this will give you a good ratio of filling to pastry). Seal the empanada by pressing the edges with your fingers; use a fork to crimp it and seal it completely. Refrigerate the empanadas until ready to fry.
To fry the empanadas, heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot until a thermometer inserted reaches 350 degrees. Fry the empanadas a few at a time until golden-brown, about 3 minutes. Drain on a rack or a paper-towel-lined baking sheet. Repeat until all the empanadas are fried. Serve immediately.
Yield: About 5 dozen empanadas.
Approximate nutritional analysis per empanada: 219 calories, 7 grams protein, 13 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 15 grams fat (4 grams saturated), 14 milligrams cholesterol, 3 grams sugar, 330 milligrams sodium.

Dear Joseph: It’s so hard to eat just one of these. The little Thai chicken empanadas are a project, but it’s well worth the time and effort, and they make a perfect appetizer for a party or gathering. Zengo was happy to share its recipe, which we’ve adapted below.

Note: Adapted from Zengo in Santa Monica, Calif. The restaurant serves the empanadas with mango chutney and red curry on the side. Sweet chile sauce (mae ploy) can be found at Thai and most Asian markets, as well as select well-stocked markets and cooking stores. Oaxaca cheese can be found at Latin markets and is generally available at well-stocked grocery stores. The recipe for the roast chicken can be found online.