While most Cinco de Mayo recipe buzz seems to revolve around tequila and avocados, the better representative of Mexican cuisine is corn, and its best form is masa harina.
Masa harina is one of my favorite ingredients. It looks like extra-fine cornmeal, but behaves very differently in cooking: where corn meal forms a porridgy mixture, masa harina forms a smooth dough. The secret is nixtamalization — the same process used to make hominy or grits. For masa harina, corn is cooked in an alkaline solution (usually slaked lime or wood ash), then ground, dried, and powdered. The process removes the hulls, softens the grain, makes nutrients like niacin more easily digestible, and enables the starches and proteins to bind together into a workable dough.
These empanadas have a crispy, hearty pastry crust made with a combination of masa harina and flour. They’re baked, not fried, which makes them a) a bit more healthy (there’s still fat in the pastry crust, and that is totally fine by me), and b) a lot simpler and less messy to make. Assembly is easy: grab a hunk of dough, roll it into a circle, add a dollop of filling, then fold and pinch the edges. Best of all, you can make a big batch, freeze them, and then bake off a small batch whenever you feel like it.
Fillings are limited to your imagination (or, lacking that, the reach of your favorite search engine). Savory or sweet, meaty or vegan, spicy or somewhat less spicy — it’s up to you. As long as the fillings aren’t too wet, you can use just about anything you like.
This weekend, I made three kinds of vegetarian empanadas: roasted corn and tomato, potato and cheese, and black bean and pumpkin. A lot of the ingredients overlap, so I just set out three big bowls and assembled all three fillings at once. (You could also set the ingredients out separately and let people make each empanada unique.)
You need to chill the dough and fillings before assembly or the hot fillings will melt the butter or lard in the crust and your empanadas will be soggy and sad. Other than that, putting the empanadas together goes quickly, especially if you skip the effort of roasting your own pumpkin and just toss a bunch of leftovers together with some spicy sauce and cheese.
See the picture above? I actually tossed those together for dinner with zero previous planning — blended the dough, then while it was chilling went through the fridge and pulled out leftover roasted squash, frozen beans, unlabeled cheese, plus some spices. Mix ‘em together, roll out the dough, slap ‘em together, and into the oven. Dinner.