I heard that Kendra is bringing chips and salsa to Sue's Cinco de Mayo party. So I call Mary Tom and say, "Can you believe Kendra is bringing chips and salsa to the party?"
Mary Tom pretends to be outraged. "Well the salsa had better be homemade. That's all I've got to say."
"What are you bringing?" I ask.
"Cheese dip," she replies.
"With the Velveeta and Rotel? Mary Tom, you can't!" Velveeta dip is great and terrible. It's the Tom Cruise of party food. Suddenly, my May 6th is foretold. I'll wake up with a blouse covered in orange drips and a belly filled with cheese-flavored regrets. I felt those same regrets the morning after I watched Vanilla Sky.
I call Sue. "I guess the first person to RSVP gets away with bringing chips and salsa? And Mary Tom's bringing Velveeta dip."
Sue says, "Why are you complaining? I spoke to you first and you told me you'd bring empanadas and that sauce that goes with them, and a Mexican cake of some kind..."
I wrack my brain for Mexican cakes. "Tres Leches?"
"Yeah, that one." I absolutely do not remember offering to bring empanadas or cake to the party, which I suspect will also be a belated surprise birthday party for me. But I have just the kind of friends that would trick me into catering my own surprise birthday party. I make a mental note to pack candles.
Kendra calls. We chat about our children and our dogs and work our way around to Sue's party. "Do you know what you're bringing?" I ask.
"I have a new recipe for a roasted poblano and fresh corn salsa. And I might make a flan. Do you have a flan pan?" Indeed I do.
I call Mary Tom and leave a message: "Kendra's making homemade salsa and flan. I guess you're going to have to do better than a block of processed cheese and canned tomatoes heated in a microwave."
Last I heard, Sue is going to have a pinata and we're all supposed to wear cowgirl attire and there will be prizes for the best outfit! Tomorrow I'm going to call Sue and up the ante by suggesting donkey rides. There's a woman in town that will bring farm animals to your party, so it's not like it would be a lot of trouble. Though there are some questions she'd have to answer: What's the weight limit on your donkey? Can it hold a grown woman full of cheese dip?
Eggplant and Smoked Cheese Empanadas
I have made from-scratch empanada dough, but in this recipe, the filling is complex and bold, and they are served with a flavorful sauce, so the frozen dough is more than adequate. I like Goya brand; it contains no lard (manteca). This dough is meant to be fried. If you want to make a baked empanada, use a pie-crust type dough.
I make the filling a day ahead and assemble the empanadas the day I'll be frying them, or I'll assemble and freeze them, flat on a cookie sheet, then sealed in a freezer bag. If you freeze them, let them thaw in the fridge completely before frying.
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium eggplant (about 1 pound), diced into ½ inch cubes
1 small white onion, diced (about 1 cup)
1 roasted red pepper or a small can of whole pimientos, diced
1/4 cup sun dried tomatoes in oil, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp tomato paste
2 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce (vegetarians look for anchovy-free brands)
1 Tbsp brown sugar
½ tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
Kosher salt and fresh pepper to taste
8 oz grated Smoked Butterkase cheese (or Smoked Gouda or Smoked Cheddar)
10 Goya empanada discs, thawed
Peanut oil for frying
In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the eggplant, onion, roasted red pepper, and sun dried tomatoes. Sprinkle in a little bit of salt to get the vegetables to release liquid and cook until the vegetables are soft and slightly brown (about ten minutes, stirring frequently). Add the garlic and the tomato paste and cook another two or three minutes. Add the Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar, cumin, cinnamon and cayenne pepper. Add salt and pepper to taste. The mixture should be the consistency of pie filling. Cool completely.
To assemble: Line a cookie sheet with parchment or wax paper. On a lightly floured surface, roll an empanada disc until it's about 7 inches in diameter. Place 2 Tbsp of the filling and a heavy pinch of cheese (about 2 Tbsp) on one half of the disc. Dip your finger into a bowl of water and wet the entire edge of the dough and bring the top half over the bottom half, enclosing the filling. Press down on the edges to seal them, and then dip your finger into the water again and wet the rounded edge. Hold the empanada in one hand and crimp and pinch the edge with the other. It's best to let the assembled empanadas rest in the fridge (covered with plastic wrap or a tea towel) for at least an hour before frying.
This sounds fussy, and it is, to some degree. But once you get the hang of it, it goes quick. It took me thirty minutes to do ten, and I was being careful because of the pictures.
Deep fry them in batches, until golden brown. Put them into the oil flat side down, and don't turn them over when they float. The melted cheese will find ANY weak point in your crimp to start leaking. Just use a spatula or spoon to bathe the tops with the oil. Drain on paper towels and let cool a bit before serving with Cucumber Cilantro Sour Cream.
Cucumber Cilantro Sour Cream
This is essentially a tzatziki sauce with cilantro thrown in. Make at least four hours in advance and take the time to salt, squeeze and chop the shredded cucumber per the instructions to avoid watery/slimey cucumber shreds. If you do that, the sauce will keep beautifully in the fridge for several days.
1 large regular cucumber, peeled and seeded
1 cup sour cream (not fat-free)
½ tsp garlic powder
2 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro (or about a handful)
Lots of freshly-cracked black pepper
Kosher salt to taste
Grate the peeled and seeded cucumber into a small bowl. Sprinkle with a bit of kosher salt and let it sit for at least an hour. Squeeze as much water as you can out of the grated cucumber. Place the grated cucumber on a cutting board and rock your knife across it in one direction and then the other, to break up any long shreds. Return the grated cucumber to the bowl and add the other ingredients. Refrigerate. Taste before serving and add additional salt and pepper if needed.