Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Pastels do Vovozinha (translation: delicious little pockets of meat)

I just recently decided to give up fried foods for Lent, and as today is Ash Wednesday I figured the perfect recipe to feature today would be my favorite little fried bits of heaven: Pastels do Vovozinha.

A few years ago, Hubby came with me to Brazil for the first time to attend a cousin's wedding and meet my grandparents for the first time.  Oh and he conveniently planned to proposed to me on this trip so that my Brazilian grandparents who miss out of so much of my life, could experience this milestone.  Again, he's a keeper.

But before that perfect moment where he asked me to marry him on a beach at sunset, we had to travel 14 hours on a plane and then another hour in a rickety van.  So when we arrived at my grandparents' apartment, he was just a touch grouchy.  It didn't help matters that since the elevators in Brazil are typically very small, I went up with my mom and the first load of our luggage, leaving Hubby and my dad - neither of whom speak Portuguese - on the street with the driver and then my grandfather held me hostage insisting on giving me a tour of the changes he'd made to what would be Hubby's room and assuring me that he'd be comfortable.  Anybody who knows my grandfather knows that the man can talk.  Fifteen minutes later (after 2 more loads of luggage went up before him) Hubby finally arrived in the apartment, sweaty, tired and a bit cranky that I had ditched him so quickly into our vacation.

I soothed him the only way I knew how.  I handed him one of these delectable little pockets of meat straight out of the pan where my grandmother (the aforementioned Vovozinha) was frying them up.  He asked me what it was and I instructed him to just try it.  He did and asked me again what it was and why I had given him one. I was a bit nervous at this reaction (who doesn't like a little fried pocket of meat?)  but he then clarified why had I given him ONLY one, he needed at least a dozen. I explained that they were "pastels" (pronounced pash-tells) and that my grandmother had made them for us.  I showed him the platter full of done ones, the pan full of in process ones and the plate full waiting to be fried and instantly his mood was lifted.  Success.

Cut to two months later at our engagement party.  We obviously had to have the pastels and were able to find a lady who could make them in large quantities for our 40 guests.  I knew the instant they were put out because within moments, guests started finding me and asking me what "those delicious little pockets of meat" were.  I'd explain that they were called pastels, be met with a blank stare, try to explain that they are a Brazilian version of empanadas but they are lighter and airier and the meat mixture is purely Brazilian in it's flavor profile, be met with another blank stare and so on until finally I just started agreeing that yes they were delicious little pockets of meat which was met with a big smile, a nod and the person going back inside for another one.

Waiting two years for my next visit to Brazil to have another Pastel was clearly not an option, so one day I asked my mother to give me the recipe that my grandmother uses and tried it out for myself.

Start by heating a large pan over medium high heat and adding some green stuff.  Wait, you don't know what "green stuff" is? How could you not? This is actually one of my grandmother's secret ingredients.  It is actually just onions, water and a little bit of salt pureed together and stored in the refrigerator.  And no, this batch has not gone bad (a question I'm asked almost monthly when Hubby starts cleaning out the refrigerator) the oxidization process once the onions are chopped up and exposed to air turns the mixture green.  It is the same process that turns potatoes or apples brown when they are cut.  The next time I make a batch, I promise I will take pictures of it because this stuff is magical.  I use it as a base for almost everything.

If you don't have green stuff and don't want to make yourself a batch, you can also dice up some onions and sweat them out with a little bit of olive oil and a pinch of salt.

Ignore the pot of sauerkraut on the back burner.  I actually photographed the batch I made for Hubby's birthday back in October, but I haven't had to chance to write them up until now.  

Once the onions are translucent (or the green stuff has heated through) add in a pound of lean ground beef.  Break up the beef as it cooks and keep it in motion until is is cooked through and nice and brown. At this point you should have quite a bit of grease from the meat.  If you used a nice lean packet of ground beef, this is fine.  If you used a regular variety, I'd suggest spooning off about 1/2 of the fat.

Next add two roma tomatoes that you've diced into nice small pieces.

And some chopped green olives.  As I do with pretty much any dish I make with olives, I also add a splash of the liquid from the olive jar.  You can't replicate that briny saltiness.

 Stir the olives and the tomatoes around until the tomatoes shrink about 50% and most of the juice has cooked off and then add in the parsley.

Stir the mixture around for a few more minutes until all the liquid has cooked off.  Remember, this pan is still on medium/high so it won't take too long.  Don't be worried about overcooking it.  You really can't.  At this point take a few tastes of the meat and make sure you like the seasoning.  You might need to add more salt or more parsley.

Take the mixture off the stove and let it cool.  You'll have to keep a close watch on this since if somebody finds out it is on the stove, they will periodically walk into the kitchen and "test" it until you have only half left.

When the meat mixture has cooled, it is time to wrap them.

I found these wrappers in the freezer section of my international market.  They are by Goya and are called "empanada wrappers" but I have found that they are thinner and not nearly as doughy as standard empanadas.  I also take the opportunity to roll them out a little thinner before I add the meat.  My mother likes to cut hers in half, but on this occasion I made full ones.  I'll admit, they were a little on the larger side, so I'd probably cut them in half next time.

Whether you cut them in half or not, to assemble them I spooned a couple of spoonfuls of meat mixture into the center.  Make sure to get a few olives in each one. There is something magical when you get a bite with an olive since most people don't expect that taste in an pocket of meat.

Fold the wrapper over onto itself and then using a fork, press the edges together.  You will have to press hard.

Flip the pocket over and press the other side.  This is crucial to make sure the edges are tightly sealed.  There is nothing worse than one of these pockets opening up in the pan.  Trust me, I know.

In the package, the wrappers are divided by these little plastic sheets, so as I finish each pocket I wrapped it back in the plastic.  This way they won't stick together and you can only make a few at a time.  Wrapped and covered, these can sit in the refrigerator for a few days or even be frozen.

Now, pretend I wasn't a complete space cadet and took pictures of the frying process. I plead insanity since at the time that these were being fried I was also frying schnitzel and mashing potatoes for Hubby's Birthday Feast. But the frying is fairly basic.  Just put about 3" of vegetable oil in a pan, heat it up until it sizzles when you flick some flour into it.  Lower the heat to medium and add the Pastels in batches of 2-3 (depending on the size of your pan) let them fry for 2 minutes on each side or until they are golden brown like this.

When they are golden on each side, remove them onto a cookie sheet lined with paper towels to absorb the excess oil and try to keep grabby hands from taking them as soon as they are pulled from the pan.  They are best when served warm so I'd say make small batches and then fry more as needed.  But if you want to put them out for a cocktail party, they will still be good even when room temperature.

Now that my mouth is watering and my tummy is grumbling, I should go and make myself my meat free dinner like a good little Catholic.  It's gonna be a long 40 days.  Something tells me I'll be making a batch of these babies for Easter.

Shopping List for Pastels do Vovozinha (makes about 12 large pockets)

  • 2 Tbsp Green Stuff (or 1 Tsp olive oil and 1 small onion)
  • 1 lb Lean Ground Beef
  • 2 Roma Tomatoes
  • 1/2 Cup Chopped Green Olives
  • 2 Tbsp Dried Parsley Flakes
  • 12 Goya Empanada Wrappers
  • Vegetable Oil for Frying

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