Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Debi: (Just Enough) Squash & Black Bean Empanadas, with Neighbors

Last week, I decided that we had been eating entirely too much purely beige food. After a cooking frenzy over the holidays, I had grown tired of standing in my kitchen chopping and sauteeing and frying and baking and plating, only to come back an hour later and spend almost as much time scrubbing and wiping and wrapping and sudsing. I stepped back for about a week and we ate a combination of leftovers, boxed macaroni & cheese, pancakes, and take-out. By last Thursday, I decided that enough was enough; we had to eat something good.

One of my favorite cookbooks is Veganomicon, a vegan cookbook with some recipes so complicated that I put it aside for months at a time, exhausted by the prospect of "patshken zikh mit," a Yiddish phrase that translates roughly to "messing around with tiny details forever until you go nuts." However, I had rested my cooking brain for long enough to decide to attempt a recipe like that, and so I settled on "Roasted Acorn Squash and Black Bean Empanadas."

Ever roasted a squash? That actually takes as much time as preparing some entire meals. You have to chop it open, which, even with a good knife, should be considered a dangerous athletic event. Then roasting it, in your oven, takes an hour. Then it has to cool long enough to scrape the seeds out, and then there's cutting it up into the right size pieces for your recipe. And for this recipe, that's just to get past the first line in the ingredients: "1 roasted squash."

Fortunately (and I use that term ironically), in my house, the day often begins just after 6am, when my youngest wakes up. I had that squash roasted before taking my older daughter, Ronni, to school at 8:45. Nope. I'm not kidding.

So, the next thing on the list was to make the empanada dough. I mixed up a batch while Sammi, the resident 4 year old, watched cartoons, then set it in the fridge to chill. After a morning of lounging, playing the occasional board game, coloring, and eating a beige lunch, Sammi and I commenced the rolling process. This may very well be Sammi's whole reason for being alive. She loves to roll dough. Last year, for Hannukah, we gave her a little child's size set of real baking implements, and I think she'd sleep with her rolling pin if we gave her the chance. On a chair dragged to the kitchen counter, she rolled and rolled, dribbled the surface with flour, rolled again. She sang a cheerful tune to herself.

It is such a peaceful experience to bake with her -- both of us industrious, the kitchen warm and good-smelling, our hands busy and purposeful. This may be why she and I did not find our groove together until she was old enough for a "project." It's like we need a common cause, outside ourselves, to take the focus away from our early struggles as mother & daughter. She was such a sick and unhappy baby, and unable to tell me why -- and then I was such a distraught, helpless mother, unable to fix the trouble. Now we can talk and work together to roll out that dough, smooth out those lumps, mix in the herbs and leavening to make our friendship rise, sweet and spicy, in just the right amount of time.

So. Dough rolled out, it now needed to rest in the fridge, chilling until closer to dinner. It occurred to me in mid-afternoon that my neighbor's birthday was the next day. A quick call to confirm with my husband that he approved, and she and her husband were invited to join us for dinner. I added a cake to my mental list of things to make after picking up Ronni from school at 3:35.

We bundled up and dragged ourselves out into the snowy day to get Ronni, then dragged ourselves back. Ronni and Sammi sat at a small table in the kitchen, snacking and working on homework and coloring, while I began the process of making the empanada filling. There was that squash again -- and then I added black beans, oil, seasoning, lemon, maple syrup...almost done...time to roll out the dough again.

Sammi, in all her glory, rolled thin the squares I cut from our dough, spooning the filling into the middle of each while Ronni grumbled over another set of math problems. Oh my. That sure didn't look like much food. What to add?

I keep my laptop on the kitchen counter, so I quickly looked through my fridge and freezer for a complementary vegetable to serve with the empanadas. Finding corn, I quickly located a good recipe on Vegweb.com: Spiced corn. It was easy to make, and easily doubled. Done.

What was I forgetting? I have an hour before dinner, the empanadas are ready to go into the oven. What else?



Not enough time to make and frost a birthday cake. Not enough time to make and frost a birthday cookie either. Dessert in our house can't have any chocolate -- Sammi has GERD, so the acidic foods stop appearing after mid-afternoon -- so I quickly located a recipe for white chocolate and dried cranberry dessert bars (with some substitutions -- I used margarine and vanilla almond bark), and goaded Ronni into finishing her homework quickly enough to help me mix the ingredients. Flash - into the oven just as the empanadas came out, and as our neighbors arrived, and just minutes after the phone call from my husband that he wouldn't be coming home from work in time for dinner, after all.

Ronni, Sammi, and I sat around the table with our neighbors -- a dear married couple who we've adopted as our extra brother- and sister-in-law, though they are no relation -- and enjoyed the fruits of a day's labor. As the oven beeped to tell us the dessert was ready, C (the husband half of the couple) came into the kitchen to help me McGyver our 5 and 6 birthday candles into a 2 and 9 for B's 29th birthday. My flour-spattered, pink-cheeked daughters sang enthusiastically, and their daddy arrived in time to eat the last 3 empanadas.

So, there's the ambitious dinner we tried last week. The verdict? Too much "patshken zikh mit," for a recipe with no leftovers. However, there was just enough love and fun for a winter's day in the city.

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