Cooking teaches problem-solving
“I know a guy who has a bus and likes to cook.” This comment from an out-of-town friend initiated a chain of events that landed me in a high school cafeteria kitchen in charge of preparing an Argentine street food-themed brunch for a couple hundred people. “We want to serve steak sandwiches, empanadas and garlic potato salad. We’ll buy all the ingredients. All you have to do is cook.”
We arrived in Bertha Bus the day before the event to begin prepping. The high school kitchen, thankfully, was well equipped. I surveyed the walk-in cooler. The meat had been purchased from a local Hispanic caniceria: thin steaks for the sandwiches and oxtails for the beef empanadas. I’ve worked with oxtails before. Slow-braised in red wine, oxtails transform into a delicious ragu.
We set to work chopping garlic and parsley for chimichurri, a traditional Argentine salsa. We peeled and cut up potatoes and made garlic aioli for the potato salad. We browned and braised the oxtails, sautéed some veggies, cooked down the braising liquid, thickened it with a roux and combined everything into an unctuous empanada filling.
We awoke the morning of the event feeling organized and in control. All we had to do was boil the potatoes and make the potato salad, trim and portion the steaks, and assemble the empanadas. Everything was going smoothly.
While Ann trimmed and portioned the sandwich steaks, I put the potatoes on to boil. I began assembling the empanadas. Empanadas are a baked or fried pastry filled with meat, vegetables or cheese, similar to raviolis but made with pastry dough instead of pasta dough. Though I had never made empanadas before, I’ve made both raviolis and pies so I wasn’t too worried.
After forming a few dozen empanadas, I decided to bake off a test batch. The first batch puffed up like balloons. They looked golden brown on the outside but were mostly hollow on the inside. The cheese filling had broken down and separated resulting in a small amount of oil-covered cheese inside a big hollow crust. With only three hours left before the event we were experiencing a major glitch. I suddenly remembered the big pot of potatoes boiling away on the stove. They had cooked too long and were soft and unusable for potato salad.
To make matters worse, Ann was concerned that the steaks might be a bit tough so she cooked one. Indeed, when placed inside a roll, the steak was nearly impossible to bite off without using a knife. Things were starting to fall apart. I remembered reading that the addition of kiwi fruit juice into the marinade would tenderize the meat so I sent Ann to the store to buy more potatoes and a case of kiwis in hopes that would make the steaks suitable for a sandwich.
For the second test batch I made a vent hole in the piecrust to allow steam to escape. The meat empanadas came out perfectly but the cheese empanadas still had an unappealing contracted layer of oil-topped cheese within. I remembered my pot of overcooked potatoes so I mixed the potatoes with the grated cheese and made a third test batch. The addition of the potatoes kept the filling from separating and eliminated the hollowness. Ann returned with the kiwis and, after a short bath in kiwi juice, the chewy steak cooked up nice and tender.
As the crowd arrived I was outside grilling steaks and Ann was inside baking off the empanadas. The dining area was up a flight of stairs, and I was having trouble bringing hot trays of food through the crowd. I spotted a ladder and took it outside so I could pass food through the window.
The event was a success, and the lessons I learned solving problems have made me a better cook. In a miniaturized form, those empanadas are the inspiration for one of my favorite party treats: Oxtail Hand Pies
Oxtail Hand Pies
4 lbs. oxtail, trimmed of fat
6 cups dry red wine
1 head of garlic, halved crosswise
1/2 bunch of fresh thyme
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
3 tablespoons AP flour
1 1/2 pounds carrots, peeled, trimmed, and cut into ¼-inch cubes (about 4 cups)
1 pound shallots or onions, peeled and finely diced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup red wine vinegar
Grocery store puff pastry – or make your own basic 3:2:1 (flour:fat:water) pie dough
Place the oxtails, 4 cups of the red wine, garlic, thyme and peppercorns in a large pan. Add water to cover by 1/2 inch. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until meat is falling off bones, about 3 hours.
Transfer to a bowl; when cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the bones and cut it roughly into 1/2-inch cubes. Refrigerate the meat until it’s ready to use.
Strain the braising liquid into a large skillet, discarding the solids. Bring the liquid to a boil over high heat; reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the mixture is reduced to 3 cups.
While the stock reduces, make a roux. Combine 3 tablespoons of the butter with the flour until it forms a paste. Over medium heat, whisk the paste, 1 tablespoon at a time, into the reduced liquid. Cook until the mixture thickens slightly, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
In a separate large skillet, melt the remaining 5 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add the carrots, shallots, and a pinch of salt and cook until slightly softened, about 15 minutes. Stir in the remaining red wine, the vinegar, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and the pepper. Cook over medium-high heat stirring frequently until the liquid has completely evaporated, about 45 minutes.
Stir in the oxtail meat and thickened oxtail stock. Season to taste with salt and pepper. The filling is ready to be formed into pies or can be placed in an airtight container and refrigerated overnight.
To make the hand pies:
Preheat oven to 425°F.
Roll out puff pastry on a lightly floured surface. Cut into four rounds; place a spoonful of oxtail mixture on each. Brush edges with egg, then fold one corner of each pie over. Press edges to seal.
Place pies on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush tops with more egg. Cut a vent in each pie; freeze 10 minutes. Bake until golden brown, about 25 minutes.