Monday, January 30, 2012

Forgetfulness and Fish Pie: The Empanada Gallega

 It's been far too long since I've written. This past autumn was eventful. My father, about whom I've written previously, has Alzheimer's Disease. With ruthless rapidity the disease took over his functioning last year until he stopped working, differentiating between night and day, and being able to speak in more than short sentences. Through all of this, though, what is remarkable is how his preferences regarding food have changed. Like his cognitive abilities, his food preferences seem to have reverted to a childhood state.

My father was born in Argentina to parents with origins in Galicia, Spain. This is a Celtic, rainy, green, Northwestern province of Spain along the Atlantic Ocean, whose inhabitants have historically been small-plot farmers and seafarers.  I was surprised to learn that, according to William Least-Heat Moon's book, Columbus in the Americas, Christopher Columbus's flagship, The Santa Maria, carried the moniker La Gallega ("The Galician woman"), for the region where she was built. For centuries, Galicia has lived off land and sea. Not surprisingly, its cuisine is often seafood-based.

One signature Galician dish that my Father's sister, Maria Carmen, prepares regularly is the Empanada Gallega, a savory pie made with dough and filled with tuna, onions, sweet peppers, spices, and eggs. (The fillings can vary, from tuna to shredded chicken, beef, or even spinach, like the Greek Spanakopita.)   Maria Carmen visited last year from Buenos Aires and prepared this dish, and my Dad gobbled it up.  This shocked us all because for most of his adult life, he had spurned seafood. I do not recall his ever choosing fish at a restaurant, given a choice. Ever. Sometimes he would choose octopus, another popular dish in Galician cuisine, but even that was rare. More often he preferred the red meat and pasta dishes more typical of Argentina, where he was born and grew up.  (He liked the Argentine empanada, a slightly different type, a turnover usually filled with some variation of ground meat, spices, olives and raisins.) But now he could not get enough of the Empanada Gallega, and his lack of short-term memory only aggravated his binges. On one recent visit, I witnessed him devour two full meals and 10 minutes later ask, "When will dinner be ready?" So on many occasions, he has eaten two or even three consecutive huge slices with gusto. This from a man who had maintained an average weight and modest appetite for decades.

It was as though the sight, the smell and taste of Empanada Gallega triggered something deep-seated and powerful. Early childhood memories, perhaps, of his mother feeding him at a kitchen table for lunch on a Sunday afternoon.  I picture him at five or six years old, swinging his small legs and scrutinizing that pie with a child's typical ambivalence of savory foods with chunky vegetable stuff sticking out of the sides. Probably he would sniff it it before tasting, an automatic gesture that he never lost around "new" food, and which I inherited from him.  Then he would taste it, shrug, and finish most of it under his mother's urging.  Is that it?  Primal memories of his mother that he associates with Empanada Gallega?  Or perhaps, all along, he had liked it, but his cognitive filters told him to steer clear of fish, and when those filters eroded, so did his aversion?   Sadly, he cannot tell me what it is that drives this craving for the Galician fish pie, now that his senility has activated it. I can only bear witness to his eating it.  And in a way it is a comforting irony:  As his consciousness fades, a connection to his heritage remains and has even grown stronger.

So here is the recipe. Note: You can substitute spinach or chicken for the fish ingredients if you wish. This is a hardy, adaptable dish, probably like the Galician folk who invented or at least adapted it.

Empanada Gallega a la Tia Maria Carmen

1 long Pyrex pan (14x 9)
1 rolling pin
Lightly floured surface
Saute pan
Baker's spray
Pastry brush

Buy tapas de empanadas (dough), or phyllo dough, or 1 pkg of French Pastry dough (preferred) --(each pkg has 2 sheets).
Let thaw overnight. Keep it cool and work it last so it stays soft and moist, but not soggy.

Filling base (can be done ahead and refrigerated, or frozen for up to 4 months)
2 large yellow or sweet onions sliced thin
2 red peppers seeded, peeled, sliced thin
Olive or veg oil
2 tsp sweet paprika
Salt & pepper to taste
thyme (optional)
1 raw egg, beaten (for dough)

3 to 4 7-ounce chunk light tuna in water, drained, forked slightly to even out texture
3-4 hard-boiled eggs, sliced (can throw out some yolks)

Saute peppers in oil. When a bit softened, add onions, salt, pepper, and sweet paprika. Saute all till onions are clear and cooked.

Spray baker's spray on Pyrex dish and lightly flour a surface. With rolling pin, stretch 1 dough sheet to the length of the Pyrex.

When mixture cools, prep dough on pyrex. Add veggie/spice mixture on top, add tuna on that, then eggs sliced on top, then dough crust on top and seal the sides. Brush dough with beaten egg to add shine.

*Filling can be substituted with 3 frozen chopped spinach packages. Add thyme, salt/pepper, and 2 beaten eggs. Mix all, then add any cheese (if Feta, buy at specialty store). Pour mixture onto dough, seal top layer of dough, and bake.
-or pulled turkey, pork, chicken, or codfish, according to tuna-based recipe.

1 comment:

  1. Great meditation on a great recipe!!