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After a year in which she published two well-received cookbooks and traveled often to promote them in readings, signings and cooking demonstrations across America, Sandra Gutierrez welcomed 2016 in the best way she could imagine: cozied up with family in her Cary home, where she made short-cut collard empanadas with pre-packaged Goya wrappers.

“It’s good to know how to make the dough, but these let anybody make empanadas anytime,” says the author of Empanadas: The Hand-Held Pies of Latin America, as she tears into one stuffed with a traditional Argentine combination of stewed beef, chopped olives and raisins. “There are thousands of recipes, some of them complicated, but you can make delicious empanadas from leftovers. You can even use eggroll wrappers. Enjoying good food with your family is more important than making every single thing from scratch.”

Released last spring, Empanadas empowers home cooks to prepare dozens of the variations popular throughout Latin America. But the Guatemala native is on a timely, relevant quest to broaden the already wide appeal of these portable piesespecially in the South, where fried hand pies have a beloved place in the culinary canon. In both Empanadas and Beans & Field Peas, a Savor the South book published in September by the University of North Carolina Press, Gutierrez delivers recipes with rich historical context that also consider the busy lifestyles of American cooks who hope to get dinner on the table quickly.

By making these recipes more approachable, Gutierrez has become a vital figure in the changing foodways of the Triangle, where authentic Latin fare is finally making inroads in a scene once clogged with gloppy combination plates and stale tortilla chips. In the last several years, more than a dozen restaurants offering and often updating the cuisine of Latin America have become area favorites. Many of them, like Calavera in Raleigh and Carrboro and the new Luna and Makus in Durham, even specialize in empanadas. When Gutierrez first settled in Cary in 1993, she couldn’t have imagined such a change.

Gutierrez sat down at home over a batch of empanadas to discuss her career and the changes in cuisine all around her.

INDY: You’ve published four cookbooks in four years, starting with The New Southern-Latino Table and Latin American Street Food, both produced by UNC Press. To what do you credit this success?

Sandra Gutierrez: I’ve had fortunate timing to be part of the growing interest in Latino culture. Empanadas was my surprise book; I got that offer three weeks after committing to Beans & Field Peas. Empanadas are trendy right now, but I think they’re here to stay because of the influx of Latinos all over the United States. It’s only a matter of time before everyone discovers how great they are; I don’t think anyone who grew up with Pop-Tarts should have any trouble relating to an empanada.

Americans have the tendency to assume that all Hispanic cultures are similar, but empanadas vary considerably across Latin America. What accounts for this?

Tamales and empanadas are everywhere. Tortillas are not; they’re just in Mexico and central America, and then they disappear. But as you travel, you find that empanada doughs are very different. You’ll find wheat-based dough, like tender pastries, because it’s what the Spaniards brought.

But as the indigenous peoples of the Americas fell in love with handheld pies, the dough began to change. If you go to the Latin Caribbean and Central America, you’ll find dough made with plantains, which is gluten free. In Brazil, you find dough made of cassava or yuccaalso completely gluten free. In Mexico and Guatemala, you find masaagain, gluten free. Because of this, nearly everyone can eat empanadas.

The empanada is a versatile filling conveyance; surely you’ve encountered awful Americanized versions?

Nothing terrible, really. Fillings originate from whatever is left over in someone’s home. People sometimes tell me my recipes are not “authentic.” They areit’s a matter of authentic to whom? The ingredients and seasonings vary based on where you are. Sometimes the dough is baked, sometimes fried. Peanut butter and jelly works in a pastry; apple pie filling also works. It’s like a Southern fried pie.

What distinguishes an empanada from a hand pie, then?

The name. The concept exists all over the world, and we have the Persians to thank. Almost every culture has them. You’ll find the “pasty” in the British countries, and phyllo is used for spanakopita in Greece. Empanadas lend themselves to being tweaked for American flavors. Americans love pie. What’s the sayingwe’re as American as apple pie? You can add whatever you like. I like to think that any stew can be put in an empanada, any pie filling. A classic combination in Latin America is a white cheese and preserves; imagine that here with local fig preserves and goat cheese. Now that would make a wonderful empanada.

What are some of your favorite area restaurants for Latino food?

MachuPicchu in Raleigh is a great example of authentic Peruvian food. Guasaca Arepa is Venezuelan, and the food is delicious. Cuban Revolution in Durham is great, as is Carmen’s Cuban Cafe, over by the airport. They’ve been there for decades. It’s basic Cuban cuisine, but it’s the most authentic street food you can find.

What’s the best way to identify a restaurant that serves authentic cuisine?

The best recommendation you can find is when you go in, it’s full of Latin people. For the most part, these are not fancy restaurants. A lot of times they are in strip malls because the rent is cheaper. We’re talking about mom-and-pop concepts, and they’re not expensive. I especially like La Vaquita in Durham. It’s a stand-alone place where you order at the window and eat outside.

It’s such a welcome change. When Cary was young and we’d go to Mexican restaurants, I’d always order huevos rancheros, because it was the only thing that was real. But we’re moving away from the Americanized, chain-like ideas. Imagine my excitement, my joy and my need or urge to write about and teach everything I know about the different Latin cuisines. I’ve got so much to share. There is so much to discover.

How did you manage writing two such different single-topic cookbooks at the same time?

I was able to prepare whole meals for my family with recipes from both books, so that helped. My favorite part of the job is the research.

I love to be completely immersed in a topic. Why do we eat what we eat? What are the stories? I’m a learner, and there is no more delicious way to learn than with food. If you only knew how many afternoons I take classes onlinehistory, literature. I have a thirst for knowledge, and I want to share what I learn, which is why I love teaching so much. It’s fun for me.

You are a charter member of the new North Carolina chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, the international organization that advocates for women in the food industry. How do you see its role in getting female professionals in the food industry to commit to the advancement of education and philanthropy through food?

It’s such an exciting time to be in the Triangle. So many women are doing remarkable things. Chefs, writers, food scholarswe’re all in this area. The most beautiful part of it is that we are a very gregarious community, and everybody is interested in helping everybody else. Les Dames will allow women to help other women in the industry, while at the same time making a difference in their community. We haven’t decided where our group will go, because it’s new, but there are many opportunities to help through food: teaching children to grow vegetables at school and then how to cook and eat them, or scholarships to get an education in the food world.

There’s a lot of need in our community. It’s beautiful that a group of us women can come together through our experience and expertise in the food industry.

The Les Dames mission has attracted several influential North Carolina womenincluding president Colleen Minton of TerraVita; Vivian Howard of Chef & the Farmer in Kinston; Triangle cookbook writers Nancie McDermott, Sheri Castle and Debbie Mooseamong others. What does it mean to you to be part of this circle?

It is humbling. These are women who have dedicated themselves to food and have a heart that makes them want to give back to their community. It’s good to have women leaders making change and helping. The need is only growing.

It’s also great that we have a place where we can network with a common purpose. I see a bunch of professionals mentoring other professionals. That is not perceived to be the norm among women in business. It’s usually very competitive, but this is a group of mentors. We all want to help each other and our community. It’s something I have never experienced at this level before.

Will 2016 bring a fifth cookbook from you?

I’m not doing another book right away. I’m booked solid through June promoting all of my books and teaching classes. The one part I don’t like about all this is the travel. It’s given me a new sense of independence, but it also is a chore. It’s very worthwhile, though, as I make connections with someone who cooked my recipe or who is interested in what I’m writing about.

I would love more people to join me on social media (Twitter: @sandralatinista). I love the back-and-forth exchange; it keeps everything fresh for me. I get to know what people are looking for. I’m not writing the books for myself. I really do care about what people want to see and learn.

Empanada ease

Sandra Gutierrez’s Empanadas: The Hand-Held Pies of Latin America collects 60 recipe variations on the hold-able wonders, crisscrossing the region and its varying traditions. Gutierrez offered this recipemade with cheap, easy, store-bought doughas an introduction to empanadas at home.

Shrimp and Tomato Stew Flaky Pillows (Pastéis de Camarão) Makes 12

1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil

1 cup finely chopped white onion

2/3 cup peeled, seeded and chopped plum tomatoes

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, leaves and tender stems

1 teaspoon fine sea salt, or to taste

12 ounces peeled and cooked shrimp or langoustines, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

12 store-bought empanada discs, such as Goya

Vegetable oil for frying

MAKE THE FILLING: Heat the olive oil in a large skillet set on medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté until they are golden, about 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and tomato paste; sauté for 1 minute. Add 1/4 cup of water and stir well to form a thick paste. Add the cilantro and salt; remove from the heat and let cool slightly. Add the shrimp or langoustines and stir well. Transfer the filling to a large bowl. Cover and let rest for at least 30 minutes or overnight.

ASSEMBLE THE PASTÉIS: Defrost packaged empanada discs overnight in the refrigerator or at room temperature for 35–45 minutes. Place two tablespoons off center on one side of the round wrapper, leaving half-inch pastry border. Fold the top over the filling and seal by pressing sides together with your fingers. Crimp them tightly with the tines of a fork. Transfer them to a prepared baking sheet.

FRY THE PASTÉIS AND SERVE: Fit a large baking sheet with a metal cooling rack; set it aside. In a large skillet with high sides, heat 1/2 to one inch of vegetable oil to 360 degrees, or use a deep fryer. Working in batches, carefully slide the pastéis into the oil. Fry them until they’re puffy and golden, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes, turning them over halfway through. If the oil gets too hot as you fry and they’re browning to quickly, lower the temperature and let the oil cool slightly before frying more. Remove them with a slotted spoon and place on the prepared rack to drain. Let them cool for 1 to 2 minutes and serve.

NOTE: Pastéis are best eaten immediately after they’re fried. Freeze them uncooked in a single layer; once solid, transfer them to freezer bags and keep them frozen for up to three months. Fry them without thawing (to prevent splatters) for 3 to 3 1/2 minutes, or until they are golden and crispy.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Within reach”