Around the World in Tasty Ways
Ash Corea: Empress of the Empanada
500 East Fourth Street, 480-8902
Open Sun 10am-4pm, Mon 7am-3pm,
India meets Mexico," says Ash Corea, owner and sole cook at the recently opened Empanada Parlour, describing the seasoning in her tasty, turkey-stuffed pastry. "It's a purée of cumin, cinnamon, coriander, clove, turmeric, cardamon, and chipotle sauce."
Not many cooks would think of blending an Indian masala with the pungent smoked jalapeño, let alone season ground turkey with the mixture and put the whole thing in an empanada (all for $1.35). But after a teenage apprenticeship in the kitchen of an Indian friend's grandmother, graduation from the Cordon Bleu in Paris at the age of 18, and nearly 30 years of cooking in culinary centers of Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, Mexico, and the U.S., Corea knows a bit about integrating the flavors of distant cuisines. A lifetime of dabbling in the international restaurant scene finally led the transplanted Londoner to a place where she can create her own distinctive recipes: Austin, Texas.
"This is my dream," says the hardworking Corea, who can be found 16-18 hours a day at the Empanada Parlour, preparing the entire menu, doubling as hostess/waitress, or supervising one of the other numerous tasks of running a restaurant. When I asked about the eatery's name, I found out the dream involves more than simply creating exquisite food.
"In England, the parlour is the room where people relax - the living room," she explains. "The Empanada Parlour is for people who are kind and like to eat. A place for people, regardless of color, religion, or sexual preference, to come and feel comfortable."
True, the confines of the downtown venue are homey. Large windows let in plenty of sunshine for Corea's potted herbs, harvested for her recipes, and the informal air and pleasing art do almost make you feel like taking off your shoes. But why this parlour's focus on empanadas?
"Empanadas are a pan inglés," expounds the Brit; both her affection for the stuffed pastries and her inspiration to become a cook can be traced to a corner bakery in her East London childhood. "They were brought to the New World by the Europeans a century ago. In England, they contain pieces of beef, potato, and carrot; the classic Argentinian or Chilean ones have beef, raisin, egg, and some black olive. You see, the reason I like empanadas is because you can put anything in them."
And she does mean anything. The Parlour's empanadas, sweet or savory fillings inside baked pastry shells that hardly resemble the familiar, fried Mexican variation, boast unconventional but expert flavor combinations - the result of Corea's years of touring the global village menu.
For example, the restaurant's spinach empanada ($1.35) blends the tastes of three very different regions. The filling contains the spinach and feta cheese found in a Greek spanakopita, a dish she mastered during an extended stay on the island of Cyprus, mixed with baby bok choy (via the many Cantonese restaurants of London), and again a bit of the chipotle sauce, no doubt a discovery of her adventures in Oaxaca and the Yucatán. And though the admixture sounds strange, it works uncannily well.
Similarly, the spices and raisins of the savory chicken empanada ($1.35) are Argentinian and Chilean, but the herbs and rich demiglace are resoundingly French, forming a radical but pleasing collaboration of New and Old Worlds. According to Corea, this cross-culinary synergism is nothing new for a Paris-trained cook.
"French cuisine itself is an amalgam of different influences. It has so much from all over the world, [much of it] brought by the Crusaders," says the chef, who has complemented her passion for food with degrees in social history, political economy, and social psychology. "It is so varied. If I had to eat one cuisine for the rest of my life, it would be French. Not because I think it's the best, but because it's the most interesting."
Corea's most complex empanada, a blend of Monterey Jack cheese, garlic, green olive, cilantro pesto, and sweet potato ($1.35), is the result of its creator's newfound affection for the sugary vegetal root that inspired it. "Sweet potatoes are something I arrived at late in life, and only in Texas. I first tasted them in 1993 and thought they were delicious, [so] I started developing recipes for them."
The potato empanada is not the only of Corea's creations with Texas roots. "I went to Fredericksburg and tasted the fresh peaches and preserves there, which reminded me of a peach liqueur I had in Hungary years ago. I then decided I would do a peach empanada [$1.25] because of [the fruit's] influence in Texas," she says.
Austinites may be familiar with Corea's other fruit-filled pastries (apricot, apple, and pear - all $1.25 each), available at Whole Foods Market, Central Market, Güero's, Las Manitas, Martin Bros., Insomnia, Mozart, and other locations around town. There is also talk of adding another fruit flavor, one sure to be a Parlour classic: banana (from Chile), pecan (from Texas), and cajeta (caramelized goat milk from Mexico).
"By Halloween we are going to add one sweet empanada and one savory," adds Corea. "The `sweet' will contain a Mexican pumpkin filling based on a recipe from Monterrey. The `savory' will be [like a recipe] from the indígenos of Argentina: a masa filling, like a tamal, but cut with a mixture of tomatoes, chicken, tarragon, and rosemary, then mixed with fresh corn. Kind of like `Italy meets Argentina.'"
In addition to its empanadas, the Parlour features a number of other exceptional, original dishes. Among these are a popular hummus-squash sandwich on homemade bread ($4.50), cold spinach soup with miso stock ($3.50), Caesar salad with anchovies upon request ($3.50), and one of the finest bowls of chicken soup ($3.50) in town.
The menu will continue to grow if Corea has anything to say about it.
"My goal is to have an empanada filling from every country in Latin America. [After that] I'd like to do a Hungarian goulash empanada and possibly an Italian, with a tomato sauce and perhaps some Italian sausage."
There seems to be no end to Corea's imagination when it comes to the worldly cuisine of her Empanada Parlour. And with open-minded Austin diners as her guests, perhaps she has found a home for her living room.