A South American-inspired delight: Chef Simpson discovers empanadas during visit to Argentina

Clipper Inn Chef Michael Simpson makes an empanada, a South American staple he discovered while traveling with his son in Argentina. Photo by Justin Sorensen/ NNY Business

I have been active in the culinary industry since the early ’70s. Most of my career has been devoted to operating The Clipper Inn in Clayton, a community on the St. Lawrence with a proud river heritage. The restaurant has always been a seasonal business, which leaves time for other interests in the off season.

In some of my earlier years, an attraction to warm winters in south Florida drove me to Key West, Boynton Beach, Lake Worth and West Palm Beach. Each trip involved working in restaurants to learn from successful restaurant operators. Interspersed with trips to south Florida were shorter trips to Europe to experience the culinary scene in other parts of the world and to see the sights, so to speak.

The responsibilities of a family soon made leaving for the winter an out-of-sight vision for quite a few years. With children now full grown and nearly out of high school, life became a little less demanding. Now, interspersed with small winter construction projects at The Clipper are spring trips to faraway places. My son, Griffin, and I have taken trips to Italy, Greece, Turkey, Spain and, most recently, to South America where we visited Chile and Argentina.

Griffin is interested in pursuing a career in international studies so our trips are a great way to expose him to the world. Our trips center on food and culture. You will see inspirations from our excursions interspersed on the nightly special sheet at The Clipper. Our trip to Italy inspired the addition of a house-made ravioli appetizer on the special sheet almost nightly — we rotate seven different varieties. The same trip can be credited for the seafood in vodka sauce, a special that appears from time to time.

A trip to Spain has produced several appetizer ideas, including a calamari and caramelized onion crostini. Translating regional food differences is one problem with trying to bring a recipe from one continent to another. A favorite appitizer in Spain was a tiny green pepper, like a pablano but smaller and quickly fried with no breading, and then salted and dumped onto a plate. It goes well with a glass of local beer. No peppers like those can be found in Northern New York, but at least we know where to find them. The differences in cuisine from region to region make traveling fun.

On our most recent trip to South America, the Spanish influences were natural. The surprising cultural influence in Argentina was the amount of Italian immigration in the late 19th century. Today, it’s like being in Italy sometimes. Many vineyards planted in the late 1800s have olive trees, a practice common in Italy in the same time period. Many Argentinian wineries produce olive oil as well as wine. Argentina also produces high-quality, parmesan-style cheese. A high percentage of Argentinians descend from Italian immigrants.

Our South America trip was all about discovering the food and wine; almost no visiting churches, museums or archaeological sites. Hey, we only had so much time.

In South America you can only visit about three wineries a day. First, you must make reservations at almost all of them, especially if you want a tour in English. When you get to the winery, you don’t immediately taste the wine, you tour the winery first. Sometimes the tour takes you into the vineyard, which occasionally involves riding in a horse-drawn wagon. Sometimes you just walk, taste grapes on the vine and talk about the differences in tastes, while learning the vineyard’s history. Almost all wineries also give an inside tour, which involves seeing the different stages of wine production, and learning why their winery techniques are superior to others. Finally, it’s time to taste the wine. By now, you can appreciate the work that’s gone into the wine production. For your second winery tour of the day, you will need to pick a winery with a good restaurant, preferably one with a food and wine pairing menu. Good luck getting to the third winery of the day by the time you are done with this.

El Azul, our favorite winery in Argentina, had a food and wine pairing luncheon. The second course was an Empanada.

We have reproduced a version of that empanada at The Clipper. I would like to share that recipe with you. This brings back some of our fondest memories of our trip to South America. If you decide to try this recipe, you will find that the dough is very forgiving. The combination of the slightly spicy filling and the clean, herbaceous salsa verde is a wonderful match. You can always call The Clipper and see if they are on special on a given night.

[For the recipe and instructions for making this South American staple, please subscribe or purchase a copy of NNY Living at your local supermarket.]

Chef Michael Simpson owns and operates The Clipper Inn in Clayton. He has spent nearly 40 years involved in the culinary industry. Contact him at clipperinn@westelcom.com. To learn more, visit www.clipperinn.com, or call  686-3842.