A Puerto Rican in a Jewish Kitchen

My parents’ home in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, is a house that has been passed down through the generations, from my mother’s grandparents to us. Several incarnations of Jewish mothers and grandmothers have taken their turn in the kitchen, serving up stuffed cabbage, matzoh balls, and chopped liver.

When it comes to my immediate family, however, my father is the head chef, making him the first Puerto Rican cook to ever preside over the space. The audience has remained pretty much the same; with my father’s blood relatives living in Puerto Rico, it is my mother’s family who comes over for dinner. Which means that not only is my father the first Puerto Rican in the kitchen, but that he has spent over 30 years feeding Hispanic food to a table of Jews.

Luckily the Jewish side of my family loves to eat, especially when the food comes from the capable hands of my father. They look forward to his seemingly exotic, spicy dishes as much as they anticipate his more conventional preparations, giving each recipe a fighting chance.

One would assume that my father would miss cooking for fellow Puerto Ricans but, instead, he has found an audience with whom he feels free to experiment and break the usual Hispanic customs without any argument.

For example, the empanada is one of his favorite dishes to reinvent. The customary empanada is essentially a fried pocket of dough stuffed with meat and spices, but my father has taken his to new heights.

Most often he’ll bake the empanada rather than frying it, pleasing my mother with this healthier version. Sometimes he’ll make vegetarian empanadas, stuffing the dough with cauliflower, potatoes, broccoli, and even carrots. Or he’ll make the empanadas into a bite-sized appetizer and serve them alongside a scoop of garlic and mayo aioli.

Each version is a unique twist on a long-standing Puerto Rican tradition, pleasing both my father and his hungry audience with the continuous reinventions.

In return, my father has also discovered a love for Jewish cuisine. Kasha is a new favorite item on his dinner menus, often served with a more traditional hispanic meat or fish dish. Matzo brei has been presented for breakfast on numerous occasions and there have been several latke servings.

I like to think that my cooking style reflects my father’s experimentation and cultural crossovers while my palate reflects that of my mother and her family. My own chicken, potato and pea empanadas do not simply represent my Puerto Rican heritage, but also my experience growing up in a household that embraced experimentation in the kitchen.

Perhaps one day I’ll marry a Jamaican or Chinese or Irish fellow and his own food history and culture could be added to an already unique mix. But for now I am content to continue enjoying my father’s kitchen role, open to over-eating any experiment or Jewish/Hispanic dish he places in front of me.

That is, unless he stuffs an empanada with kasha, then I’ll have to put my foot down. But only after trying a bite, of course.

Joe’s Meat and Vegetable Empanadas

Makes: 24 medium sized empanadas


  • Yellow or white potatoes, chopped into half-inch cubes
  • 1 red pepper, chopped
  • 3-4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Optional: Any vegetables fresh or frozen. We’ve done broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, asparagus, peas, water chestnuts, snap peas, go crazy.

Microwave the chopped potatoes on high for about two to four minutes – this helps to speed along the cooking process. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet or pan, add potatoes and red pepper. Season as you cook, add more olive oil if it seems dry. Once the mixture is mostly cooked through and lightly browned, add the chopped celery. When the celery is a little soft, remove from heat and set aside.

Now time to work on the meat.


  • 1 1/2 lbs ground beef
  • 3 chopped cloves garlic (to your personal taste)
  • 1 red onions/2 shallots
  • Cilantro (to taste)
  • 3-4 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Shake of teriyaki (or two, depending on your taste!)
  • Optional spicy addition – red pepper flakes

(You may also choose to use chicken or fish instead of red meat, or keep it just veggie. Your choice!)

Heat oil in a separate skillet or large pan; add chopped garlic, cilantro, and onion. Let it sauté for a few minutes, until the mixture becomes aromatic. Add a shake of teriyaki to taste. Then add the chopped meat. Cook uncovered until brown.


  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ tablespoon shortening/butter
  • 1/3 cup water

Sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Cut the butter or shortening into the flour and mix until it is coarse. Sprinkle the dough with water so that it holds. Knead together and leave it aside for about fifteen minutes.

Or if you have less time on your hands, you can use Goya’s “Tapas para Empanadas” aka “Dough for turnover pastries.” These are uncooked circles of dough ready for filling. They come in both orange and white; using two different colors is a good way to separate the types of empanadas if you are making some just veggie and some just meat, etc. You can roll these circles out a little so they are a tad bigger, but that is up to you.


Pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease a non-stick baking pan. Scoop your dough or grab the pre-cut circles, and place flat on a cutting board. Scoop some potato- vegetable mixture, and some meat mixture into the center of the empanada. This is where you can get a bit more creative and add some extras if you like, such as olives or a little Parmesan cheese.

Fold the dough over so that the sides meet. Using your fingers, press the dough closed around the filling. Push the pronged edge of a fork around the edges to finish the seal. Place the empanadas on the non-stick pan. Bake for about 25 minutes until they are brown. Let rest for a few minutes before serving. Enjoy!

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