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Chef Julian Medina Puts a Spin on Empanadas, Shares Authentic Mexican Cuisine

First Posted: Apr 11, 2015 05:00 AM EDT
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Tacuba’s Chef Julian Medina

Photo : Tacuba

"SABOR" is a food & wine and lifestyle series that savors Latinos' zest for life and passion for home and family. 

How do you like your empanada?

With a medley of mouth-watering variations -- from baked or fried, wheat or corn, salty or sweet, filled with ground beef, chicken, rice, shrimp or cheese, or sweet filling -- these scrumptious, golden pockets of savory bliss have become not only a Latin staple, but an American comfort food.

But with comfort you can also add a level of sophistication and a gourmet "explosion of flavor," according to Tacuba's celebrated Mexican Chef Julian Medina.

On Wednesday, April 8, which also marked National Empanada Day, Medina spoke with Latin Post in an exclusive interview to share his spin on the treat that's savored around the world and his affection for chilies and the ever-changing culinary landscape. He also touched upon his climb to the top with guidance from a fellow Mexico City native, chef Richard Sandoval, who became his mentor and made him feel like New York was his home away from home.

Medina, who's appeared on "Iron Chef America: Mexican Chocolate Battle," has had an extraordinary run thus far. He's been at the helm of Sandoval's acclaimed restaurants, including Maya and Pampano; SushiSamba, SushiSamba7, and Zocalo in New York; and SushiSamba Dromo in South Beach, Miami. He opened his own restaurants, Toloache, Yerba, Buena. 

Medina rang in National Empanada Day at his latest restaurant, Tacuba in Astoria, Queens by offering an assortment of empanadas, from the Chicken Tinga, Chopped Steak Picadillo to the Shrimp and Huitaloche Mexican Cheese -- all with a side of Salsa de Rocoto for dipping.

One of Medina's favorite empanada recipes, which was also featured as a special empanada, includes spinach, Manchego cheese, dried fig and corn, which is "sweet, light and fluffy."

In September 2014, Medina opened Tacuba in Astoria, Queens, a vision he shared with Louis Skibar and Brian Sobhan. As a "boutique restaurant company," Tacuba specializes in "traditional Latin fare with a gourmet hand," amongst an authentic, cultural backdrop. The cuisine ranges from Mexican and Cuban to diverse Pan Latin with both a traditional and modern twist as well as fresh ingredient cocktails.

"What we wanted to do was to create a cantina, more laid-back and with a fun décor. It's just a very friendly environment, which is reflected in the food," he said. "I focus a lot on seafood, ceviche and oysters and a raw bar that's big in Mexico. That's how I grew up."

Medina loves the Astoria, Queens neighborhood, which is in a borough that's been thriving with Latin American cuisine for years from Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, and elsewhere.

"I think what's so good about Astoria is it is one of the few areas that has working class," he pointed out.

Thrilled to bring his authentic Mexican fare to the mix, Tacuba is close to the famous Kaufman Studios and The Museum of the Moving Image.

While New York has become his home, Medina recalled how he got his start in Mexico City.

Inspired by his grandfather and father (who cooked breakfast for his family every morning), Medina got a firsthand account of the joys of cooking and the culinary craft that would later become a successful career.

Medina went on to train in a professional kitchen at Hacienda de Los Morales and Les Celebrites in Hotel Nikko in his hometown.  Eager to learn, he advanced through the ranks of the hotel's restaurants, eventually becoming the head chef.

In 1996, Medina met Sandoval, who was impressed by Medina's vision and enthusiasm, and invited him to relocate to New York City to work at his upscale Mexican restaurant, Maya, where he would later be appointed as chef de cuisine.

"Not a lot of people knew about Mexican food back then," Medina explained. "It was a big success. I think he did it at the right time ... I learned that you have to be at the right place at the right moment."

Under Medina's leadership, Maya earned two stars from the New York Times, one of only two Mexican restaurants in the city to hold that distinction at the time, according to his bio. While at Maya, Medina enrolled at the French Culinary Institute, taking classes during the day and working at night.

"He (Sandoval) gave me the opportunity to be creative at his restaurant," he said. "He was a great mentor to me and taught me how to be dedicated and reach your goals."

He added that in the beginning, the transition to the U.S. was "hard," but Sandoval made him "feel at home." "I love New York. It's very much like Mexico City, you either love it or hate it," he said.

When Maya first opened, many of the authentic Mexican ingredients weren't available, he pointed out.

"Basically all of the dried chilies were hard to get. ... Now when you go to the market, you can find dried chilies, chilies in a can, chipotle and jalapeños, everything," he said. "But it was very hard back then."

Medina, who has an arsenal of chilies in his own kitchen, says his secret weapon in the kitchen is: "I think how to use chilies, whether dry or fresh. I just know how to use them. You just learn that with experience. ... Chilies are not based on the spice, but the flavor. How can you incorporate chile in a dish?"

After graduating FCI in 1999, Medina went on to become the executive chef of SushiSamba in New York and helped open SushiSamba7 (also in New York) as well as SushiSamba Dromo in South Beach, Miami. In 2003, Medina returned to the Big Apple to become the corporate chef for all of Sandoval's Mexican restaurants, and to open Pampano.

In 2004, Medina was hired as the executive chef of Zocalo, an Upper East Side Mexican restaurant, and then in 2007 opened his own restaurant, Toloache. The opening of Yerba Buena in Manhattan's East Village came a year later, then at a second location, Yerba Buena Perry, in 2009.

With an expertise in cooking Mexican cuisine for decades, Medina stressed the importance of authenticity in an industry that has seen an uptick in Mexican restaurants.

"Everyone wants to open a Mexican restaurant. Everyone thinks they know how to make tacos...It's a trend. Everyone wants to be chef," he said. "More schools are open, but it's great. I think everything evolves and it makes you better as a chef and pushes you to be better every day. "

Check out Medina's recipe for "Empanadas de Picadillo"

Steak empanadas with egg, peppers and salsa de rocoto

Serves 8 empanadas

For the Empanada Dough:

1 cup all-purpose flour, plus extra for work surface

1/4 cup fine cornmeal, or masa harina

1 teaspoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable shortening

1 large egg yolk

For the Carne Filling:

1 pound Top Sirloin, chopped

2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled, cut in 4 slices each

Half Spanish onion, chopped

1/2 cup red bell pepper, chopped

1/2 cup yellow bell pepper, chopped

1/2 teaspoon ground paprika

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne

1 tablespoon of oil

1 teaspoon black pepper

Kosher salt to taste

For the Empanada Dough:

1. In a food processor, combine flour, cornmeal, sugar and salt. Add shortening; process

5 seconds. Add yolks and 3/4 cup water; process until dough is very soft, about 5

minutes. Turn out onto a lightly floured work surface; knead until smooth. Cover and

let rest 30 minutes before using.

For the Carne Filling:

1. In a pan over medium heat, sauté the onions with the olive oil. Add the chopped

sirloin to the pan, let cook for 6 minutes. Then add the red and yellow bell peppers,

paprika, cayenne, cumin, black pepper and salt to taste. With added ingredients, cook

meat only three-quarters of the way through then remove from the heat and allow to

cool.

2. After cooling, transfer the cooked sirloin mixture to a bowl

To Assemble and Serve:

1. Preheat the oven to 375°F.

2. After the dough has rested, sprinkle flour on a flat surface and roll out the dough. Cut

the dough with a 3-inch cookie cutter into eight circles. Per each circle, place about 1

tablespoon of sirloin filling in the center with 1 slice of hard-boiled egg. Then, fold the

circle in half to shape a "pouch," and seal close the edges by pressing them together

with a fork.

3. Place the empanada pouches on an ungreased baking sheet and let cook for 15-20

minutes, or until golden brown.

4. Serve two per plate with salsa de rocoto on the side (recipe for salsa available as well

upon request).

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