Cooking Together

‘Cooking Together’: Vegetarian Empanadas

Three Sisters themed Vegetarian Empanada 

Thanksgiving celebrations in the U.S. started with Native Americans and Europeans sharing food after the harvest. However, many people today do not realize the vital role the Natives played in cultivating crops such as corn, squash, beans, tomatoes, and berries and sharing this knowledge with the pilgrims. 

Understanding the interrelationship between the food, the land and the climate, the Native people used sustainable farming traditions. One such practice that reflects their knowledge is planting the three crops ­– corn, squash and beans – known as the “three sisters,” with the ecology of land and water in mind. Planted together, the corn supports the bean plant, the squash leaves provide the shade to the soil and the beans convert the nitrogen for the soil’s nourishment.

Nutritionally, corn, beans and squash complement one another as well. Corn gives us complex carbohydrates, beans provide protein and the squash gives us vitamin A and potassium.

I was attracted to the story of “three sisters,” as in my family we, the three Nimbark sisters, have always supported one another. So, I adopted a few recipes with the “three sisters” theme: such as a casserole made with these three foods; a soup of squash, beans and corn, and squash “bowls” baked with corn and beans. And now, I present these empanadas stuffed with three sisters themed ingredients. 

Empanada (meaning “to wrap”) are mini half-pies that are traditionally stuffed with meat, seafood and/or cheese. Originating in Spain, these portable meals were popularized by working people throughout South Europe and then brought to the South, Central and North Americas by immigrants.  

Traditional empanadas are filled with meat and cheese, and then they are deep fried; so, this is not the healthiest food.  But these empanadas are stuffed with seasonal three sisters’ ingredients and they are baked, not deep fried. Now you have healthy and tasty empanadas!

Ingredients for the wraps:

2 ½ cups unbleached white flour

1 stick (½ cup) butter, cut into tiny pieces or ½ cup vegan “buttery” spread pieces 

1 egg (optional for a vegan version)

3 to 4 tablespoons cold water (use less water if including the egg)

¼ to ½ teaspoon salt

Photo by Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff.

Ingredients for stuffing:

¼ cup dry pinto beans or red beans, or ½ to ¾ cup canned pinto or red beans 

1 small or ½ medium-size butternut squash to obtain 2 cups of squash cubes

3 tablespoons oil

½ cup chopped green onion (with green portions included)

¼ cup chopped red or green bell pepper

1/2 cup fresh or canned diced tomatoes 

1 to 2 tablespoons water as needed

1 cup corn kernels cut from fresh corn or frozen kernels (thawed and drained) 

2 tablespoons pine nuts or sunflower seeds

3 to 4 tablespoons of parmesan cheese or a vegan dry “cheese” (both optional)

3 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro or parsley leaves

Salt and pepper to taste

You can use the frozen pie crust to make empanada wraps. However, here is a recipe to make them from scratch. Chill the dough while making the stuffing. 

To make the dough for wrap: Combine the flour, butter (or vegan “butter”), the optional egg, water and salt in a jar of a food processor and blend them together briefly, adding a bit more water if needed, until the mixture forms a mass.  Do not over-blend. Transfer the dough into a bowl and gather it into a ball. Cover and chill for ½ to 1 hour. Don’t refrigerate the dough for too long, it will get too hard to roll. (If you don’t have a food processor, you can make the dough in a bowl.) 

To make the stuffing: If using dry pinto or red beans, boil the beans in water for 45 minutes or longer, until they are very soft. Drain the water from beans and set them aside. (If you are using the canned beans drain the liquid that they were packed in and rinse them.)

Then cook the butternut squash. Cut the squash into 4 to 6 manageable chunks. Don’t peel the chunks; they are easier to peel after cooking. Boil the chunks in 3 quarts of water till they are tender when pricked with a fork, but not too soft.  Drain the water out from squash and spread them out to cool. Using a small knife, peel their skin and cut them into sugar cube-size pieces.

Next, heat the oil in a skillet and add the onions and bell peppers. Stir fry them for a minute and add the tomatoes. Cook covered for few minutes till the mixture turns thick, adding a little water if needed. Add the squash, corn, beans and cilantro. Sautee the mixture for a few minutes, adding some water only if needed to make it look like a stuffing. Add the nuts or seeds and the optional cheese or vegan “cheese.” Let it cool while rolling out the dough for wraps.

Set the oven at 425 degrees to preheat.

Take out the dough from the refrigerator and divide it into 3 portions.  Roll out each portion into an oblong shape.  Then cut each portion into four circles, each measuring about 5” in diameter. (Use a large cookie cutter or a sharp metal lid of a small pot to guide the cutting). 

Next, place 3 tablespoons of stuffing in the center of each circle and fold the circle over to make a crescent moon shape as shown in the illustration.  Pinch and fold the edges to seal the crescents. Lightly oil a baking sheet and arrange the empanadas by leaving some space in between them. Brush a little oil on top of each empanada and bake them in a preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes until they turn golden. Serve them with your favorite salsa or a chutney. 

Above: Empanadas ready to go into the oven. Below: Empanadas ready to be served. Photos by Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff.


Makes approximately 10 to 12 empanadas

Recipe copyrights, 2022 © by Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff.  If you have any questions regarding recipes, email Shanta at A longtime Sunset District resident,

Shanta is the author of “Cooking Together” and “Flavors of India,” both available at Other Avenues Food Co-op, Green Apple Book Store, Rainbow Grocery Co-op and at local bookstores.

Shanta writes on food and recipes and teaches cooking classes. She gives food demonstrations at public places. Look for her free events in SFPL website. 

On Nov. 19, 2022, Shanta will demonstrate how to make Chutneys at the Park Branch of the SF Public Library.

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