Today I’m making world-famous Natchitoches meat pies. What? Louisiana cuisine extends beyond New Orleans and the Cajun country. Every now and then you can find a culinary gem tucked in the other regions of Louisiana. The tiny city of Natchitoches, with 15,000 residents, is found in the north-central part of the state. They like to brag about their meat pies — of course they are “world-famous.” These little empanadas are stuffed with a spicy meat and vegetable seasoning filling in a pie shell-type crust. Typically the pies are fried, however, they can also be baked, as shown in this photo. I decided to try my hand at making these meat pies, embellishing the recipe just a bit by adding a few additional ingredients. This makes these meat pies extra special in the flavor category, in my opinion.
Natchitoches “Festival of Lights” Christmas Display
If Natchitoches seems vaguely familiar to you, it might be because the movie, “Steel Magnolias,” was filmed there. And the city’s “Festival of Lights” takes place in December. This festival has evolved into a 6-week long celebration where the entire town is decked out with over 300,000 beautiful Christmas lights plus 100 set displays along the banks of the Cane River. Folks come from far and wide to see the light display. Since we are now in the middle of the holiday season, I thought this was a good time to publish this blog post. And you might just like to make a detour and visit this small, sleepy town to see the wonderful lights, get in the Christmas spirit and enjoy a meat pie or two.
There are no intersecting interstates or major highways in Natchitoches so you really have to search the town out. With its pine trees, cotton fields and farms, this rural part of the state is quite different from Cajun Country.
Natchitoches (pronounced Nack-a-tish ) was named after an Native American Indian tribe which resided in the area. It is the oldest permanent settlement in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase Territory. (Recalling our history books, the Louisiana Purchase was for land west of the Mississippi River, including New Orleans.) Natchitoches was established in 1714 by Canadian explorer Louis Juchereau de St. Denis. It was a French trading outpost on the Red River and connected the French with trade to Spanish-controlled areas in the southwest. Thus Natchitoches – and it’s cuisine — has the influence of French Catholic immigrants, French Creoles, American Indians and Spanish. The Natchitoches meat pies are remarkably similar to those found in South American countries.
Recipe – Plan ahead and reserve time to make the meat pies
This recipe has several steps, so it is best to plan ahead. The cooked meat and vegetable filling should be cooled or chilled before filling the pie crust circles. Otherwise, the result is a soggy pie crust which won’t stick together. This recipe involves making a homemade pie crust. The result is am incredibly tender and flaky crust — especially if you fry the meat pies; but it does take time. Plus, filling each little empanada is time consuming.
Most regions of this country have some version of a meat pie. Natchitoches meat pies are filled with a combination of ground beef and ground pork, onions and garlic. Some recipes also include green onions, bell pepper, black pepper and cayenne pepper. In my recipe, I added Worcestershire sauce, a beef bouillon cube, hot sauce, garlic powder and salt.
You need a very revved up and spicy filling with lots of vegetable seasonings to impart flavor into the meat pies. Otherwise, you are eating just meat and pie crust. Baking or frying the little meat pies seems to suck the flavor from the filling. So, my filling includes a “secret ingredient” — hot sauce. In this case I used Zatarain’s Cajun Hot Sauce. Either Frank’s Hot Sauce or Texas Pete’s Hot Sauce can be substituted. The hot sauce and beef bouillon cube impart just the right amount of flavor “punch” to the pies. Don’t be shy. Plus, I use an abundance of onion, bell pepper garlic and green onions — an entire bunch of green onions.
Here are the ingredients for my meat pies:
To make the recipe, chop up all the vegetables. Sauté the ground beef and ground pork until they are browned and cooked throughout. Add the vegetable seasonings and cook until the vegetables are translucent and soft. This mixture needs to cook completely since the frying (or baking) process is not long enough to cook these ingredients. Next, add the remainder of the ingredients, including the flour and beef bouillon (dissolved in water). The flour thickens the filling.
The filling is done. I took an extra step of pulverizing the filling in a food processor until it was coarsely chopped. This way, it is easier to fill the meat pies and you can stuff more filling into each pie shell.
This recipe yields 2 cups of coarsely chopped filling.
Next, the filling needs to be cooled to room temperature — or chilled overnight. Juice from the hot filling will make the pie crust too soggy to bake or fry. The top and bottom the pie crust won’t stick together. What a mess! Let’s avoid disasters if we can.
Revved-Up Pie Crust
Natchitoches meat pies are made with rich pie crust dough. Due to the baking powder, these little pies puff up when fried/baked and the crust is so flaky and tender. Of course, you can use store-purchased, refrigerated pie crust dough. However, my homemade “Natchitoches” pie crust tastes much better. The pie crust for the meat pies contains flour, baking powder, salt, an egg and milk. Commercial pie crust dough does not contain baking powder, eggs or milk. You just don’t get the same effect. So, let’s get out the food processor and rolling pin and make a pie crust.
I always use my food processor to make a pie crust. So easy, and it works every time. (My final recipe uses self-rising flour rather than all-purpose flour, baking powder and salt.) To make the pie crust, add the self-rising flour to the food processor bowl along with butter chunks. Pulse until the butter is blended into very small pieces. Add the egg and milk and pulse until the dough pulls away from the edges of the food processor. That’s it! Divide the dough in half and work with only part of the dough at a time. Use a large, well-floured pastry board and roll out the first dough half to a very thin layer..
There are two ways to make the individual empanada shells and fill them. One method is to cut out 4″ circles and fill the circles. (I used an 4″ diameter can for making the circles.) A second method is to divide half of the the dough into eight rectangles, fill each rectangle and then fold over and cut away the edges to form each one into a semi-circle. Repeat with the other dough half. This way, you don’t have very much wasted pie crust dough and you can fit more filling into each empanada.
With both methods, place a heaping tablespoon of filling on one half of each individual pie dough shell. Wet the edges of the pie dough with water so the dough will stick together. Fold over and press down.
Use the tines of a fork to press down and seal the edges tightly. With a knife, cut three little slits in the top of each pie so the steam can escape while frying/baking.
If using rectangular pie dough pieces to form the shells, trim the shapes to form a semi-circle and use fork tines to press down and seal edges.
As you can see, you can fit more filling into each shell using a rectangular piece of dough. However, if you are going for the traditional shape, the 4″ circles make a more consistent half moon shape.
The rectangular-method of making the meat pies should yield 16 individual pies. Using 4″ circles will yield more pies, about 20 – 24 pies.
You can either bake or fry the individual pies. If baking the pies in a 400 degree oven, brush the top of each pie with an egg wash prior to baking to achieve a golden brown color.
These little pies puff up when baked/fried. Although you can bake these little pies, frying them achieves a more flavorful, tender crust. To fry the pies, heat 1″ oil in heavy cast iron skillet to 350 degrees and fry on both sides until golden. Otherwise, use a deep fat fryer, such as a Fry Daddy, and fry until golden brown.
Either type of pie — fried or baked — will give a taste of Louisiana and a holiday tradition which has existed for years in the tiny north-central town of Natchitoches. These spicy little meat pies with a tender flaky crust are unique and tasty. Enjoy!
And if you find yourself driving through northern Louisiana this holiday season, make sure to take a slight detour off Interstate 49 to visit the tiny city of Natchitoches and enjoy a magical Christmas experience!
Natchitoches Meat Pies
Ingredients for Meat Filling:
- 1/2 lb (8 oz) ground beef
- 1/4 lb (4 oz) ground pork
- 1/2 large yellow onion, about 1 cup chopped
- 1/2 bell pepper, about 1/2 cup chopped
- 1 garlic clove, chopped
- 2 tsp Worcestershire Sauce
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- 1 Tbsp hot sauce
- 1 beef bouillon cube dissolved in 1/2 cup water
- 1 Tbsp flour
- 1 bunch green onions, chopped (whites and part of green stems)
- 1 large egg, beaten, mixed with 1/4 cup water (for baked meat pies, only)
- 4 cups oil for frying meat pies
Ingredients for Crust:
- 3 cups self-rising flour
- 1/3 cup (6 Tbsp) butter, cut into chunks
- 1 large egg
- 1 cup milk
- extra all-purpose flour for dusting pastry board.
Method and Steps:
- In a large skillet over medium heat, sauté ground beef and ground pork until browned and cooked.
- Add chopped onion, bell pepper and minced garlic. Stir to combine.
- Add the salt, garlic powder, black pepper and stir to combine. Continue to cook mixture, over low heat, for about 10 minutes until the onion is translucent and bell pepper is tender.
- Add hot sauce and beef bouillon cube dissolved in water to mixture in skillet. Stir.
- Sprinkle flour over top and stir to combine, dissolving any flour clumps.
- Stir in green onions. Cook over low heat for about 10 minutes, for excess liquid to evaporate.
- Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Transfer filling to food processor bowl. Pulse about 5 times to gently pulverize mixture. Some chunks should remain; texture should not be pureed but rather course chop. There should be about 2 cups of filling. Transfer filling to a bowl and refrigerate to cool down.
- Meanwhile make the dough for the crust. Wash out food processor bowl and dry. Add self-rising flour to food processor bowl. Add butter chunks. Pulse until butter chunks are incorporated into the flour, about the size of small peas.
- With the food processor running, add the egg and milk down the chute. Pulse until the dough pulls away from the edges of the bowl.
- Divide dough into 2 rounds. Transfer first round of dough to well floured pastry board. With rolling pin, roll out into rectangle, 16″ in length and about 12″ in width. (Dough will be thinner than for pie crust.) Mark dough into 8 rectangles, each one being 4″ in crosswise and about 6″ lengthwise.
- Place a heaping tablespoon of cooled chopped filling into lower half of each rectangle. (It should use half the filling mixture to fill the 8 rectangles.)
- With a pastry brush (or your fingers) generously spread water on edges of bottom half of each rectangle so that is will seal. Fold top of dough over filling to reach bottom of rectangle creating a pouch of filling within the dough.
- Use the tines of a fork to press down around the dough in a semi-circle to seal the edges.
- Use a small knife (or edge of fork tines) to trim the dough, creating a semi-circle.
- With a knife, cut three slits on top of dough so steam can be released during baking or frying.
- Repeat process with second half of dough and the remainder of meat filling. Prior to rolling out dough, wipe pastry board dry and dust with additional flour.
- For baked meat pies, transfer to large baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush top of each meat pie with egg wash (beaten egg mixed with 1/4 cup water). Bake in 400 degree oven for 8 minutes.
- For fried meat pies, either heat at least 1″ oil in heavy cast iron skillet to 350 degrees or heat 4 cups oil in Fry Daddy deep fryer (or as specified with your deep fat fryer) to 350 – 360 degrees. Fry meat pies on each side, small batches at a time, for several minutes until crust is golden brown. Remove with silicone or wire mesh spoon to a plate lined with paper towels. Oil may splatter, use a utensil rather than hands to place meat pies in hot oil.
- Serve meat pies while warm.
- May freeze leftover meat pies. Reheat in microwave oven.