If you’ve ever watched Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove, you definitely know of Kronk, the villain Yzma’s seemingly simple-minded bodyguard and henchman, and his spinach puffs. The man clearly has an untapped passion for cooking which he discovers and cultivates in the story until it helps him realize his worth as an individual so he can value his own decisions and opinions. Kronk’s love for creating tasty food gives him the strength to stand up for himself, because frankly, the spinach puffs mean a hell of a lot more to him than the machinations of an evil mastermind.
Researching and coming up with this recipe was a bit difficult. You’re essentially needing to create an Inca Empire version of Spanakopita. For one, spinach is not in the slightest bit indigenous to the Andes, Peru, or the rest of South America –anachronism #1. They did eat a variety of wild greens, but not ones you can find easily in most American grocery stores. There’s nothing wrong with anachronisms every now and then for artistic license–they have a talking llama, an aesthetic inspired by Art Deco motifs, and a greasy-spoon diner that all work well to make the film fun. Major props though to the concept artists for including the very insect-heavy diet that was prevalent among peasants in the Inca Empire. Don’t worry, I don’t plan on being that authentic!
So…Spinach Puffs. Wheat was also non-existent in the Inca Empire, (anachronism #2) so that leaves out puff pastry. The Incas, however, did have access to corn and several different types of potatoes. They would grind corn into flour and bake with it. So what’s the best alternative? Masa harina, the same stuff they make tortillas from (and you can find in the Mexican food section of your local grocery store). You know what’s also made with masa harina and can be stuffed with spinachy-cheesy goodness? Arepas! Yeah, yeah, I know. Arepas originated in North Columbia — practically on or above the very top edge of the Inca Empire’s reach, but there’s no reason Kronk could not have been influenced by the cuisine of neighboring cultures! For this recipe I highly recommend P.A.N. brand of flour because it is specifically produced in a way ideal to make arepas, also known as masarepa. You can also get about three batches of these arepas out of one package of it, which is great if you want whip a lot of these up for a party without breaking the bank.
The next factor in figuring out this recipe was what kind of cheese to put in the puffs. There were no cows in Pre-Columbian Peru. There were and still are, however, llamas. Where the %^$# am I supposed to find llama cheese? — you’re probably wondering. Well good news, you don’t have to! Llamas normally don’t produce much milk, which is why commercial cheese production is not all that common. Llamas, however, are related to camels. Camel cheese has been described tasting like a sweeter version of feta cheese. Guess what you can also find in most grocery stores? (Hint: It’s not camel cheese).
To season and sweeten I thought I would use some honey, lemon juice, and pink peppercorns. While the honey bee (Apis mellifera) was not indigenous to Pre-Columbian Peru, a small, honey producing stingless bee called the melipona was. Pink peppercorns, often these days used to spice cream sauces for fish, were characteristically popular in the Inca Empire. The Incas would eat the stuff like candy and even spice their beer with it. Deceptively named, the pink peppercorn is not actually all that spicy. What you’ll actually get when biting into one of these morsels is a delicate fruity note with a slight minty flavor, and an even more delicate taste of white pepper. You can find jars of them at Whole Foods or other gourmet grocery stores, or DeKalb Farmers’ Market if you happen to be in Atlanta. Sometimes they come with a pepper grinder on the top. I would recommend grinding them yourself with a mortar and pestle, or a dish and bottom of a coffee mug if you don’t have one as the pink shell on the peppercorns are especially flaky and can clog the grinder. Oh yeah and ALLERGY ALERT: if you have an allergy to cashews or other tree nuts, do not eat pink peppercorns because they are related to each other. You can probably get a similar flavor by using a little mint and white pepper.
Kronk's Spinach and Cheese-Stuffed Arepas
Makes about 12-16 Puffs
Stovetop, small and large mixing bowls, rubber spatula, 12-inch skillet, parchment paper, 2 cookie sheets.
- 2 and 1/2 cups water
- 2 cups P.A.N. Harina
- 2 Tbs honey, plus honey for drizzling
- 1 tsp salt
- 4 cups fresh, flat spinach
- 1/8 cup sour cream
- 1-1 and 1/2 cups feta cheese crumbles
- 1/2 Tbs pink peppercorns
- cooking oil
- lemon juice
- Finely chop your spinach and reserve 1/2 cup. Wilt the rest in a skillet on low heat with a little oil and lemon juice. Turn off heat and empty into a small bowl. Reserve the skillet
- Heat your honey in the microwave for about 30 seconds (or until melted). You can put the whole jar in without the lid, or pour some in a bowl to heat. You’ll need some extra for drizzling anyway.
- In a large mixing bowl, pour the water, salt, 1/2 cup spinach, a splash of lemon juice and 2 Tbs of melted honey. Stir to incorporate well.
- Start adding the PAN Harina gradually, stirring with a rubber spatula to incorporate and knead until the dough is smooth and without lumps.
- Crush the pink peppercorn with a mortar and pestle or bottom of a coffee mug, then add it, the sour cream, and the feta cheese crumbles to the bowl of wilted spinach. Stir until mixed well and put into the fridge to chill.
- Scoop out 1/8 cup increments of the dough, roll into balls, and set onto cookie sheets lined with parchment paper. Keep going until you run out of dough and there is an even number of balls.
- Flatten the dough balls with your spatula.
- Distribute the cheese and spinach mixture among half of the dough rounds. Cover them with the rest of the rounds and smooth over the edges with your fingers so that they are now stuffed disks.
- Heat the skillet on medium-high heat with a coat of cooking oil. When hot, add arepas to the pan and let cook for about 5 minutes. Flip and let cook another 5 minutes before returning them to the cookie sheets.
- Allow the arepas to cool before garnishing with more cheese crumbles and peppercorns. Drizzle with honey before serving.