Dirty Pages Nelssy Toro’s Colombian empanadas

As told to Jennifer Justus by Nelssy Toro

Dirty Pages is an ongoing recipe exhibit based in Nashville, inspired by the time-worn recipe pages in home collections. In this installment, we hear from Nelssy Toro, an Atlantan by way of Colombia. She learned to make empanadas from her mother, who learned from her mother. One day, Toro hopes to teach her three grown children how to make them. Until then, the instructions remain, handwritten, in her kitchen. –Jennifer Justus

When I was growing up, I always wanted to do what my mother was doing. But when she made empanadas, she would say, “No, no. You’re going to get burned or hurt.” So I just watched, and that’s how I learned to make them.

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My mother made them once a week and when we had company. I remember making my first batch when I was maybe eleven years old.

These days, I save making them for special occasions like Christmas or birthdays. That’s usually the only time I have for all that preparation. But I know the recipe in my head. I don’t have to measure anything.

I also do it the same way every time, whether I’m making forty or one hundred. I always use beef for the filling. Some people use chicken or pork or vegetables. But I like the real thing.


One of my daughters says she doesn’t even like empanadas. She has tried them from different countries, but she likes mine. They’re the only empanadas she will eat.

I do make other folk dishes at the holidays, but empanadas get requested the most. It might be for my son’s birthday or because cousins are coming in from out of town. It’s usually when we’re all getting together.

It’s nice to be able to share that part of our culture with people. It brings me a lot of joy to make them, and people love them.

Meet Karla Ruiz in this SFA short about her peach empanadas.

I say my daughter begged me to come to Atlanta so she doesn’t have to come home for the empanadas. But really, we’re just a very close family. We picked up and moved here about four years ago.

Now this is our home. Making empanadas, no matter where I am, makes me think of my childhood, happy times, and bringing the family together.

Toro’s empanadas form a crisp outer layer that holds saffron-scented hunks of beef and potato. Find her recipe at southernfoodways.org.

Jennifer Justus is a Nashville-based writer and the author of Nashville Eats.

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