Arepa. It’s a cute little word for a mainstay food that dominates the world of Venezuela. At least, that is the case for this kind of arepa. They are fat corn cakes made from maize meal, pan fried, baked and then gobbled up for breakfast, lunch or dinner. From that description, they hopefully sound like something you want to eat right now. In light of an upcoming Meatless Monday, here is a dish that happens to be delightfully vegetarian and gluten free. It is also easy to prepare, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Many countries share similar foods and meal preparations, but ask them who has the best insert-noun-here, and they will always claim their own. These arepas are Venezuelan-style, and that makes them stand apart from Colombian arepas, and their so-called cousin, the El Salvadorian pupusa. Some say they are the best of the best when it comes to arepas, but there’s no need for us to step into that argument. Venezuelan arepas tend to be thicker than the Colombian counterparts, and they are often cooked, split and then filled similar to a sandwich. The Colombian arepas are often cooked then topped, although of course, they can also be stuffed with things like melty cheese. Both are made with ground, pre-cooked maize, so you don’t have to worry about pulling out your grinding stones. Here in the States, you can find masarepa, a commercial version of the prepared corn flour, in Latin markets or the ethnic aisle of your grocer.
Preparing arepas is fairly simple. The key is making sure the dough’s texture is right on. If it is too gummy and sticky, the dough will be too dense and will not be fully cooked through. If the dough is dry, you will have a hard time forming patties with your hands. It helps to do the mixing with your hands, so you can accurately determine the dough’s texture before you get down to business.
Once cooked, arepas are fantastic with a smothering of soft butter, and more cheese if you get down like that, or sliced down the middle and filled with various meats. Most arepas are plain, consisting of a dough flavored simply with salt. Adding sugar to the recipe provides balance, and the butter and queso fresco make the texture soft and silky, as well as providing crunch to the exterior. The use of corn and cilantro is a fun twist, amping up the corny flavor already present in the flour. Serving these arepas with sharp onion, acidic tomatoes and creamy avocados was a satisfying way to complement the sweet corn in the arepas.
Arepas are often a breakfast food, but they pop up during lunch time, as well as snack time. In other words, there is never a bad time for an arepa. These guys may have made an appearance at the dinner table, but a few of the leftovers were great for breakfast topped with a fried egg. Play with a traditional, authentic dish to make it your own, and you have something that can easily turn into a new favorite.
- 2 cups lukewarm water
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 cup crumbled queso fresco
- 1 cup frozen corn kernels, thawed
- ⅓ cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
- 2 cups harina de p.a.n., plus more if necessary
- Vegetable oil, for frying
- In a large bowl, whisk together the water, butter, salt and sugar. Stir in the queso fresco, corn and cilantro. Be sure to break up any large clumps of cheese.
- Pour the cornmeal over the wet ingredients, and mix well. Set aside for 5 minutes in order for the cornmeal to absorb all of the wet ingredients. After 5 minutes, the dough should be uniform and thick enough to form patties. If it is too dry and crumbly, add a tiny bit more water. If it is too loose, add a tiny but more cornmeal.
- Shape the dough into patties about 3" wide and ½" thick. Place on a foil-lined baking sheet.
- Place a griddle or large non-stick pan over a medium flame, and add a drizzle of oil. Once the oil is hot, add 4 arepas at a time, and cook each side until golden brown, approximately 5-6 minutes per side. Transfer the fried arepas back to the baking sheet.
- Once all 8 arepas have been pan fried, slide the baking sheet into an oven preheated to 400 degrees. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the arepas puff slightly and cook thoroughout the middle.
- Serve the arepas with butter and more cheese, or split it across the middle and stuff with ingredients of your choice.
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