This month’s Ethnic Exploration takes us back to South America. While we were in the full throws of planning and executing April’s Polish Ethnic Exploration, I stumbled upon an article in the Kitchen Daily section of the Huffington Post that heralded the arepa. Crispy, golden brown on the outside and soft, airy on the inside, the article described an arepa as a “golden, thick goody” that’s a “cross between a tortilla and a pita.” What’s more, these small delights are generally stuffed or topped with anything from cheese, your choice of meat or veggies, even a savory sauce. Of course, in true Huffington Post fashion, a slideshow of breathtaking photos concluded the piece, offering great ideas on potential arepa stuffings. Well, I couldn’t even make it pass the first image before I sent an excited email to Chrystal: “I know what our next EE is going to be. We’re going to make arepas!”
Various versions of arepas pop up throughout Latin America, but these guys reign supreme in Venezuela and Colombia. Traditionally, arepas are made from dried corn kernels that are soaked, grounded, molded into a dough and then cooked on a grill, or asador de arepas. More popular today, and certainly less labor intensive, most folks nowadays make arepas using a commercially available pre-cooked ground corn meal. Easier and faster to prepare, a lot less fuss. We would definitely be utilizing the latter method.
Included in the Huff Post slideshow was a video from “Throwdown with Bobby Flay” where two chefs from NYC’s Caracas Arepa Bar demonstrate how to make and stuff an arepa. I readily admit we probably should have studied this video more thoroughly before embarking on our own arepa-making journey (more on that later), but nonetheless we dived right in anyway. Now, we just needed to decide which country we were going to feature, Colombia or Venezuela? It appears arepas from both places are pretty similar, but each region offers their own slight variation depending on how and with what it’s stuffed. Our decision was made a whole lot easier when Chrystal presented me with a Colombian cookbook she scored at her local public library titled Secrets of Colombian Cooking. Even better, the book had a handful of authentic recipes for arepas ready to go inside its pages. Nice score indeed, Chrystal!
We decided to make Arepas de Queso and top them with carne asada, a flank steak marinated in red wine and garlic, and then topped off with a chimichurri sauce after it’s cooked. In Colombia, arepas are generally eaten at breakfast and topped with butter, cheese, eggs, and often chorizo. As you can imagine, arepas are also a perfect little snack. We wanted to have more of a proper meal, though, so we decided to include a side dish to eat with our carne asada arepas. We settled on a lentil dish blended with a rich vegetable base called guiso, or stew–Lentejas de Elvira. The author of the cookbook noted that the lentils recipe is from her mother’s housekeeper in Colombia. Now, with a plan ready to go, our long checklist of ingredients to buy, and a time set to meet up and cook our Colombian feast, the only other thing left to do was shop.
As with her library find, Chrystal saved the day by offering to shop for most of the ingredients at the closest applicable ethnic market. She ventured to El Camaguey, a grocer overflowing with fresh produce, meats, and countless Latin American dry goods and spices. Top of our list was the pre-cooked white corn meal to make the arepas. It was recommended in the Bobby Flay video, and by other online references, to use P.A.N Harina Blanca, which is imported from Colombia. This is the most widely used corn meal used to make arepas here and abroad, so we wanted to be sure to find it. We were also on the hunt for ají dulce for the lentil recipe, a sweet chili pepper used in Central and Southern American cuisine. We had success finding the P.A.N corn meal, but less luck with the ají dulce. I recently learned that Goya sells ají dulce in a jar, which you may be able to find more easily if fresh options aren’t available. Anyhow, we left it out and hoped for the best since we were without.
El Camaguey also sold fresh queso fresco. We thought a block of this would be a great cheese to use in the dough for our Arepas de Queso. If you can’t locate it fresh, it’s widely available packaged. Cotija cheese works fine too. This is the cheese Bobby Flay used in his Throwdown arepas. Chrystal also grabbed a few packages of frozen arepas that were cooked and packed in Colombia. Being our first time eating these little corn cakes, we thought it would be a good idea to experience an authentic sample for comparison’s sake. Other than those few ingredients, the rest of the list could be easily purchased at any chain grocery store. In fact, we already had most of the items between our two kitchens. On to the cooking!
Cooking our meal mostly went off without a hitch. When I met Chrystal in her kitchen, she had already prepared the chimichurri sauce, had the steak marinating, and made the guiso for the lentils the night before. So that left me to tackle the arepas. The dough only consisted of the corn meal, salt, water, and the cheese. And it was! The arepa-making process was not complicated, and the end result was very tasty. The carne asada exploded with flavor, not so much from the marinade, but from the dressing of chimichurri. I do think, however, that our arepas were slightly off in texture compared to the norm. Our arepas were noticeably flatter than the ones we peeked at on the web. This made them nearly impossible to cut open and stuff the carne asade inside. In the Bobby Flay video, one person describes arepas as resembling English muffins in their appearance, texture, and “stuffability” factor. This was not the case for us. We had no choice but to stack the toppings on top of the arepa because they were so flat.
As delicious as our arepas were, it was disappointing that we didn’t seem to capture their supposed texture. I re-watched the Throwdown video and came to a few conclusions about why our version may have been slightly different. For one, the expert arepa maker clearly instructs you to add the corn flour to the water: water first, then corn meal! I clearly missed this apparent vital step. By adding the water first into the mixing bowl, this helps create the fluffy texture. Secondly, she forms the arepas into their distinctive disc shape using her hands. I did not. I sandwiched my small dough balls between wax paper and in essence smashed them with a cutting board. I think this step may have been what did us in. I probably got carried away in my smashing duties. They were not unlike the El Salvadoran pupusas we made in the past, flat like a pancake. Oh well, they still tasted good!
A few other notes for you. There was a leftover jar of pimentos chilling in Chrystal’s fridge, so she diced them up and tossed them in the chimichurri sauce. This wasn’t in the original recipe, but made a great addition for us. And speaking of the chimichurri, this single element brought the whole dish together. The chimichurri added the perfect wetness and burst of flavor to what otherwise could have been a rather plain dish. Feel free to plop little spoonfuls of it liberally on top of the arepa and, like me, on each bite. You can also mix up the liquid when making the arepa dough. The recipe in the book suggests a 50/50 mixture of water and milk. It was suggested to use only milk for sweet arepa varieties. Bobby Flay used a butter and milk mixture in his jazzed-up version. I bet your favorite stock would work well too.
Lastly, the suggested cooking time in the lentil recipe was strange to us. The first part of the cooking time was about 25 minutes, and then another 45 minutes to an hour once the guiso goes into the pot. That just seemed too long. We wanted them soft but not mushy. We adjusted the times accordingly. With all that, we hope this equips you with enough to make these Colombian gems on your own. We hope the texture comes out better for you. If it doesn’t, though, we’re confident your taste buds will be just as pleased as ours.
Note: If you’re in the LA area, Amir’s work boss, though originally from Venezuela, strongly recommends Coupa Café in Beverly Hills for authentic arepas. He says they taste the most like home that he’s had outside his kitchen.
El Camaguey Meat Market
10925 Venice Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90034
Carne Asada Sobre Arepas de Queso – Serves 4 to 6 (Adapted from Secrets of Colombian Cooking)
2/3 cup precooked white cornmeal
2/3 cup warm water
4 teaspoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra for cooking
1 teaspoon fine salt
1 1/3 cups crumbled farmer’s cheese or queso fresco
1. In a medium bowl, whisk the cornmeal, water, butter and salt until smooth. Allow the dough to rest for approximately 5 minutes, then knead the dough for about a minute to form a ball.
2. Add the cheese and knead for another minute, then separate into eight pieces. Roll each piece into a ball and slightly flatten with the palm of your hand.
3. Roll or flatten each ball into patties about four inches wide and 1/4″ to 1/2″ thick, depending on your preference. You can chill the dough at this point between sheets of wax paper if you’re not going to fry them right away.
4. Place a pat of butter into a pan over medium high heat. Once hot, fry each side of the areas, approximately two minutes each side, or until golden brown. Keep warm in the oven until ready to eat, if necessary.
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard or stone ground mustard
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
3 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus extra for the pan
1 3/4 pounds flank steak
1. Whisk the red wine vinegar, garlic, mustard, cumin, pepper, salt and oil until well combined.
2. Lay the meat into a large baking dish and rub both sides with the marinade. Cover and chill for 1-2 hours or up to overnight.
3. Drizzle a large oven safe pan with a bit of oil and set on the stove over medium high. Once hot, sear the flank steak on both sides, approximately 2-3 minutes per side. Slide the pan into an oven preheated to 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes. (This will results in medium-rare to medium doneness.) Remove from the oven and allow to rest for at least 10 minutes.
4. Slice the meat into strips and serve over the arepas. Top with the chimichurri sauce.
Spicy Pimento Chimichurri – Approximately 1 cup (Adapted from Secrets of Colombian Cooking)
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 1/2 cups fresh chopped parsley leaves
1 cup fresh chopped cilantro leaves
1/3 cup chopped scallion, white and green parts
1/2 large serrano pepper, with seeds
1 teaspoon agave nectar
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Zest and juice of 1 large lime
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
3/4 cup olive oil
4 ounces pimento peppers, drained and chopped
1. Place the garlic, parsley, cilantro, scallion, serrano pepper, agave nectar, red wine vinegar, lime zest and juice, salt and pepper into a food processor. Pulse until almost combined.
2. Drizzle in the olive oil and blend until mixed, but still a bit chunky. Scrape the chimichurri into a small bowl, and stir in the pimentos. Cover and chill until ready to serve.
Lentejas de Elvira – Serves 8 to 10 (Adapted from Secrets of Colombian Cooking)
1 pound dry lentils, washed
1/2 large red bell pepper, seeded
4 cups broth (chicken or vegetable) or water
1 teaspoon color or turmeric*
Fine sea salt, for seasoning
8 ounces diced tomatoes, drained
1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
4 scallions, green and white parts, chopped
2 ají dulce, seeded, chopped*
1 celery stalk, chopped
1/2 large red bell pepper
1/2 large green bell pepper
2 teaspoons fine sea salt, plus more to season
3 tablespoons olive oil
1. Put the lentils, bell pepper, broth, color or turmeric and a bit of salt into a medium pot. Bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce the heat and allow the lentils to simmer for about 10-15 minutes. Turn off the heat and set aside.
2. As the lentils cook, blend all of the ingredients for the guiso in a food processor until smooth. Pour the mixture into a large pan and cook over medium low heat for 10-15 minutes or until bubbly and just slightly thickened.
3. Carefully remove the boiled red pepper half from the lentils. Scrape the guiso into the beans, turn the heat back up to medium low and cook for another 15-20 minutes or until soft. Season with salt, if necessary, and serve while hot.
*We could not find the ají dulce at El Camaguey. If you can find ají dulce, go for it!
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