Arepas may be the best dish I’d never heard of.
Arepas (ah-RAY-pahs) are half-inch thick corn cakes that are an absolute staple of Colombian and Venezuelan cuisine, their origins dating back to the original Indian inhabitants of the region.
Arepas are made from masarepa flour, sometimes called arepa harina. Unlike cornmeal, which is made from uncooked, ground corn, masarepa flour is made from precooked (preconcida) ground corn. As a result, you cannot use simple cornmeal to make arepas; you must use masarepa flour. I used Goya-brand yellow masarepa flour that I found at a Hispanic grocery store. Since then, though, I found that even the local Kroger carries PAN-brand white masarepa flour in its international section.
The beauty of arepas lies in their simplicity and adaptability. Arepas are easily prepared. Simply mix together flour, water, a little salt, and a little oil, and the dough is ready. The additional cheese and herbs were at my behest; traditional arepas are often just the combination of the four staple ingredients.
Once the dough has sat for a few minutes, the patties are shaped and placed in a lightly oiled, hot, cast-iron skillet (or a “budare”). It’s typical to then bake the arepas at a very low temperature. They are not actually fried, so you should only apply a thin layer of oil to the pan.
Once the arepas have been cooked, the possibilities are endless. The most famous arepa may be the Reina Pepiada (the voluptuous queen), served with chicken and avocado. But there are other favorites as well. The Dominó is served with salty white cheese, fried plantains, and black beans. The Guayanesa is served with cheese from the Guayana region of Venezuela. The Perico (parrot) is served with scrambled eggs, chopped tomatoes, and onion. And for the unadventurous, there’s even the Viuda (widow), an empty arepa.
Though nothing is sadder than an empty arepa. For that reason, I stuffed mine with avocados, manchego cheese, black beans, and a guasacaca (recipe below). Of course, these are only suggestions, and the arepas found in Miami or Houston have taken on an Americanized feel, served with butter, honey, or jam.
But no matter how you prepare them or what you put in them, these arepas will have you saying “¡me encantan!”
Arepas with guasacaca
Inspired by Crescent Dragonwagon’s The Cornbread Gospels.
PREP TIME: 2 minutes
DOWN TIME: 20 minutes
COOK TIME: 25 minutes
YIELD: 12 Arepas
WHAT TO GRAB:
2 cups masarepa flour (I used Goya-brand yellow flour)
3 cups warm water
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/4 cup ricotta cheese (optional)
2 teaspoons minced rosemary (optional)
2 teaspoons minced Italian parsley (optional)
1 onion, diced
2-3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 garlic cloves
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and cored
2 tablespoons Italian parsley
1 tablespoon olive oil
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
HOW YOU DO IT:
1. To make the guasacaca, place the onion, vinegar, garlic, jalapeño, and parsley in a blender or food processor. You can also use an immersion blender. Purée the ingredients until smooth. Add the olive oil and avocados, and pulse until the avocado and oil are just incorporated. If you can, allow an hour for the ingredients to come together. Add salt and pepper to taste.
2. In a medium mixing bowl, combine the masarepa flour, water, salt, oil, ricotta, rosemary, and parsley. Gently mix all the ingredients together. Allow the mixture to sit for at least 10 minutes, and 20 minutes if possible.
3. Heat a lightly oiled cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Using your hands, make sure the dough is smooth, squeezing out any lumps. With your hands, form the dough into patties that are 1/2-inch thick, and 4-5 inches in diameter. The patties should have smooth surfaces and be roughly the same size.
4. Cook the patties in the skillet until each side is lightly golden, about 5 minutes on each side. Once done, finish cooking the arepas in the oven at 275 degrees for 15 minutes.
5. Run a knife along the middle of the arepas to create a pocket. Stuff the arepas with guasacaca, manchego cheese, black beans, and/or your choice of accompaniment!