Today’s pancake adventure takes us south to Venezuela. Unfortunately the U.S. and Venezuela are going through a rough patch diplomatically speaking. Which is a shame. Because it is a beautiful country. I know because I have been there. I’ll include a few photos (who is that handsome young man?).
There is a lot to love about Venezuela. But one of my strongest memories is attached to food. They have a pancake there that is absolutely ubiquitous. These pancakes are called arepas and they are made from corn flour.
Arepas are eaten at all times of the day and with many accompaniments. I had them served simply with butter for breakfast, I had them topped with fruit or meat, I had them handed to me on street corners by a local women proud of their national culinary treasure. They are commonly stuffed with just about anything you can think of and enjoyed “sandwich-style”.
You can find arepas in small restaurants called areperas. If you go to Venezuela, don’t miss the opportunity to go to one. They are places where you can eat only arepas, with whatever you want– cheese, jam, meat, chicken, pork, eggs, etc.
Arepa cafes are starting to become popular in the U.S. I have read that there are several in Southern California, though I have not been to one (yet). I have been to one in lower Manhattan called Caracas Arepas Bar. In fact I am emulating one of their arepa specialties here today.
It called Arepas la del Gato. It is a traditional white corn arepa stuffed with avocado, sweet fried plantains and slightly salty Guayanese cheese that tastes a bit like a cross between feta and mozzarella.
It is a combination of tastes and textures that will make you swoon!
The unusual cheese is key. I live in Los Angeles where I can get just about anything I want if I am willing to do the leg-work. And when it comes to this cheese I am willing to do whatever leg-work (or drive-work) that’s necessary. But if you don’t have a Venezuelan market in your neighborhood there are possible substitutions. Mexican queso cotija is usually easy to find and has that slightly salty taste of the original. However a mild feta or a strongly flavored mozzarella would both taste great. Maybe even a mix of both.
The other key element is the flour. The best arepas are made with white corn flour, which is different than coarse corn meal. I have had arepas made with corn meal and they are not quite the same. In fact the posada we stayed in on Los Roques, Venezuela was owned by Italians and they served arepas made with yellow corn meal that were delicious but resembled a polenta cake more than a typical arepa.
Traditionally the flour for arepas was hand-ground by the cook. But today corn flour for making maize dough-based dishes such as arepas, hallacas, bollos, tamales, empanadas, and chichi, is widely available. The most popular brand name of corn flour is Harina PAN. You may have seen its distinctive yellow packaging in the market with out really knowing what it was.
I am so glad I was able to travel to Venezuela when I did. I hope our countries can work out their differences because I very much would like to return. Though I get the impression that may not be a good idea right now. Because more than once after a trip abroad, I have had a U.S. customs agent flip through my passport and question my motive for traveling to Venezuela. I always look at them incredulously and say, â€œto eat arepas, of course. They seem to understand this answer and wave me through the line.
- 2 ripe plantains, peeled sliced into 1/2″ pieces
- vegetable oil
- 2 c harina p.a.n. corn flour
- 2 c boiling water
- 1 pn salt
- 1 ripe avocado, peeled and sliced
- 8 guayanese cheese (you may substitute feta or mozzarella)
Heat about 1/2 inch vegetable oil in a large saute pan set over medium-high heat. Fry the plantain slices until golden brown on both sides. About 5 minutes.Set aside on a paper towel lined plate to dry.
Place two cups of corn flour in a mixing bowl. Add a pinch of salt and mix through with clean dry hands. Pour the water onto flour, mix well. As soon as the mixture is cool enough to handle knead together the flour and water until the mixture is thoroughly blended and there are no grainy lumps.
If the dough is too soggy and sticks to your fingers add more flour. If it is too dry add water. The perfect dough should roll easily into a large ball without cracking.
Divide the dough into 4 equal pieces and roll them into balls. Then pat it and turn it in your hands until its about half an inch thick and about 3-4 inches across. It should have the classic flying saucer shape now. Repeat with remaining balls. Let the dough discs rest about 20 minutes.
Heat a little oil in a heavy frying pan or griddle and when hot add the arepas, as many as will comfortably fit in the pan. The idea is to give the arepas a crunchy exterior (“una cara”, literally a face, as they say in Venezuela) so don’t turn the heat up too high. When the arepas are brown on one side turn them over. The whole process should not take longer than 10 minutes.
Preheat oven to 250 degrees.
Place arepas on a baking tray at the top of the oven, then lower the heat to 200. Bake 15 to 20 minutes. They should sound hollow when tapped with a knife when they are done.
Let them cool a couple of minutes then make an incision along the outer edge of each arepa. The trick is to slice through the middle but not going all the way – and then open it up like a pocket for the filling.
Fill with the fried plantains, cheese and avocado slices.
SERIOUS FUN FOOD