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Arepas!

Though I normally find statements like the one I'm about to make annoying and overblown, in this case I find it entirely appropriate: if you haven't had arepas, you haven't really tried Colombian food.

If you ask any ex-pat Colombian what they most miss about being away, the vast majority will says "arepas", and it is one of the things they are most excited to share with foreigners.

 

I had never heard of arepas before I went to Colombia, though they appear to be gaining footing in the states. People generally really like them, they're gluten free, and they aren't particularly difficult to make. There's even a yuppie arepa food truck in Minneapolis, where my parents live, that serves arepas with goat cheese and caramelized onions and whatnot. For those who don't already know what arepas are, arepas are patties formed from ground (dried then cooked) corn that are then grilled. They are a fundamental part of the Colombian (and Venezuelan) diet, they are extremely versatile, and they can be found in many shapes and sizes depending on the region.

 

One thing that a lot of newcomers to the arepa don't understand at first is that the thin, plain, white variety of arepas, especially common to Medellin and the surrounding areas, are meant to accompany other foods and are therefore pretty bland. Same goes for the mini fat round ones that are served alongside the bandeja paisa and other traditional dishes. If you're looking to eat arepas on their own, I would direct you to filled arepas. The arepas are either grilled and then split open and filled, or they are shaped with the filling already inside and then grilled. I LOVE the cheese-filled ones, especially those sold on the corner by the Loma in San Antonio. (If you live in Cali, you probably know exactly where I'm talking about; if not, if you ever visit Cali, ask someone for "la esquina de las arepas" when you're in the San Antonio neighborhood) You can also mix grated cheese directly into the dough, giving the whole arepa a saltier, richer taste. And actually, if you spread a plain one with butter and salt while it's still hot off the grill, it's pretty delicious as well.

 

Nowadays, most people either buy packets of pre-formed arepas at the supermarket and grill them at home stovetop, or they buy areparina, which is flour made from the cooked (and then dried) corn, and make arepas with that. The best arepas, though, like the best Mexican tortillas, are made with freshly ground corn dough. Most people don't do this at home any more both because the pre-formed arepas now available are generally good quality, made from fresh dough, and because it's a bit of a pain. As a young kid, my boyfriend used to hand-grind corn for arepas before he was allowed to watch cartoons in the morning. Now that his mother lacks a source of child labor to carry out the dirty work, she also buys areparina or pre-formed arepas at the supermarket to fulfill her 2-arepa-a-day habit, though she's the first to tell you that the best arepas are those made from fresh dough.

The other benefit of making arepas from fresh dough is that if you are living in a place where neither pre-formed arepas nor areparina are sold (like, say, Brazil), all you need is dried corn. You do also need a grinder, though they're not actually as hard to get your hands on as you might think; you can find them for 20 bucks online. A pressure cooker is helpful but not necessary.

Arepas

Makes 10 (6 inch) arepas

 

  • 1 lb. (500 g.) dried white hominy
  • 1.5 oz. (3 Tbsp. or 40 g.) unsalted butter, softened
  • .35 oz. (10 g.) salt
  • For every cheese-filled arepa, you will need: 1.5 oz. (40 g.) mozzarella

 

Pour the hominy into a large pressure cooker or pot and cover it with a good couple inches of water to soak overnight, 12-24 hours.

Add a generous amount of water to the pot, so that the hominy is covered with water by at least 3 inches. Cover the pot and cook under pressure for an hour or (if not using a pressure cooker) a couple of hours, until the hominy is just tender but not falling apart. Meanwhile set up the corn mill and place a large, low recipient below to catch the dough. When the hominy is tender, immediately drain it into a colander (don't run it under cold water!) and begin to pass the corn through the mill. Use your hand or a large spoon to help push the corn through. Gather the dough together with your hands and knead the butter and salt through until you have a smooth mass. Divide it into 10 balls (if you have a scale, each ball will weigh 130 g.) To make basic arepas (to eat plain or to split and fill after cooking), take 1 ball and use your hands to flatten it as evenly as possible into a 6 inch round. Use the side of your hand to create a relatively smooth, contiguous edge to the arepa. If you press the arepa against a flat, dry porcelain plate, it can help smooth the face out. On a grill for arepas (see the second photo above-- Latin markets sell them in the states) over low heat on the stove, or in a cast iron grill skillet, or (ideally, though not particularly practically) on a grill over low coals, grill the arepa. You want low, even heat. The arepa is ready to flip when it easily releases from the grill. Grill on the second side, until once again it releases easily. Serve spread with butter and sprinkled with salt, or split in half with a knife (like pita bread) and stuff it with whatever filling you like.

To make cheese-filled arepas, split one of the balls into two small equal balls. Flatten the half into a 5 inch round, then place a thin layer, about 1.5 oz. (3 tablespoons) of cheese on top of the round. Flatten the other half into a round equal to the first layer of dough, then lay that round on top of the cheese, matching the edges up with the bottom. Use your fingers to pinch the sides closed, forming a continuous edge so that the cheese won't seep out when hot. The arepa will be thicker than the non-filled arepa (the very first photo in this post is of a filled arepa). Grill as you did with the un-filled version, over low heat, turning when the arepa releases easily from the grill.

Both filled and unfilled arepas can be "pre-grilled" and then stored in the fridge in a plastic bag. Grill them on the stove top to heat back up before eating. And there you have it! Arepas!

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Guest Sunday, 21 December 2014

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