My husband was the one who first introduced me to arepas–white corn cakes popular in Colombia and Venezuela. They are salty and mild, with a crispy exterior, and chewy, tender interior. They are a gluten-free treat. Josh cooked them for me in the tiny galley kitchen of his studio apartment. Sprinkled with soy cheese and slathered with margarine, they were a real treat. Josh makes his arepas Colombian-style, in keeping with his family tradition; they are thin and served as a side dish. In this recipe, I follow the Venezuelan template, making them thicker, so they can be split in half and stuffed. Unassuming arepas turn into a uniquely satisfying main dish once they are filled with zesty zucchini salsa and black beans.
This is another recipe that took me a few tries to get it right, so I’ll share my hard-won arepa making secrets here. My first attempt resulted in a crumbly mess of dough. The arepas cracked as I shaped them and refused to form coherent disks. Josh came home just as I was about to ditch the batter and give up on the whole enterprise. He rescued the operation, patiently coaxing the impossible batter into little cakes and putting them on the stove. After a few further attempts, and some tips from my arepa expert, I have finally uncovered a foolproof recipe.
Don’t be intimidated–arepa making is really very simple once the technique is clarified. I learned that the “lukewarm water” called for on the back of the cornmeal bag really meant “piping hot water”. The second trick is to let the dough stand for 10 minutes before trying to shape it. If you use these two tips, your arepas should come out as beautiful, even, uncracked little cakes on the first attempt. No rescue operation necessary.
Arepas require a special kind of cornmeal. This is not the same product as the masa harina cornmeal sold to make tortillas. The package of arepa cornmeal should be labelled “[Refined] Pre-Cooked Corn Meal” or “harina de maiz [refinada] precocida.” The word “precooked” is the key; the word “refined” may or may not be in there. It is sometimes (but not always) called “masarepa,” so you may see that on the packaging. On the back of the bag, there will likely be a recipe for arepas, and/or it should say somewhere on it that it is suitable for making arepas. Depending on your neighborhood, you may find it at your regular grocery store (as I did) or you may need to visit a specialty Hispanic grocer. You can also order online.
Is this getting way too complicated? Do the hispanic groceries in your local market consist only of Old El Paso taco shells and jars of Tostitos salsa? Don’t fret. There is still a fantastic, easy recipe here for homemade zucchini salsa verde and black bean filling. The salsa is tangy, zesty and a refreshing way to use up still abundant summer squash. Roll it up in a couple soft corn tortillas and you will have yourself a wonderful taco.
In the interest of saving the best for last, I have one more thing to share: this dinner can be on the table in 30 minutes. Yup, all three components will come together in no time. It really is a perfect weeknight meal.
Venezuelan Stuffed Arepas
2 cups water, microwaved 60 seconds until quite hot
1 tsp salt
2 cups precooked white cornmeal for arepa making (see explanation above)
1 batch zucchini salsa verde, recipe below
1 batch black bean filling, recipe below
1. Pour the very hot water into a medium mixing bowl. Stir in the salt. Add the cornmeal gradually, in a small steady stream, whisking thoroughly as you go. Once all the cornmeal is added, knead the batter by hand for 1 minute. It will not be elastic like a wheat-based dough, but it should be smooth and relatively firm. Cover the bowl with a towel, and set the dough aside to rest for 10 minutes.
2. Pat the arepa dough out into small disks, about 4 to 5″ in diameter and 1/2 to 3/4″ thick. Heat a lightly greased skillet to medium heat. Pan fry a few arepas at a time, for 8-10 minutes on each side, or until the arepas are golden and flecked with a few darker brown spots.
3. Carefully slice the arepas in half, using a serrated knife, and spoon in the salsa and black bean. Eat it like a sandwich, while it is hot! It is best to enjoy these right away, but if you need to store them for later, keep the arepas and filling separately, and stuff them when you are ready to consume.
Zucchini Salsa Verde
Adapted from Bon Appetit
10 oz zucchini (about 2 medium zucchinis), coarsely chopped
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup onion, coarsely chopped
5 tablespoons lime juice
1 tsp kosher salt
1-2 jalapenos, seeded
Blot cilantro and zucchini with a towel until dry so that the salsa does not become overly watery. Add all ingredients to a food processor, and blend until mostly smooth.
Black Bean Filling
1 15 oz. can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 bell pepper, finely diced
1 tomato, seeded and diced
1/2 tsp cumin
2 tsp chili powder
scant 1 tsp salt
Stir together filling ingredients. Warm in the microwave just before stuffing the arepas.