First there was a cracker. Then nachos came from South of the Texan border some 50 years ago and the North American snack was re-defined forever. One of the perks of living in multicultural society is that today you can discover endless variety of comforting ethnic foods almost on a daily basis in any given big city. Take arepa, for example, the crispy corn flat bread originating from Venezuela and Colombia. Delicious and highly versatile in stuffing it makes a great gluten-free bread/sandwich alternative, a vegetarian trouvaille (catch) and nice and fresh step away from the usual boring food. You can make arepas in minutes during busy weeknights and kids just adore them. They are perfect to combine with any sandwich ingredients and most of the warm recipes of the fall and can be served as an appetizer, side, school lunch, main dish or a snack. Arepas also make wonderful party or potluck food on a budget with some pulled meats you can prepare ahead separately. Few years ago though I didn’t even know this food existed.
One sunny end-of-summer day, in a happy turn of events, we hopped sideways of the bustling St-Denis street of Montreal and discovered a tiny hole-in-the-wall Venezuelan eatery Arepera The place offered plethora of tasty corn flour cakes with all kinds of fillings at more than affordable prices. Ten minutes of waiting time (this place is actually quite popular in the neighbourhood) and we stepped into the little arepas heaven filled with the smell of the freshly pan-fried corn cakes and garlicky guasacaca (famous avocado & herb sauce to go with arepas). The Spanish-speaking buzz and background percussion of maracas instantly teleported us to some hot place in Venezuela. The hearty ambiance along with friendly and fast service made us fully enjoy the charred and crispy on top, fluffy and soft inside corn cakes stuffed with authentic vegetarian (black beans, avocado and fresh queso) and pulled chicken (pollo guisado) arepas with some fried plantain slices (tajadas), extra queso on a side. We made a mental note to come back and try more things (not-surprisingly, this Arepera is consistently well-rated on the Tripadvisor).
As you know already, I have a proclivity to test my kitchen skills every time I try some new exciting dish, so, naturally, upon few more visits to Arepera I was ready to make them a home. I googled the recipe of arepas and found the Areparinaspecial pre-cooked corn flour (P.A.N. corn flour in the US) used to make arepas in the nearest Walmart ($2.69 per 2 lbs). Fresh queso blanco cheese was harder to find, so I used the squeaky curd cheese in place of traditional queso (cottage and ricotta cheeses would be other close alternatives) and later even regular cheddar or mozzarella. Easy, fast and as delicious as any best street food can be. And they came out perfect from the first time! Even the ones I took a minimal effort to put a piece of cheese inside turned into super-savory patties with irresistible pan-fried crisp crust (the reason these little babies will always be a hit with diners).
Keep cooked arepas warm in a 300F oven as you prepare the next batch. Double or triple the amount of ingredients accordingly if you need to feed more people. Serve with traditional avocado sauce or guacamole or just the dollop of sour cream. For a more spicy adornment, feel free to use the lentil avocado spread, or salsa verde, or buttermilk sauce, or lime avocado mayo which I posted previously – all of them go very well with the neutral arepas taste.
Simply put, you can stuff arepas with almost any kind of sandwich layers or leftovers, from omelet to pulled meats, to bacon, to ham, to cheese, to shrimp, to fish and of course all their vegetarian equivalents. Here is a nice and quirky graphic poster by Sorelis Liendo I found on Pinterest on the most popular kinds of arepas in Venezula with their names and ingredients in Spanish (funny, the one without stuffing is called a widow).
|Top Left: Infografía de “La Arepa” (vía @Sorelys Liendo)|
The party favorites are of course pulled meat arepas. Try the ones with the pulled pork recipeor the veal/beef pulled blade roast turned into Cuban Ropa Vieja, all of which I posted last year, and the famous Guasacaca avocado sauce (below).
Oh my, I think I’ve exaggerated my writing quota today (to compensate for my temporary absence). Are you still there or have I long lost you to the Facebook gossips? Anyways, if you are a nachos lover and like to have something different from time to time, I’m sure you will be positively surprised to discover how they can soothe you with the simple joy of street comfort food.