In a continuing effort to expand the scope of offerings here at Haute Plates Industries and Commercial Ventures, we submit the following discourse on arepas and the making thereof.
Masarepa is pre-cooked, finely ground cornmeal. It’s used mainly in Venezuela and Colombia to prepare dough for empanadas and arepas. In Columbia, arepas are essentially a thick tortilla; in Venezuela, you’re more likely to find them split and stuffed like a sandwich.
Arepas are easy to make. Mix 2.5 cups of lukewarm water and 1 teaspoon of salt in a large bowl. Whisk or stir in 2 cups of masarepa until a soft dough forms. Cover with plastic wrap, and let it rest for at least 10 minutes, then pinch off portions and roll in your hands as you would meatballs.
You can then press the balls into flat circles by hand, but I prefer cutting the sides out of a quart-size freezer bag and opening it onto a cutting board. Put a ball on one side, then close the other side of the freezer bag over it before pressing down with a bench scraper (or anything flat) to form disks. The dough is not all that elastic, so don’t press too hard or you’ll end up with an arepa that’s too flat and may break up when you remove it from the wrap.
Preheat a griddle or a cast-iron skillet on medium heat, and then brush it with a little butter or oil before cooking the arepas for about 4 to 5 minutes per side for thin areapas and a few minutes more per side if you prefer them thicker. When they’re done, you should see some blistering on each side.
So that’s the basic recipe, and it works great, but you can add other ingredients to the dough, as well. Try adding about 1/2 cup grated cheese such as queso fresco or Cotija to the above recipe when you’re mixing the dough or a tablespoon of minced fresh cilantro or oregano. Pureed sweet corn is a traditional addition, though if you go that route, cut down on the water, and I’ve had luck adding about a 1/4 cup of roasted poblano pepper, too. If you’re like me, and I hope to God you’re not, your imagination will run wild with the things you can add and/or do to this dough. What?
The last time I used masarepa, I made more dough than we needed and decided to use the remainder for dumplings. I looked online and in a few cookbooks but didn’t see the dough used for that purpose. I was a bit worried the dumplings would turn out too dense, but I was pleasantly surprised. I cooked quail-egg-size dumplings in a chicken/pork/tomato broth, and they swelled up nicely. They weren’t the lightest dumplings I’d ever had, but I’d added some cheese, and they were just sweet enough to balance the chiles in the broth.
If you want to see what a well-made arepa looks like before you try your hand at making them, you’re in luck because there are at least two local restaurants I can recommend: Maïs Arepas and Barů both serve excellent versions, and at Maïs, you’d do well to try the empanadas.
I found masarepa flour at the Ideal market on Broad Street, but you can likely pick it up at any market serving folks from Mexico or Central America.