I feel kind of silly giving you this recipe, because it is so stinkin’ easy! But if your family doesn’t have any ties to South America like mine does, you may not be aware of this simple, versatile, and delicious food staple.
You can read a history of arepas on Wikipedia, if you like. I’ll just tell you that they are basically…corn flour pita pockets.
I’m sure millions of Colombians and Venezuelans are shaking their collective fist at me for describing their national dish so rudely. But hey, they’re made out of corn flour, and (at least in many places) split open and stuffed full of deliciousness. If they’re not split, then the toppings go on top, which is also like pita bread! So there you have it: corn flour pitas. And not just for lunch! In Colombia, arepas are typically a breakfast food.
When I make arepas, I do up a big batch for breakfast, and if we’re lucky they will last us through a couple snacks, lunch, and the next day’s breakfast. But only if it was a big batch. ;)
(Recipe amounts taken from Gluten-free Girl’s lovely essay on making Arepas)
2 1/2 cups lukewarm water
1 teaspoon vegetable oil (optional, but it does make them toast up so evenly!)
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups pre-cooked white cornmeal (P.A.N. Harina Blanca is the only acceptable type, in my opinion!)
Knead it all up in a big bowl. You have to use your hands, because the texture here is important. I always aim for the consistency of brand new Play Dough. You want the dough wet enough to hold together without crumbling, but not so wet that it doesn’t hold its shape. Make sure you let the dough rest a bit, because the corn flour will absorb water for a while after you mix it in. You can always add more water if you need to.
Heat up a griddle or frying pan (I use my cast iron skillet) and wipe it with a bit of oil. Now wet your hands and shape your arepas.
Shaping the arepas takes practice. Every family makes them slightly differently.
(Venezuelans make them quite thick - that’s how I first had them - topped with black beans, avocado, and sour cream. But I married into a Colombian family, and now I make them fairly thin - split open and stuffed with cheese, meat, and…because my husband is also half Norwegian and fully American: tater tots and ketchup. My father-in-law puts cheese into his arepa dough; I do not. His wife taught me to make sweet arepas with cinnamon and honey mixed into the dough.)
I shape my arepas about 4 inches across and 1/4 inch thick or so (somewhere between Colombian and Venezuelan thicknesses). I can get three into my 10” cast iron skillet if I crowd them together. That’s really what informs my creation: how fast can I get breakfast on the table? :)
I’m going to show, not tell, you how to actually do the shaping. Watch this grandmotherly Colombian woman deftly working the arepa dough. She makes hers much thinner than I do mine! There’s no way you could split these and fill them; she puts the cheese on top.
Whatever thickness you make your arepas, it’s vital that the arepa dough on the inside gets cooked while the outer shell gets crisp, but not burnt. A perfect arepa has a lovely crispy outer layer, with a fluffy moist inside. If you’re going to stuff your arepas, scoop out the insides onto your plate and spread them with butter and honey to eat with a spoon. Mmmm.
At my house, we stuff our arepas with cheese (sometimes the traditional queso fresco, but most often the amazing English cheddar we’ve been buying lately), breakfast sausage (most often the vegetarian kind) or bacon (the oink-oink kind), and Tabasco and/or ketchup. The second round of arepas usually gets treated with peanut butter and honey.
Arepas are so easy to make - just as easy as pancakes or waffles, and they are more conducive to a savory, higher protein breakfast than the former. I also sometimes make them for supper when I’m in too much of a rush to make dinner rolls or cornbread for our soup.