Week Forty-Seven: Miscellaneous International Breads
Arepas, a specialty of South America, are a widely variable bread made from arepa flour. Halfway between cornmeal and masa flour, arepa flour is made by cooking corn, then grinding it into a coarse meal. But unlike masa, the corn in arepa flour is not treated with lime (or nixtimalized) first. This not only renders it less nutritious than masa (like regular cornmeal), but also means none of these three flours will act the same in a bread.
I knew this fact. And yet, I ignored it.
After being unable to find arepa flour at my local supermercado, I found a recipe for arepas that didn’t require arepa flour. It was published in the New York Times. It was written by a respected food journalist. It said “arepas” in the title. Surely it would produce a reasonable facsimile. Right?
I think you see where this is heading. What I ended up with was a very tasty food, but I certainly wouldn’t call it an arepa. I’d classify it as more of a gussied up hoe cake, or cornbread fritter. Arepas are meant to be sliced open (rather like an English muffin) and filled with other foods, such as slow-cooked beef or pork, beans, cheese, fish, or vegetables. These “arepas” had about as much chance of being split open as a raw egg might.
So the lesson learned today is that if 99% of the recipes for a food call for one specific item (and not much else), you should probably make every effort to find said item. Any shortcuts may result in something reasonably good to eat, but you won’t end up with what you were aiming for. Take it from one who knows.
Adapted from Mark Bittman, via The New York Times
Makes 8 to 10 arepas
4 1/2 ounces (1 cup) yellow cornmeal, finely ground
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 to 4 ounces (about 1/2 cup) crumbled queso fresco
1 cup milk, at room temperature
2 tablespoons butter, more for serving, optional
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour, or as needed
1/2 cup fresh corn kernels, or frozen kernels, thawed
1/4 cup chopped green onions, about 2 medium
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 small serrano or jalapeño chili, seeded and minced (optional)
3 tablespoons neutral vegetable oil, such as corn or canola (or as much as needed)
1. In a large bowl, whisk together cornmeal, salt, and cheese. Heat milk in a small saucepan over medium-low heat until just steaming, then add butter and stir until melted. Remove from heat, and stir into cornmeal mixture until a thick batter is formed. Add the all-purpose flour as needed to correct consistency. Fold in the corn kernels, scallion, cilantro, and chili (if using). Let batter rest about 15 to 30 minutes.
2. Heat 2 teaspoons oil in a large skillet. Cook arepas by dropping 1/4 cupfuls into the oil and spreading to about 1/2 inch thickness. Cook as many as will fit in your pan without crowding, until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Flip and cook the other side for another 3 minutes, or until golden. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate to drain, and sprinkle with additional salt, if you like.
1. If using frozen corn kernels, thaw them between two paper towels to absorb the moisture given off.
2. If you can’t find queso fresco, farmer’s cheese is a close substitute. Alternatively, you can use cheddar or Jack cheese.