Monday, April 08, 2013

Venezuelan Arepas - When Food Is Home

Lately I no longer find my day starting with the smell of the Handsome Venezuelan's "cafetera " wafting its espresso aromas toward my snoozy schnoz.  Rather, it's the perfume of toasting corn that greets me most mornings since the New Year.  No, it's not any sort of caffeine free New Year's resolution... we have a blessed addition to our home.....
Please welcome to our Brooklyn abode my petite and lovely Fairy God Daughter Aku.  Actually she's the Handsome Venezuelan's Grand Niece, yes he is that old....  But Big Mary is ever young and feels more like a Fairy Godfather than any other possible relation, so there you are.
Born equally from the dreams of cinematic success and the desire to be somewhere other than Venezuala, Aku has taken up residence in what we always referred to as the "baby's room", (thank you Mr Albee.)  Pretty much my only responsibility is to see that she is sufficiently sustained without allowing her to succumb to the Freshman 15, those 15 pounds (7 kilos) that students often add when leaving home for college...
There's been no problem there, she's not a pizza and potato chip sorta girl.  For Aku it's all about the arepa.  For those of you who've never indulged, which is likely most of you... I default to Wkipedia:

The arepa is a flat, round, unleavened patty made of maizemeal which can be grilled, baked, fried or semaed, etc.  The characteristics vary by color, flazor, size and the food with which it may be stuffed depending on the region.  Breakfast egg or cheese are the most common fillings.

As the proud husband of the Handsome Venezuelan I have been familiar with arepas for pretty much as long as I've known the guy.  We bought our weekend Poconos getaway hut based on the local grocery store display of Harina Pan (more on that later) which signaled a welcoming place to settle in!  But it's only been the last few months that have taught me so much about the power of food to identify "home".

Much as the Handsome Venezuelan and his kin seek the liberation of soul from Latin political frustration that was/is home, sometimes a boy (or girl) just needs to exhale and remember where they came from.  Seems an arepa or three is the fastest path to that soul satisfaction.  And for the Fairy God Daughter that has become a daily breakfast tradition.  I'm not naive enough to ignore that this may also be a well played hedge bet against whatever Big Mary may have planned for dinner; often a culinary challenge for the daughter of a non kitchen focused working mother.  But truth is.... Arepas are HOME for both her and my husband.  They are a part of Venezuelan culture as much as a corner pizzeria is here in NYC.  A go to place for a quick meal, snack  or post bar crawl sustenance.

And so our "Presto Arepa Pronti" is fired up on a daily basis.  Arepas are so ubiquitous to Venezualan life that there is even a home machine to facilitate quick production of these corn cakes.  Similar to a waffle iron they form circular cakes or even snack size cakelettes in a "Caracas Minute".  The Handsome Venezuelan had earlier repurposed a yard sale "Snack Master" sandwich maker to create irregular shell shaped arepas to his fellow ex-pats delight, scorn and amusement.

But why I wonder do I find myself tearing up as I write this?  Our food memories are deep and soulful, and comforting, that's why.   What's your arepa?  Southern BBQ?  Grandma's Sunday Tomato Gravy on Spaghetti?  Vernor's Ginger Ale? Falafel? Sticky Toffee Pudding?  Arroz con Pollo? Macaroni & Cheese? Not just anybody's, but Mom's?  Or Kraft?  Ha!  I've never been able to recreate my  Mom's Pecan Pie.  And truth be told I'm happier missing it that perfecting it.  She could never recreate her Mom's Rice Pudding, even after 40 years of trying. And that's not a bad thing in my book.  But sometimes there's nothing better for the soul than being able to go back home, no matter how far removed by time or travel, and settle into a dish of home.

Venezuelan Arepas

makes 5 arepas

In Venezuela, arepas are made at home and are also easily available as street food at "Areperas" and also less formal corner stands.  At Areperas they are sold with a variety of traditional fillings: "Domino" - Black Bean and White Cheese; "Pabellon" - Shredded Beef, Plantain. Beans and Cheese;  "Reina Pepiada" - Chicken Salad with Avocado; "Pata Pata" - Black Beans, Cheese and Avocado, and on and on.... including La Viuda "The Widow" - a simple arepa  - no cheese, no butter, no love at all.....

In my home they are always served with salted butter and Feta cheese ( the closest thing to Venezuelan "Queso Fresco").  Ham, Fried Egg, Avocado, any other cheese available, Natas (a puree of cream cheese, feta and milk) are additional options when available...

2 cups Harina Pan (a pre-cooked corn flour available in Latin American markets or via Internet. Goya produces a much inferior product called Masarepa if that's all you can find.....)

2 1/4 cups Water
1/2 teaspoon salt (or more to taste)
1 Teaspoon vegetable oil, plus more for coating pan.

Stir all ingredients together and knead by hand until smoothly combined into a dough.  Let rest 5 minutes to re-hydrate.  Form into small patties about 3" round by 1/2" thick.
Preheat oven to 350*.  Heat a large skillet over medium high heat.  Brush skillet liberally with oil and place the arepas in the pan.  Lower heat to medium high and saute until golden brown, about 3-5 minutes.  Flip over and brown on the other side. and after 3 minutes place in oven for 12 - 15 minutes.  
Serve immediately with the accompaniments of your choice